I was so sad to hear about the death of actress Lynn Redgrave last Sunday. I knew she had cancer but I somehow thought she had licked it. What a terrible year for the Redgrave family. Natasha Richardson’s tragic death last year, Vanessa and Lynn’s brother Corin’s passing just last month, and now Lynn’s death at the age of 67.
Here’s something very strange. On Sunday we were at our friends’ Helena and John’s house eating delicious homemade meatloaf and a yummy birthday cake Helena made for Charlie. Guess who Charlie is staring at in this photo? Out of the blue, Helena put on a DVD of “Georgy Girl,” the 1966 film that made an international star out of young Lynn Redgrave. When I woke up Monday morning and heard about the actress, I was shocked to realize we were watching Lynn's breakout performance at the very moment of her passing.
Lynn was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year along with her sister Vanessa for the movie “Morgan.” As I mentioned recently, it was the first sister vs. sister Best Actress race since Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine squared off in the 1940s. I hadn’t seen “Georgy Girl” in decades and I so enjoyed the film, especially Redgrave’s performance as the gawky, hapless, working-class Londoner with a heart of gold.
Watching this film today (as opposed to when I saw it as a kid), I was struck by how reprehensible most of the male characters were. For that matter, gorgeous Charlotte Rampling plays one of the most God-awful mothers in the history of cinema. At the end of the film, are we supposed to think Georgy marrying creepy James Mason, more than twice her age, is a good thing? Yuck. Mason’s first wife is played in the film by Rachel Kempson, Lynn’s beautiful actress mother. Apart from a small role in “Tom Jones,” this was Redgrave’s first film and yet she triumphed in every scene. Her natural appeal trumped any creaky plot points.
Lynn was first profiled in the American press by Rex Reed in an article called “Toadstool Turns into Truffle.” He introduced the actress this way: “If you saw her waiting for a bus, you'd never believe it. Treetop tall and all kneecaps, with hair that never seems to have met a stylist, a little round mouth invented for devouring hot-fudge sundaes, and a chubby figure that changes weight according to her mood, she certainly doesn't look like a star. In the words of her own father, she is 'like an enormous lorry driver.' Yet baby sister Lynn is the newest star in the famous Redgrave acting family.” Yikes, thanks for that quote, Dad! Reed continues: “She seems, at first, like the kind of girl who drops by for tea and stays to spill cream on your carpet and play hopscotch on your heart. But, like some pudgy Cinderella who suddenly finds her big square foot fitting firmly in the glass slipper, Lynn Redgrave wears it with style.”
Kendall knew Lynn Redgrave. After seeing a legendary production of “Three Sisters” in London starring three Redgraves—Lynn, Vanessa, and Jemma (Corin’s daughter), Kendall wrote the actress and asked if she could interview her. Turns out Lynn had just bought Kendall’s book for her daughter and loved it so she happily agreed to meet. The two kept in contact and Lynn also became friendly with Kendall’s parents. At one point they discussed the possibility of Redgrave appearing in one of Kendall’s dad’s plays. On one of our very first dates, Kendall and I drove to Santa Barbara to see Lynn and her then-husband John Clark perform in A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” I remember talking to the actress after the show and being struck with how beautiful and tall she was—I felt like a midget looking up at her. The next time I saw her was at the memorial service for Kendall’s dad. She read the same poem that she had read at her father’s funeral a decade earlier. Kendall and I saw Lynn’s one-woman shows, “Shakespeare for my Father” and “Nightingale,” both fascinating explorations of her unusual family.
I’ve been a big Redgrave fan ever since I saw Sir Michael in the wonderful film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” when I was a kid. I also loved him in films such as “The Lady Vanishes” and “The Browning Version.” I first saw Vanessa in “A Man for All Seasons” and frankly, despite her occasional over-the-top political views, I’ve never seen a performance of hers that I didn’t think was exquisite, from star turns in film such as “Blow-Up,” “Julia,” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” to smaller roles in ensemble pieces like “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Cradle Will Rock,” and “Atonement.” I remember when all the hoo-hah erupted about her “Zionist hoodlum” remark at the 1978 Academy Awards. I could never boycott her films as some people urged.
Lynn, of course, was also wonderful in everything she did, from crazy stuff like “The Happy Hooker” and her various TV series (with Wayne Rogers and Jackie Mason) to dazzling turns in prestigious films such as “Shine,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “Kinsey.” Yikes, what a family. The great acting genes started with Michael Redgrave’s parents, Roy Redgrave and Margaret Scudamore, and continued with the younger generation through Joely Richardson and the late Natasha.
I’ve always been fascinated by acting families, from the Barrymores and Fondas to the Bridges and Cusacks. I’m sure there are down sides to being in the “family business” (pity the family members who didn’t have what it takes) but imagine the cathartic possibilities for these folks when they can play out their issues together on the stage or screen. Though their numbers are sadly diminishing, the Redgraves belong at the top of that heap. And while some members of this dynasty seem rather intimidating and unapproachable, Lynn was the good ol’ gal who seemed accessible to all and comfortable in any group. I will miss her and I’m glad that Charlie was introduced to her during her last moments here with us.