By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 19, 2009 at 04:15 AM EDT

The innocent moviegoer who first encounters the work of Natasha Richardson without the influence of biographical knowledge might say, “Wow, what poise and command — and what cheekbones! She looks like a woman to reckon with.” The wised-up theater lover would counter, “Well of course she’s got presence, darling — she’s Natasha Jane Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, niece of Lynn Redgrave and Corin Redgrave, granddaughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, sister of Joely Richardson. She’s a chip off the estimable Redgrave block!”

Both commentators would be right, of course. But neither would be able to explain the brisk authority with which Natasha Richardson could inhabit a character, make audiences know that woman’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and make audiences know, too, that the actor was nobody’s chip. It may be that her familiarity with the weight of dynasty gave her the insight to transform herself into such a compelling heiress in Patty Hearst (1988); it’s more than likely that a life in and around the theater helped her prepare for her dazzling, assertive-yet-vulnerable Tony Award-winning turn on Broadway as Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 1998 (pictured). And certainly those Redgrave cheekbones made her a natural choice to play women of a certain sometimes defiant self-possession, as she did in the futuristic sci-fi fable The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), in the picaresque period piece The White Countess (2005), and (in a parody mode) in the class-conscious romantic concoction Maid in Manhattan (2002), in which Richardson, as a snooty, up-market lady, played second fiddle to Jennifer Lopez, as a down-to-earth working girl.

Richardson’s aura of competence, though, and her projection of sexual elegance was very much her own invention — indeed, her trademark. And in a way, that aura served her even better on stage, where she could be physically expansive, than it did on screen, where she had to work within a frame. Tall, with a strong brow and a rich voice, she was built to project. Cast on screen opposite Liam Neeson (whom she would later marry) as fellow doctors in Jodie Foster’s ripe anthropological study Nell (1994), Richardson held herself in check. But paired with Neeson on stage in 1993 in a blazing Roundabout Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, she bowled over her audience. (Sexual electricity crackled between the costars.) On Broadway in 1999, she sparred fiercely in the treacherous battle-of-the-sexes scuffle Closer (in the role that went to Julia Roberts on screen). For heaven’s sake, in the 2005 New York stage revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, she waded fearlessly into the wilds that threaten any dame who’d take on the role of Blanche DuBois. The production may have faltered, but the star’s gumption never did.

In certain repose, a certain lanky, aristocratic aspect to Natasha Richardson’s bearing could look exactly like Mom’s. But look again, and you’d see a woman with her own striking style — and an artist of her own, hard-won making.

More on Natasha Richardson:
Natasha Richardson: Career retrospective (photo gallery)
Natasha Richardson: A critical appreciation by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Natasha Richardson: ‘Top Chef’ celebrity guest judge
EW’s 1998 profile of Natasha Richardson
‘Cabaret’ stage review
‘The Parent Trap’ movie review
‘Nell’ movie review
‘Maid in Manhattan’ movie review
‘Closer’ stage review
‘Evening’ movie review
‘The White Countess’ movie review
‘Asylum’ movie review
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ stage review
‘Chelsea Walls’ movie review
‘Blow Dry’ movie review
‘Widow’s Peak’ movie review
‘The Comfort of Strangers’ movie review
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ movie review

addCredit(“Joan Marcus”)