Redgrave may have been acting royalty, but she was utterly unpretentious and down-to-earth, both in person and in her performances. The actress, who died Sunday after a seven-year battle with breast cancer, left a legacy of courageous performances as ordinary women.
Lynn was frequently compared and contrasted to her sister Vanessa Redgrave, often unfavorably, especially when they were younger. Vanessa's radiance would lead her to be cast in larger-than-life roles, while Lynn got to play shop girls, nannies and washerwomen. Tall and pudgy, then tall and slim and gawky, Lynn Redgrave seldom displayed that regal bearing common to her family; the one memorable time she played a queen was when court jester Woody Allen got snagged in her chastity belt in 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.'
In later years, she did get to play socialites and grande dames, but they were usually the tipsy, trouble-prone kind. She was a star-turned-freak show in the Bette Davis role in the TV version of 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' (Vanessa took the more demure Joan Crawford role as her on-screen sister). Years before Jessica Walter's turn on 'Arrested Development,' Redgrave played to perfection the comic archetype of the boozy horror of a Beverly Hills matron, whose bad example threatens to destroy her recovering-alcoholic daughter, on the underrated Showtime sitcom 'Rude Awakening.' More recently, she was an aristocrat who had the misfortune of being set on fire at a barbecue by klutzy Susan on 'Desperate Housewives.'
Still, Redgrave's grace was always on display, shining from inside, from her star-making performance in 1966's 'Georgy Girl' (her first Oscar nomination) as the mousy but blossoming title character, to her last completed role, as a free-spirited hippie artist in a guest spot this season on 'Ugly Betty.' That grace shone in many of her performances, like the beatific woman whose love helps save tormented pianist David Helfgott in 'Shine,' or the disapproving but tenderly fussy German housekeeper in 'Gods and Monsters' (a comic/dramatic gem of a turn that earned Redgrave her only other Oscar nod), or as a sleek woman finding improbable middle-aged romance with Jackie Mason on 'Chicken Soup' (a short-lived TV debacle from which Redgrave emerged unscathed), or even in a series of Weight Watchers commercials, in which she owned up to her status as a formerly overweight and bulimic woman while proclaiming dramatically of her dieting self, 'This is living!"
Then there were the performances that not enough people saw because they weren't on TV or in the movies. Like the rest of her family, she was an accomplished stage actress; unlike them, she found a way to express her own feelings on stage in one-woman shows she wrote, like 'Shakespeare for My Father' (in which she paid tribute to her often absent and aloof father, Michael Redgrave, through the poetic language and theatrical tradition they shared), or 'Nightingale' (in which she addressed the end of her 32-year marriage to actor/director John Clark, after he admitted that he'd fathered a child with their son's fiancée -- a scandal from which Redgrave emerged untarnished and unbowed). And there was her 2004 book with daughter Annabel Clark, 'Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery From Breast Cancer,' whose pages revealed a dignified struggle that Redgrave seemed to have won (a premature assessment, alas).
Last week, I saw a rerun of 'The Nanny' in which Redgrave played herself, swanning into the scene like a grand lady of the theatah, which she was, but which she never acted like in real life. So I thought the characterization was off. But by the end of the episode, she was allowing herself to be the butt of jokes and asking Fran Drescher to squirt spray cheese into her mouth. Ah, there was the Lynn Redgrave I had met, equally at home on screen, on the stage, or on the roof. This was living.