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Lynn Redgrave 1941-2010

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 3, 2010 12:50 PM

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Thumbnail image for Lynn Redgrave.jpgIt's true that Lynn Redgrave, who died last night and had been fighting breast cancer, was one of those Redgraves. But she had a commoner's touch. She acted everywhere -- the stage, the screen, alongside Jackie Mason. It didn't seem to matter, although she was never as shamelessly indiscriminate a performer as, say, her fellow Brit Michael Caine. There is, for instance, no "Jaws 4: The Revenge" on her resume. Although, you might recall "The Happy Hooker," which matches Jaws" for accidental entertainment. And for my entire childhood, she was the jubilant essence of Weight Watchers -- "This is living," she sang -- lending a touch of class, opera, and theatricality to what seemed, at least to me, to be an American headache.    

She probably got that job because of "Georgy Girl," the movie that made her the world's most famous homely girl in 1967. She was hardly fat. She was, in fact, built like the average woman. (Her height, bone structure, and lilting speaking voice would have made her an obvious candidate to play Julia Child had Meryl Streep never been invented.) It's obvious what was so instantly captivating about Redgrave: She was charmingly charismatic. She and her older sister, Vanessa, both got Oscar nominations for that year (they lost to Elizabeth Taylor), and the striking thing about their simultaneous success was that Vanessa seemed so cool, serious, and deliberate. Lynn was the one you wanted to accompany shopping for records and knee-highs. Vanessa was the sister you wanted to rescue from psychos with your awesome camera skills

By the mid-1970s, Lynn was doing most of her great work on the stage (thanks a lot, "Happy Hooker"). But when she was in movies or on TV, it was clear she was the sort of performer who got better with age. She brought her wisdom to bear on even the least promising projects. Take "Chicken Soup," an ABC sitcom from 1989 with her as an Irish-Catholic dating Jackie "I'm an old Jew!" Mason. She didn't try to out-funny him. She simply outclassed him, which was a key to their weird chemistry -- that, and the fact that he appeared to like that she seemed a foot taller than he was. (It came on after "Roseanne" and pretty much had the same living room.)

Lynn Redgrave2.jpg
It was only in the late 1990s that Redgrave made a major commitment to film work, which defies the usual direction for a middle-aged actress. There were a few grannies and doddering dames. But at least twice during this period, she was fantastic: once as James Whale's hilariously sour Hungarian maid in "Gods and Monsters" (1998) then in David Cronenberg's best, least-seen film, "Spider," where she played the heartless caretaker of a halfway house that Ralph Fiennes's schizophrenic called home. At the movies, it's arguable that she was even better in the latter half of her career than she was in the first. 

Redgrave's brother, Corin, died last month and last year her niece Natasha Richardson died in a ski accident. It's sad news for the family, but the acting in heaven just got that much better.  

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