Mig Dooley/Folger Theatre
Lynn Redgrave paid tribute to her actress mother, Rachel Kempson, in a solo show titled Rachel and Juliet.
Mig Dooley/Folger Theatre
Her voice throaty and resonant, her figure often fuller than she'd have liked, Lynn Redgrave — who died Sunday after what her family called "a seven-year journey with breast cancer" — was the one member of the Redgrave dynasty whom no one thought of as an actor until she'd become a star.
Her parents, Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, were stage legends, her older sister, Vanessa, something of a show-off from an early age. Lynn was shy.
Redgrave at 22, in the title role of Georgy Girl
Still, as a Redgrave she got some breaks: acting classes, a professional stage debut when her sister turned down a part, a movie role that came about the same way. Vanessa had a conflict, so Lynn got to play chubby, bubbly Georgina, fending off James Mason's advances while trying to run with Swinging London's in-crowd in the 1966 comedy Georgy Girl.
The film earned her an Oscar nomination — but Redgrave had gained weight to play Georgy, and struggled for decades afterward to take and keep it off. Directors quickly discovered, though, that surfaces weren't what she was about.
She was a versatile comedian, stealing laughs from established comics as a lustful queen thwarted by a chastity belt in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask.
She brought warmth and smarts to the world's oldest profession in The Happy Hooker. And decades later, she won her second Oscar nomination as a gay moviemaker's German housekeeper in Gods and Monsters.
Redgrave's private life was never all that private, given her celebrated family. But it was still somewhat surprising when she spoke as candidly as she did about her difficult relationship with her dad in her one-woman show, Shakespeare for My Father. His distance stung her — but as she told NPR in 1993, she used the sting to deepen her understanding of Shakespeare.
"I had these dreadfully dark thoughts about my dad while I was learning the part of Portia," in The Merchant of Venice, she told Weekend All Things Considered. "Because he hadn't yet given me his approval about my being an actor. I thought he thought it was a really bad idea, but he hadn't said so, nor had he said it was a good one. So while I was having these dark thoughts, I learned that 'the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth like the blessed rain from heaven on the place beneath.' "
That easy flow from chatting to Elizabethan verse was as typical of Redgrave as her openness about the pangs of her personal life.
She had recently had more than her share of those. Her niece, actress Natasha Richardson, died unexpectedly after a skiing accident in March 2009; her older brother, the actor Corin Redgrave, passed away April 6.
And, of course, there was her own cancer. But her craft kept her going.
"I was back onstage four weeks after my mastectomy," she told NPR's Michele Norris in December 2005. Still undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she performed in the tour of the docudrama The Exonerated and then in an off-Broadway production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads.
"That was absolute 'Dr. Theater' for me," Redgrave said. "All actors look on theater, and work particularly, as Dr. Theater, because it is mind over matter once you're onstage. You know, you could limp to the edge of the stage with an injury to your leg, and the minute you're out there you're not limping. It was psychologically, emotionally — and also financially, and health insurance-wise — the best thing I could have done."
That was Lynn Redgrave: practical, natural, down to earth.