The Dignified Deaths of Ralph Richardson

         Prior to my watching The Heiress, directed by William Wyler in 1949, and A Doll's House, directed by Patrick Garland in 1973, I do not believe I had ever viewed a movie featuring the late Ralph Richardson. You can tell by his performances in these movies that he was regarded as a "classy actor," probably always up for the kind of roles that would be given to Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine today. This grace that he carries about him is exemplified in the ways that his characters in both films approach their doom.

         In The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, Richardson's Dr. Austin Sloper is the commanding father figure to Olivia de Havilland's titular heiress. He is an authoritarian and looks down upon his daughter, but you never condemn him because of the classy way he conducts himself.

         Late in the picture, it becomes apparent that Sloper is dying of a bronchial aliment during a heartbreaking, dialogue-free scene-masterfully a dialogue-free scene-masterfully executed by Richardson. Wearing his robe, he creeps into his study and closes the door behind him. He goes to his desk and produces his stethoscope. He pauses, and then puts it on, slowly placing the end-piece on his chest, and listens to the rauls in the lungs. When it becomes evident that he has, as he feared, discovered something life-threatening, the look of quiet resignation on Richardson's face is chilling--brilliant.

         Richardson's Dr. Rank in A Doll's House, based on Henry Ibsen's 1879 play, is also on his last legs. To make matters worse, Rank is in love with a younger, married woman. At one point, after it is known to him that he will die soon, he kisses Nora--(Claire Bloom), as she pulls away. With a less minor-key, graceful actor, this scene could come off as uncomfortable to watch as a scene in BBC2's The Office, but Richardson handles it so well that you want Nora to forget her problems with Krogstad (Denholm Elliot) and Torvald (Anthony Hopkins) and run away with Rank for as long as he has living breath in him.

         This does not happen, and as it turns out, Rank does not have much living breath in him. But when the time arrives for the doctor to make his exit, he does it gracefully, with a lovely speech about his next masquerade costume being "invisible." He was just a joy to watch in A Doll's House as he was in The Heiress.

John Null

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