Are some families more dramatic than others? Is this something covered by Tolstoy’s famous law about families—that the happy ones are all alike, while the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way—or was he hopelessly isolated on the far side of that moment when modern media began? Such thoughts are prompted by the news that Lynn Redgrave has died—this only a month after the death of her brother, Corin, and only a little more than a year after the death of Natasha Richardson, who was their niece.
No one seriously supposes a link, but a season of funerals may not be the easiest time for people who are themselves ill. Natasha Richardson (the daughter of film and stage director Tony Richardson and the actress Vanessa Redgrave) died under startling circumstances. First, the news was that she had had a fall on the ski slopes. Then everything became much more serious, and she was dead at the age of 45—in her prime? Corin Redgrave had had a heart attack several years ago, and Lynn Redgrave had been battling cancer over such a period. So, no, there can be no medical link. But if you were staging a drama, where an uncle and aunt—neither strong—have to attend the quite shocking funeral of a niece—well, you’d know how to advise the actors playing the parts.
The Redgraves were maybe the most famous theatrical family in Britain. There was Michael, then Sir Michael, who married Rachel Kempson who gave him the three children—and then there were grandchildren. For a while there was a grove of Redgraves, and everyone assumed they were a close family just because they followed the same work. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t misunderstandings, silences, fights, problems—Tolstoy’s law has a place sill.
And acting is often a family business. The Redgraves often married “into” the business. Natasha Richardson was married to Liam Neeson. But that was her second marriage. Before that she had been married to Robin Fox, the brother of those two fine actors, Edward and James—and the Foxes are another show-business family.
Sometimes the people in such families laugh and make a joke about it: We marry other actors or actresses because they are the only ones who can understand what a crazy and difficult life it is. Actors, after all, live in order to pretend to be other people—they are not always themselves today. That may be disconcerting to people who are only “amateur” actors—the rest of us. But going to a funeral is a small drama, with an atmosphere few of us can ignore. So Corin and Lynn had a hard year to bear up under. Now only Vanessa and her other daughter, Joely, are left. Or are there more? Actors are like soldiers in the war, too. One falls and another one takes her place in the firing line. They are the ones fit for the job.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.