I got word that Natasha Richardson had died Wednesday evening. But the Internet had killed her off Tuesday afternoon. And that bothers me.
Word came via an erroneous report on the Time Out New York website, which was retracted, though not before an onslaught of hits had crashed its server. I don’t blame the site for pursuing a lead that turned out to be false; if Natasha Richardson was a star anywhere, it was on the New York stage. But there’s something ghoulish about needing to be first with the “scoop,” when the scoop is a life-or-death matter—and whatever clarifying intentions the site had in posting the news, it could not but look as if it were angling to be out in front. The resulting misinformation led to a wave of aggravatingly dubious reports and falsehoods, perpetuated on online forums and the likes of Perez Hilton’s site and OK! magazine (which the diminished UPI used as an “informed” source), providing an infuriating underscore to Richardson’s actual demise a day later.
In the horse-and-buggy era, you read about someone’s mishap in the newspaper, got an update from the TV or radio news, then followed the saga day by day. Minute by minute is how we roll now. The old-media gatekeepers best-qualified to judge the so-called “public’s right to know” are too busy keeping the lights on to take greater care of the editorial content, while the bloggers just poop out whatever anonymous tidbit is in the air. I was just fine knowing what I needed to know about Christopher Reeve’s riding accident and subsequent paralysis in 1995, at the dawn of web time; and I’m satisfied to know that Steve Jobs is ailing and on medical leave without needing to know his exact condition, latest test results, and whatever else members of the business press are demanding. I’m under no illusion that he will personally repair my MacBook Pro when it breaks down.
For all the wrong, tabloid reasons, Richardson is a star now. Her tragic end secured her the cover of People magazine. I can hear America asking, “Who was Nastasha Richardson?” It’s a fair question. To the general public, she was two things: the wife (actress, right?) of Liam Neeson, a middle-of-the-pack celebrity enjoying a surprise hit movie to call his own (Taken, a title with a grimmer connotation now), and Liam Neeson’s wife (actress, right?) who died unexpectedly as a consequence of a skiing accident. That she was part of a dynastic clan of actors, or laid claim to greatness on Broadway, was fuzzier at best. If you had trouble placing her when you heard the news, I’m not patronizing you, from my aisle seat as a New York theater writer who saw her incandescent Tony-winning performance in Cabaret, her fine work in Closer (she found the biting humor the film version lost), and a formidable Blanche opposite John C. Reilly’s miscast Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (pictured). Outside of the Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap and a supporting role in Maid in Manhattan, successful but unmemorable, she never made waves in the deeper pools of film and TV.
Coincidentally, Newsweek reported the passing of another, far higher-wattage actress, Julia Roberts (who, equally coincidentally, played Richardson’s part in the Closer film). She’s still with us, of course, but according to the article her career is dead. This is the kind of thumbsucker the newsweeklies are filling themselves with to remain alive and bloggish, but I am here to tell you that rumors of her death are greatly exaggerated (and so is that of the romantic comedy genre that America’s Sweetheart called her own before she graduated to America’s Forty-Something Mom). The article plays it both ways, flattering the longevity of her stardom but bemoaning her privacy, in our let-it-all-hang-out world. A star’s allure used to be premised on a certain otherworldliness; now, if you’re not on Facebook, sending virtual bottles of champagne to the masses, you may as well not exist. The concluding comparison the story draws is particularly ignorant: The original America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, had a parallel career as a producer and all-around trailblazer for women in Hollywood that is today her lasting accomplishment. There is more to a career, and a life, than immersion in the klieg lights.
Richardson and Roberts existed on different planes of the firmament, having just one other thing in common: Neeson, Roberts’ one-time boyfriend. Roberts endures the death by a thousand cuts that accompanies actors at her station and moves on; Richardson has been stilled, and her passing, where the press was concerned, was undignified. I was surprised to get so much e-mail from friends reporting on the latest rumors, and a little exasperated—but the correspondence was less about her career than her life, anguish over what proved to be the final hours of a 45-year-old wife and mother, a fellow New Yorker. That is relatable. How else to memorialize her? Seek out some of her best roles—Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988) and The Comfort of Strangers (1990), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)—and enjoy her thoughtful, quicksilver work. Or pick up the Cabaret CD, a vocal record of a heroic performance. The death pains me; the life inspires. That’s as much as we need to know from our artists.