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Jill Clayburgh: Outstanding 'An Unmarried Woman' Actress Has Died

Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
Jill Clayburgh, La Luna
Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (top) & La Luna (bottom)

In my very personal view, the worst thing about 1980s American moviemaking isn't the enormous success of adolescent trash like Return of the Jedi, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun, but the near-disappearance of Jill Clayburgh from the scene.

Clayburgh, who died at the age of 66 at her Connecticut home on Friday, Nov. 5, after a (as far as know totally unpublicized) 21-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, had become one of late-'70s Hollywood's greatest female hopes following her critical and commercial success in Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Alan J. Pakula's Starting Over (1979).

Prior to that, the stage-trained (Bob Fosse's Pippin) Clayburgh had been featured in a few movies (Portnoy's Complaint, The Thief Who Came to Dinner), television series (Maude, Medical Center, The Rockford Files) and made-for-TV movies, most notably in an Emmy-winning performance as a sex worker in Hustling (1975) and as a woman who finds love while dying of cancer in Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story (1976).

Major movie roles began cropping up around the time. At first, things didn't go all that great: Clayburgh played Carole Lombard opposite James Brolin's Clark Gable in the poorly received flop Gable and Lombard (1976).

But a charming characterization in an otherwise conventional leading-lady role in the successful Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy Silver Streak (1976) was followed by another well-received scene-stealing turn in the Burt Reynolds vehicle Semi-Tough (1977).

Then came An Unmarried Woman and Clayburgh's performance as a happily married middle-class New Yorker who learns that her husband (Michael Murphy) wants to leave her for a younger woman. A relationship with an artist (Alan Bates) ensues, but this late-'70s urbanite eventually comes to the realization that what she needs most is time for herself.

Clayburgh's jilted wife could have been merely a one-dimensional, politically correct representation of female victimhood/heroism to please feminists. But with the assistance of Paul Mazursky's perceptive screenplay and direction, Clayburgh more than rose to the occasion, creating a masterful, unsentimental portrayal of a human being shocked out of bourgeois complacency.

Really, that Clayburgh's character happens to be a woman ultimately isn't that important. What her character goes through could happen to anyone, regardless of gender – or sexual orientation, for that matter.

Clayburgh shared the Best Actress trophy (with Isabelle Huppert for Violette) at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly received an Academy Award nomination. She should have won, but that was the year most Academy members discovered that there had been an American war in Vietnam; the result was Jane Fonda taking home the Oscar for Coming Home.

Clayburgh was back the following year as a self-centered opera singer who has a sexual relationship with her 15-year-old son (Matthew Barry) in Bernardo Bertolucci's La Luna.

Reviled in some quarters (especially in the United States) for its straightforward depiction of incest, masturbation, hardcore drug use, sex with a minor, and grandiose opera singing, La Luna, however flawed, is the sort raw, complex, disturbingly adult filmmaking that even someone like Bertolucci himself seems unable to create nowadays. Most American indies wouldn't dare to go today where this 20th Century Fox release went more than thirty years ago.

But then again, considering the state of film criticism in the U.S., they might as well stick to playing it safe with family-friendly fare such as The Kids Are All Right.

Even in the edgier '70s, the New York Times' Vincent Canby, who was flabbergasted that a man high on drugs could get an erection and reach an orgasm, dismissed La Luna with the following:

“Europeans have a tolerance and often even an enthusiasm for a sort of intellectualized romanticism that tends to strike most Americans as bunkum.” Further down in his review, Canby added: “This, I suppose, explains my skeptical reactions to Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, Luna, about a beautiful, successful, willful, American star of grand opera and her brief, unsatisfactory love affair with her 15-year-old son, who is a junkie — which may well be the most obscure movie metaphor of all time.”

Jill Clayburgh
Jill Clayburgh, Joseph Cross, Running with Scissors
Jill Clayburgh (top), with Joseph Cross in Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors (bottom)

Discarding “obscure metaphors” while proving her versatility, Jill Clayburgh took the romantic-comedy route in Alan J. Pakula's Starting Over, a generally well-received box office success in which teacher Clayburgh falls for unmarried man Burt Reynolds whose ex (Candice Bergen) wants him back.

Many reviewers (though certainly not all) found that Clayburgh could be as endearing a comedienne as Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, and Jean Arthur (with whom she bore at times an uncanny resemblance).

Another Oscar nomination followed; this time Clayburgh lost out to Sally Field in the more challenging Norma Rae. (The fact that Clayburgh was nominated for Starting Over instead of La Luna is akin to what would happen seven years later, when Dennis Hopper received Academy recognition for Hoosiers instead of Blue Velvet.)

At the turn of the decade, Clayburgh seemed poised to become one of the top female stars of the 1980s. But then she suffered a series of flops: It's My Turn (1980), a sort of An Unmarried Woman redux; First Monday in October (1981), a poorly received comedy with Clayburgh cast as a Supreme Court judge in a role Jean Arthur (among others) had played on stage; I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982), as Valium-addicted documentary filmmaker Barbara Gordon; and Costa-Gavras' sober political/psychological drama Hannah K. (1983), beautifully playing an attorney defending a Palestinian man (Mohammed Bakri) accused of being a threat to the State of Israel.

Meryl Streep or no, Hollywood movies just weren't the same after that.

Clayburgh made only two more film appearances in the '80s: the little-seen Where Are the Children? (1986) and Shy People (1987), opposite Barbara Hershey.

Her '90s movies were mostly obscure, low-caliber efforts, among them Bruce Beresford's Rich in Love (1992), Mark Pellington's Going All the Way (1997), and Andy Tennant's Fools Rush In (1997). Compounding matters, her roles were generally small; at times little more than bit parts.

Following a five-year hiatus, Clayburgh returned to the big screen in Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors (2006), about a highly dysfunctional mother-son (Annette Bening-Joseph Cross) relationship. I actually watched the whole movie without realizing that the likable elderly actress who befriends the teenage antihero was the An Unmarried Woman star of yore.

More recently, Clayburgh had a recurring role in the television series Dirty Sexy Money, and played supporting roles in two upcoming productions: Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, and Paul Feig's Judd Apatow-produced comedy Bridesmaids, with Rose Byrne and Jon Hamm, scheduled for spring 2011.

Clayburgh was married to playwright David Rabe (Hurlyburly, Streamers), who wrote the screen adaptation of I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can.

Their daughter, actress Lily Rabe, will be seen with Al Pacino (with whom Clayburgh was involved in the early '70s) in a Broadway revival of The Merchant of Venice.

Photos: An Unmarried Woman, La Luna (20th Century Fox); Running with Scissors (Sony Pictures Classics); Jill Clayburgh close-up (Chamber Music PLUS)


         
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2 Comments to Jill Clayburgh: Outstanding 'An Unmarried Woman' Actress Has Died

  1. jbohanon

    jclayburg a outstanding actress as great as any actress ever was

  2. Luda

    A memorial site was created for Jill Clayburgh!