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Lynn Redgrave, known for work in 'Georgy Girl,' dies at 67

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; B05

Lynn Redgrave, an actress who excelled in unglamorous screen roles, notably in "Georgy Girl" (1966) as an ugly duckling in swinging London, and then alternated between supporting roles and a long engagement as spokeswoman for Weight Watchers, died May 2 at her home in Kent, Conn. She was 67.

No cause of death was reported, but Ms. Redgrave had been treated for breast cancer in recent years. She explored her struggles with cancer and bulimia in books and one-woman shows, which also touched on her place in one of Britain's greatest theatrical dynasties.

Ms. Redgrave was the youngest child of actors Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson and the sibling of actress Vanessa Redgrave and actor Corin Redgrave, who died April 6 at 70. Corin's daughter Jemma became an actress, as did Vanessa Redgrave's daughters Joely Richardson and Natasha Richardson, who died last year at 45 from injuries in a skiing accident.

Unlike her siblings, Lynn Redgrave said she did not plan on a career in the arts. She entered the family business only after her interest in horse jumping proved unrealistic. Under the tutelage of her brother-in-law, , celebrated director Tony Richardson, Ms. Redgrave made a memorable film debut as a barmaid who screams "Rape!" in "Tom Jones" (1963) before moving on to larger parts on stage and screen.

Impressed by her performance in "Tom Jones," Laurence Olivier hired Ms. Redgrave for his National Theatre Company and cast her in works by Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht. She displayed a talent for light comedy, reportedly stealing the show as a less-than-erudite flapper in Noel Coward's "Hay Fever," while also taking screen roles that elevated her public recognition.

In "Girl With Green Eyes" (1964), Ms. Redgrave was the slang-spewing, man-eating roommate of a country girl played by Rita Tushingham. Two years later, Ms. Redgrave gained 18 pounds for the starring role in "Georgy Girl," in which she was cast as a frumpy, good-hearted soul who finds love with her father's boss, played by James Mason.

Ms. Redgrave earned an Academy Award nomination for "Georgy Girl," putting her in direct competition with her sister, Vanessa, who starred the same year in "Morgan!" (They both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")

Nevertheless, "Georgy Girl" was Ms. Redgrave's breakthrough and perhaps her finest and most enduring performance, combining what critics regarded as an unpretentious acting style that managed to convey vulnerability and great personal appeal.

"Miss Redgrave has magic in the very way she transforms face and figure from scene to scene, bringing inner beauty and grace to physical terms, contracting and expanding for the size of passion, for the grand laugh at life's ironies and the takeoff on its pretenses," wrote reviewer Judith Crist. "Hers is a beautiful performance."

"Georgy Girl" cemented Ms. Redgrave's place in popular culture but had, in her own words, typecast her as "the happy lass with the broken heart." She played variations on that role for years to come, including the play "My Fat Friend," which reached Broadway in 1974. She spent most of the 1980s as the spokeswoman for Weight Watchers and wrote a well-received book about her eating binges, "This Is Living: How I Found Health and Happiness."

Her acting career, meanwhile, was scattershot. She appeared in "The Deadly Affair" (1966), a spy thriller directed by Sidney Lumet, and the slapstick comedy "Smashing Time" (1967) with Tushingham. One of her few bright spots was Woody Allen's "Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask" (1972); she played a queen who sports an unbreakable chastity belt.

Mostly, she appeared in a series of admittedly "terrible" films such as "The Happy Hooker" (1975), in the title role as the author Xaviera Hollander. She also starred in short-lived TV series, most improbably as the Irish-Catholic love interest of the kvetching Jewish comedian Jackie Mason on "Chicken Soup" (1989).

Ms. Redgrave did not have a happy track record working in TV. She endured 13 years of litigation and eventually filed for bankruptcy protection after accusing Universal Television of wrongful dismissal in 1981 from the sitcom "House Calls." She said she was forced to leave the show because she wanted to breast-feed her infant daughter on the set.

'Gods and Monsters'

In describing the erratic course of her career, Ms. Redgrave told the Toronto Star in 2003 that her early fame was "a double-edged sword. To have an early huge film success and be the latest flavor in town. Well, you pay a price for it, eventually. . . . You're also too young to have the judgment to decide what to do with your career, so other people start telling you what you should do and you think they know better."

Ms. Redgrave said it took her years to come to the realization that she was happier as a character actress, which made up in variety what it often lacked in visibility.

She won strong reviews in "Shine" (1996) as an astrologer who marries and gives unconditional love to the emotionally troubled pianist David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush). She received a supporting Oscar nomination in "Gods and Monsters" (1998), as the dowdy and religious Hungarian housekeeper to horror-film director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen).

In 1993, Ms. Redgrave won sympathetic reviews and a best actress Tony Award nomination for her one-woman show "Shakespeare for My Father," which explored her father's bisexuality, aloof persona and intimidating resume. He was matinee idol, handsome and a gifted interpreter of the classics. "I was in awe of him and I adored him," she said at the time, "and I was terrified of him and I hated him and I loved him, all in one go."

She described the show as "therapy for me," after a life spent in competition with her siblings and having felt largely abandoned to nannies as their parents concentrated on demanding careers.

Lynn Rachel Redgrave was born in London on March 8, 1943. She described herself as a sickly and withdrawn child in a family of performers. She channeled much of her affection into a pony she owned and in 1959 left grade school just shy of graduation to pursue her interest in horse jumping.

To subsidize her equestrian career, she took gourmet cooking classes and planned to cook for wealthy families. But it was too exhausting to continue, she said, and she instead entered drama school. She said her newfound interest in theater was "a bit of a whim."

She made her professional London debut as Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in a production directed by Richardson, who subsequently cast her in "Tom Jones," based on the Henry Fielding novel. Working under Olivier at the National Theatre Company, she played the deaf and dumb Kattrin in Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" and as Miss Prue in William Congreve's "Love for Love" opposite Olivier.

In 1967, Ms. Redgrave married actor and photographer John Clark. The marriage unfolded rapidly in 1999, when Clark admitted to having a child with the woman who became his daughter-in-law. Ms. Redgrave and her husband publicly exchanged a series of accusations of infidelity before divorcing.

Besides her sister, survivors include three children. With her daughter Annabel, she wrote a book about her battle with cancer, "Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery From Breast Cancer." The diagnosis, she later said, helped her reconnect with Vanessa Redgrave, whose radical politics led to their falling out years earlier.

In a lifetime of struggle with her weight and identity, Ms. Redgrave said breast cancer forced her to realize "there isn't any such thing as a bad day. Yes, bad things happen. But any day that I'm still here, able to feel and think and share things with people, then how could that possibly be a bad day?"

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