Wednesday, March 25, 2009

lovely natasha

I know this is a grim way back into a blog I've left languishing for six months, but I want to write about the death of Natasha Richardson, in order to understand why it's preoccupying me so. At a glance, it might seem to be a classic version of realising what you liked after you lose it. This lovely actress has been around and I've always appreciated her, but never given her much thought or credit. That seems odd to me now. I was lucky enough to see Richardson and Liam Neeson in their legendary early 90s production of Anna Christie on Broadway. That ticket was a crazy fluke for me, as the production had a hugely limited run and was sold out inside of a breath. It was the production in which they fell in love. The chemistry was so charged and present, that any time they left the stage you found yourself wondering what they were up to behind scenes with much greater absorption than watching the remaining action. They were amazing: brittle and beautiful, truthful, sexy, brilliant, and achingly affected by each other.

Apart from that, however, I haven't really thought much about Natasha Richardson. I think more often of her mother. Perhaps because Vanessa Redgrave has played an enormous role in the development of some of my sensibilities: my understanding of what it means to be an actor, what it means to be a political activist. I remember for instance, reading an article, perhaps in the Anna Christie playbill, in which Natasha Richardson said her mother had asked her if she knew what was in Anna's suitcase (which sits on stage for most of the play). Vanessa was a part of the movie Julia, which impacted me hugely as a young woman. Then there are Blow-Up and Isadora, equally memorable times in the cinema. I've seen Vanessa a number of times on Broadway also, in Orpheus Descending, for instance, and Vita and Virginia.

It is this latter that brings Natasha more closely to mind. It has happened a few times, where I have found myself seated near to celebrities at shows, and one such time was at one of my viewings (I think I saw it three or four times) of Vita and Virginia. Natasha Richardson was sitting forward from me and to the left on an aisle seat. I can still see her impressed, slightly glowing face in profile, upturned to the stage. She was pregnant at the time. I remember thinking how lovely she was, even as she rose awkwardly at the play's end. She had a luminous smile.

But even this is not enough to explain the shock-like obssession I have had about her death: trolling endlessly online for news items, through Google News, through other algorhythmic search systems. Mostly it is the same footage, the same printed matter, recycled over and over. I should have given up once the funeral was done - the same images and information has been making me nauseous with boredom. You know you're at the obssession stage when the inaccurate naming of family members in pictures makes you so agitated you consider letters to editors. Time to get a grip!

By coincidence, I had just recently watched Evening, one of her last films, in which she plays the daughter to a dying mother played by Vanessa Redgrave. In some interview footage I found, she remarks on the poignancy of having had the chance to play opposite her mother - how she had asked Michael Cunningham to write a scene for them since it wasn't likely to happen again. The implication was clearly that Vanessa might be gone before such an opportunity would come again. In the scene in question, Redgrave lies mostly asleep and semi-conscious, while Natasha's character revisits the past with new understanding in a short monologue. It is one of the best moments in the film because of Richardson's engaging naturalism, strangely missing elsewhere. The apex of the scene comes when she says "I want you back", with very gently understated emotion. Redgrave's character stirs momentarily, smiles at her, then drifts off again. It's one of the few well-written scenes in a film filled with A-list actors serving underwritten characters, directed with disappointing mediocrity. (The film is rescued by the last minute presence of Meryl Streep. Until this point it was being held together singlehandedly by Toni Collette, who is often left to hold the emotional line of a film. Why is that?) Natasha's character is so badly underwritten, that you feel anguish for her in most of the film as she attempts to lift it into some kind of life. Then, in this added-in scene, a scene she requested, she accomplishes more in a few brushstrokes than the rest of the cast does in whole scenes. She manages it mostly just by being disingenuously effervescent, honest and lovely. It seems likely these moments were closest to herself.

I want this to end. This increasing obssession. This youtube trawling and blogsurfing fixation. (Even though these trawls produce prize pictures like this one of mother and daughter.) This imagination of the grief of Liam Neeson. (Two days ago while driving, I counted out loud all the places of his grief the man endured in one week). I don't need this: there is much going on in my life, plenty to think about. I need to move this along, get it out of my head. It's a simple tragedy after all, no greater, no worse than any other out there that occurs to someone I don't know. And there are tragedies occurring to people I do know. Only Sunday I spent a heartbreaking hour with friends whose own daughter is dying. I have grieved and prayed on that one also - perhaps fixating on Natasha is helping me cope with their dreadful pain.

Perhaps I am appalled at the stupidity of the death, how someone's life can be so easily ended by such a small, ridiculous fall. It does not properly fit into useful drama or narratives about celebrity death either. These sorts of public tragedies usually occur from perilous plunges off cliffs or terrible tragic crashes. A simple slip on the slopes, a minor banging of the head that everyone assessed at the time to be surpassable, this is not how the script for such a death should be written. If it were in a screenplay I had in front of me, I'd send the scene back to the writer and say, 'I kind of like the non-drama of this, but it seems highly unlikely'. There is no credibility to this death, no satisfactory catastrophe. (Satisfactory in the sense of making sense of it all - there is nothing satisfactory about this death. This death is terrible.)

Perhaps it was the fact that it happened a year to the day of the death of Anthony Minghella. I wrote about him, then too. That's a crazy coincidence. Again, if it were in the script - I would send it back. It's the kind of coincidence that peppers Slumdog Millionaire and which I have criticized in that film. There is no direct relationship between these two people except the date of their death. However, there are less than six degrees of separation between their careers, their nationalities, their age, and their untimely deaths. Minghella's death also hit me hard. Before him, I can't think of one that got to me so, until I reach Kieslowski in the mid-90s. That's a long time.

I have been watching Natasha act, in movies I happen to have, that I bought not particularly for her but which I happen to own. I also went out in a low moment the other day and rented The Parent Trap, since I had a vague sense of having been quite crushy on Natasha in that film when I saw it once on a plane. Until that time, I think I believed that there was a slight quality of something forced in her acting - a reaching for meaning in her characters that didn't seem wholly natural. And then too, she just always seemed too "nice" to be a great actor. I remember being appalled at the idea of casting her as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' legendary Broadway Cabaret, since Liza Minnelli had been a venerated icon for me of that role and she seemed way too British and classy to be playing Sally. I was shamed by critics, awards and audiences everywhere. I didn't get to see it. I wish I had, as now the Youtube excerpts are quite compelling. I do remember seeing her in her early gruesome roles, like Gothic, Handmaid's Tale and Patty Hearst. I was obssessed with Patty Hearst at the time and again I remember thinking, "she's too pure, too good". But more recently I've changed my mind. More recently I've decided that it is this very goodness that makes her so compelling. And what's wrong with goodness anyway? Why can't we celebrate it again?

It was when I went back to The Parent Trap on a recent night that I suddenly found myself in tears. It ain't award-winning stuff. Hardly what she might have chosen for her own epitaph. But her performance in that film is perfect: it is exactly what it needs to be, no more, no less, and it is a very charming, nuanced, understated, lovely reading of a fairly standardized character. The crush was born anew.

Neeson is an actor I've always liked. The funeral scene from Love Actually is now just plain haunting, as is the footage of Redgrave from Year of Magical Thinking. It is odd to go from 'footage' and 'film' to the real life living out of unexpected nightmares. I so respect the quiet Irish machismo with which Neeson has handled this terribly personal nightmare, publicly. Managing smiles and waves - not submitting for a second to the diva-esque grotesquery of open public grieving. There is a rawness in the face that makes clear the suffering behind the smiles. Don't believe for a minute those People magazine preview pieces that quote Blaine Trump (of all people) saying that the family is 'moving on' and 'doing fine'. I found right away that the most reliable source on this whole story has been the Irish press, who are following Neeson. Of course they are. I knew I had finally found a unique perspective when I discovered the headline, "Neeson's wife mourned". Yes, you read that right. Where Blaine says life is moving on, the Irish Herald quotes Liam's sister as saying he is devastated and inconsolable and another source recounts how Vanessa is still trying to understand why her daughter was skiing. She hates to ski - why was she on a ski slope? These seem much more likely responses to me. The picture that most moves me from the funeral is a long shot of Redgrave and Neeson at the cemetery that originated in the Guardian and was picked up by others only after they had made attempts to blow it up beyond any possibility of preserving a sense of spontanaiety to it. The Irish and UK response have been the best on this thing.

I suppose I will just have to get over it. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and it will be gone. I hope so, because there is much I should be doing with my time otherwise. To help myself along, I have been running two scenes from The Parent Trap over and over. This repeat viewing is remarkable for me, since both scenes have the too-easy-pleasure and predictable writing that I normally loathe, a quality of emotion that sits on the edge of genuine engagement, despite leaving no cliche left unturned, no moment of possible sincerity slightly unbruised by manipulative direction. I confess, however, I have always been an easy victim for these Meyers-Shyer films, despite how I feel about them critically (Baby Boom and Somethings Gotta Give come to mind, for instance, as some of my favourite "lite" viewing, though the latter is only Meyers - an important distinction as she is by far the better half of that duo). In the first of these two scenes, Dennis Quaid attempts to reunite with Richardson over a dusty old bottle of wine, and in the other, they successfully do reunite, owing to the wiliness of their daughters. Despite all odds, everyone does fine in the scenes (they are all good actors after all), but she is just so stirringly beautiful, so genuinely perfect, especially in that definitively Hollywood moment of 'happily ever after' kissing, that I am flushed with new emotion each time. I am generally not this kind of outrageous sentimentalist, but nonetheless I leave you with these two scenes which another Youtube addict has kindly cropped together into one clip. Of these two, the second is a scene in which two people get to restore a life to what it should have been. A life which will be full of impossible problems, but built on a love which never seems to die. It's a dream we can continue to carry for Natasha.
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