Natasha Richardson’s roles ranged from Ophelia in Hamlet to Sally Bowles in Cabaret, from heiress-turned-guerilla in Patty Hearst to snooty socialite in Maid in Manhattan. She was steeped in acting from birth: her mother is Vanessa Redgrave, her grandfather was the British theatre icon Michael Redgrave; her father was producer-director Tony Richardson. The list goes on.
Born in London in 1963, Natasha Richardson appeared in her first movie, The Charge of the Light Brigade, at age four. (Her father was the film’s director.) After an education that groomed her for the thespian life, she plunged into a career on stage and in movies. Already in 1983 she performed in On the Razzle, Top Girls, and Charley’s Aunt at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. At the same time she was featured in the film Every Picture Tells a Story and the TV mini-series Ellis Island, in which she played a young whore. In the popular series of Sherlock Holmes dramatizations starring Jeremy Brett, Richardson – introduced with a flourish in the opening credits – played the entrapped heroine in “The Copper Beeches” (1984).
In 1985 she played Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, winning praise from the London critics. She joined the Young Vic, playing two leading Shakespearean roles: Ophelia and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The following year she starred as the socialite Tracy Lord in a West End production of High Society, a new musical based on the 1956 Cole Porter movie musical and the play that inspired it, The Philadelphia Story. It was a rare instance of Richardson’s taking part in musical theater, a side that would resurface, however, later in her career.
In her next screen roles, she played Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1987), a vicar’s wife in A Month in the Country (1987), the title role in Patty Hearst (1988), Catharine Holly in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1993), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unstable wife in Zelda (1993).
The year 1993 also saw Richardson’s Broadway debut, when she starred in a revival of O’Neill’s Anna Christie, playing opposite Liam Neeson, whom she would later marry. Richardson and Neeson both earned Tony® nominations for their performances. The following year the two would also star together – along with Jodie Foster – in the movie Nell.
Richardson returned to Broadway in 1998 to star in a revival of Cabaret. Despite her previous experience in musical theater, she took regular singing lessons for the part and scored a Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. The show itself won several other Tonys®, including Best Musical.
The following year saw her on Broadway again in Patrick Marber’s four-character drama Closer, for which she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play. Her most recent appearance on Broadway was as Blanche Du Bois in the 2005 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Her later film credits include The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), The Parent Trap (1998), Maid in Manhattan (2002), Asylum (2005), The White Countess (2005), Evening (2007), and Wild Child (2008).
On Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Natasha Richardson died of an epidural hematoma, the result of a fall on a beginners’ slope at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec two days earlier. She was 45. The lights of Broadway were dimmed in her honor at 8 PM on March 19.