Natasha Richardson: The dimming of the light

THE tragic loss of Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident brought to an end a fairytale romance, writes Dani Garavelli

IN THE summer of 2000, a hysterical Natasha Richardson raced from the set of the film Haven to see her severely injured husband Liam Neeson. The Oscar-nominated actor had been found lying at the side of the road after his 1989 Harley Davidson motorcycle collided with a deer near the couple's country retreat in upstate New York. Throughout that autumn, Neeson, who had broken his pelvis, appeared on crutches, his wife at his side. His accident had served, he said at the time, as a salutary reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of enjoying every precious moment.

Last week, Neeson was forced to confront life's fragility again in the cruellest possible way. This time it was he who was called to his 45-year-old wife's bedside after Richardson, a novice skier, fell on a bunny hill during an instructed session on a nursery ski slope on Mount Tremblant, in Quebec. Richardson, who was seen laughing and joking minutes later, experienced no immediate symptoms and initially refused medical treatment. But the blunt blow had caused internal bleeding which formed a clot (an epidural haematoma) which in turn placed pressure on her brain.

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Doctors say it is likely she suffered from "talk and die syndrome", where patients feel well even though they may have been critically injured. "You can't drag them screaming to the hospital," Charles Tator, a University of Toronto neurosurgeon said.

When Richardson started complaining of headaches, an ambulance was called. By the time Neeson arrived, however, her condition had deteriorated and soon rumours were circulating that she was brain dead. The actor arranged for her to be transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC's upper east side so she could spend time with her closest family, before her life support machine was switched off.

For 24 hours, a sad procession of relatives: her mother Vanessa Redgrave – who sang her 'Edelweiss' – sister Joely Richardson and sons Micheal and Daniel among them, filed in to say their last goodbyes.

The announcement of her death on Wednesday night marked a tragic end for an actress who managed to transcend the limitations she felt the Redgrave/Richardson heritage imposed upon her, without ever disowning the theatrical dynasty into which she was born. It was also the end of a golden show business marriage which had thrived against all the odds.

Neeson, red-eyed and haggard, managed to wave graciously to wellwishers outside the hospital shortly after his wife's death. As he contemplates a future without her, he now faces two of life's most personally challenging questions. How is he to survive without the woman who transformed his life? And what can be done to help his sons cope with the loss of their mother?

Richardson and Neeson's passionate relationship began in 1993 when they co-starred in a Broadway production of Anna Christie, Eugene O'Neill's play about a tormented woman who has a steamy liaison with an Irish sailor. Critics spoke of the smouldering chemistry between the two, and rumours soon started that they were having a real-life affair. At the end of their four-month run, they had done enough to earn themselves matching Tony nominations, and Richardson had left her husband of four years, theatre director and producer Robert Fox. "It was not an easy time when I met Liam," she later said. "Working with him, what happened between us, and that becoming public knowledge in conjunction with my marriage falling apart was kind of bad timing. So what can I say? Obviously, I fell very much in love with him."

Once a notorious lothario and commitment-phobe – he dated Helen Mirren, Brooke Shields and Julia Roberts without ever making it to the altar – Neeson reformed, proposed and embraced the life of a devoted family man.

The pair were married in front of 70 guests in Millbrook in 1994. Setting up a second home together on the west side of NYC's Central Park, the couple quickly became fixtures on the Manhattan scene, dining out in Cafe Luxembourg or taking their children swimming in one of the city's pools. Whether attending red carpet award ceremonies or enjoying a quick cuddle while waiting for a taxi, they made a glamorous pair, her beautiful blonde hair and vivacious smile a match for his rugged Irish good looks and raw sexuality. Though they didn't actively court publicity, everything they said about one another reinforced the perception of an idyllic marriage: one based on love, respect and a thriving sex life.

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"She pushed all the right buttons," Neeson once said of his wife. "Certain people push one or two. But she pushed buttons I didn't even know I had."

Popular, happy and talented, the pair were in their prime. It is little wonder then that Richardson's death has prompted such shock among all those who knew her. Last week tributes came pouring in from A-list actors who had worked with her and members of the public alike. Many of them spoke of her "luminescent" quality. Appropriately then, all the lights on Broadway were dimmed for one minute on Thursday night to mark her passing. "The term 'life force' seems trite, but that is what she was: a woman who powered through life and fascinated everyone she encountered," said Scots actor Alan Cumming, who starred with her in the Broadway revival of Cabaret which won them both a Tony Award. "I have been thinking about the times I spent with her since I heard the news of her tragic accident, and the strongest memory I have is of her laughter, her unmistakable throaty laugh. I think that's a great way to remember someone. Liam and the boys and her whole family have lost an amazing woman."

On this side of the Atlantic, the sense of loss was just as powerful. Dame Judi Dench praised Richardson's "great sense of humour", while Kevin Spacey said: "Her passion, devotion and talent will forever be etched on those who saw her work on the stage. The bloodlines of greatness were always there and she committed herself to every role she tackled."

To Richardson herself these "bloodlines of greatness" were always a double-edged sword. Her family tree reads like a veritable Who's Who of English theatre: her grandfather was matinee idol Michael Redgrave, her mother actress and left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave and her father film director Tony Richardson. Her aunt and uncle Lynn and Corin Redgrave, sister Joely Richardson and cousin Jemma Redgrave complete the acting dynasty.

It was as a part of this family that Richardson first made her mark on the West End, appearing alongside her mother in Chekhov's The Seagull in 1985, with Natasha playing Nina to Vanessa's Arkadina.

But being woven into the fabric of English theatre did not always bring her happiness. Her parents' divorce, when she was three, left her devastated and rootless as she drifted back and forwards from her mother's house in London to her father's in Provence. The later discovery that her father was bisexual added, if only briefly, to the trauma of growing up.

More distressing, though, was the long shadow her pedigree cast over her career. Writing about her performance in The Seagull, her father remarked she had "the same quality of being able to communicate emotion and let emotion flow through fully and directly that her mother has". Others too remarked on the similarity.

Although, she went on to establish a successful film career, starring in Patty Hearst, The Handmaid's Tale and The Parent Trap, she still felt stifled by the Redgrave baggage. It was, some speculated, to escape her heritage that she emigrated to New York, a move that was to prove the making of her, with her performances, first as Anna Christie and then as Sally Bowles, winning her plaudits and awards.

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Neeson's star too rose – perhaps higher than hers – as he played Oskar, the title role in Schindler's List. It is a tribute to Richardson's sense of humour that given her background she was still able to joke: "I've spent half my life trying to get away from being Vanessa Redgrave's daughter, and now I've got to get away from being Liam Neeson's wife."

As well as being a devoted wife, Natasha revelled in the role of mother. "Some actors, when you work with them and they have children, you're surprised to find out they have children," says Scott Ellis, who directed Richardson and her mother in a performance of A Little Night Music at New York City's Roundabout Theatre earlier this year. "With Natasha, she was fierce about those kids. "

Last night – as doctors said Richardson might have been saved if she had been treated immediately – questions were being asked as to why it took so long for her to receive medical attention. She was taken by sled to the bottom of the hill and accompanied to her hotel by resort staff who stayed with her. But it has transpired that the first ambulance that arrived was turned away, with a second only called two hours later.

Some people believe resort staff should have insisted that she see paramedics, but others point to the impracticality of pushing unwilling patients into ambulances. "People fall down on ski hills all the time," said Doug Firby, a spokesman for Sunshine Village Ski and Snowboard Resort in Banff, Alberta. "Some of them bang their heads. I can't imagine a scenario in which you could actually force all those people to go to hospital."

Meanwhile, Neeson, his eyes shielded beneath a peaked cap, was embraced by friends and supporters as he turned up to see Broadway pay its last respects to his wife on Thursday night, while tributes continued to pour in.

"She was a wonderful actress – the whole family is incredible – and she had not yet fulfilled her possibilities," said film director Michael Winner. "It's a twinkle and a sparkle that has left the world."

Injury risk 'very low'

THE use of helmets for skiing has increased dramatically since singer Sonny Bono and Robert F Kennedy's son Michael were killed within a week of each other 11 years ago.

But in most countries, wearing protective headgear is optional, even for children. The exceptions are Italy and Austria, where helmets are compulsory for the under-14s, although many skiing associations, including the Ski Club of Great Britain, advocate them.

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Swiss resorts report around 150 head injuries a day during winter, while there are around 5,500 a season in Austria.

The latest statistics for Scotland suggest more than two out of every 1,000 skiers sustain an injury, with around 13% of those relating to the head and face.

But Aviemore-based GP, Dr Mike Langran, of the International Society for Skiing Safety, said the risk of death was less than one in a million, with about three in every 1,000 skiers needing medical attention. "The overall injury risks combining all the snowsports is about 0.2% to 0.4%," he said. "This is really very low."

In Scotland, wearing helmets is compulsory on artificial slopes.

But experts are divided as to how much difference a helmet makes. Although Langran wears one himself, he says they won't necessarily save a skier's life.

He also points out that though 40% of skiers in Scotland wear them now, compared with just 5% in 1997, there has been no reduction in the number of injuries. "Helmets may prevent or reduce the severity of many minor or moderate head injuries, but there is no data to support the idea they will protect against fatal injuries," he has said. "The risk of a serious head injury is small and, in my opinion, does not warrant making helmets mandatory.

"The single most important thing is for people to ski/snowboard within the level of their ability."