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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Goodbye To Jill Clayburgh

Jill Clayburgh had one of those indelible, perfect, life-changing runs as a movie actor.

In 1975, Clayburgh had some profile, but at 32, hadn’t broken through. In 1976, she turned up in Gable & Lombard, as Carole Lombard. The movie was a miss, but the role fit like a glove. She also had a big hit that year, opposite Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, which was also the start of his legendary team-up with Richard Pryor.

The role playing the sandwich meat between Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson was a huge get at the time… though Semi-tough only semi-worked in 1977.

And then An Unmarried Woman, arguably the most influential feminist film of all time, right in the heart of the world changing its perspective. Clayburgh brought her glibness and beauty to the role… but she also brought a depth of quiet pain and triumphant resolve that really defined a big part of that era. Sadly for her and the film, two other movies that were also brilliantly defining the personal toll of Vietnam – The Deer Hunter and Coming Home – and it would be hard to argue that Oscars and other awards went to the wrong films and people. It was a truly remarkable trio of films and as much as Streep and Fonda breathed life into women who were having profound experience in the reflection of the men in their lives, Clayburgh cannot be forgotten as a woman who was fighting on a very different front, finding her own power and frailties beyond those of a man.

Clayburgh flipped it completely the very next year in the Alan Pakula/Jim Brooks-screenwriter minor masterpiece, Starting Over, which offered Burt Reynolds actually acting for the first time and made a comedy start of the previously-thought-of-as-too-stiff Candice Bergen. Clayburgh played a very different kind of woman on the verge. It’s Reynolds’ story, but it’s Clayburgh that made us believe that a shy, less-beautiful, slump-shouldered woman, even with a comedically runny nose, could be The Right One, the choice of the soul.

These triumphs led, as they often do, to high profile misses. It’s My Turn, opposite Michael Douglas, trying to be a certain kind of leading man between The China Syndrome and Romancing The Stone. First Monday In October, as 37-year-old romantic foil to the 61-year-old Walter Matthau. And I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can, a prescription drug drama that was just not raw enough or smart enough to work.

She made a Costa-Gavras movie, Hanna K, that came out in 1983, but the film, which was an early piece on that dealt with Palestinian-Israeli issues, would not be a triumph for either of them.

In 1989, it’s been reported, she started the battle with leukemia that she lost yesterday, 21 years later.

She would turn up now and again in shows, from Frasier to Ally McBeal, but nothing ever caught fire. She had a great role in Running With Scissors in 2006, but the movie sunk and the buzz around her performance with it.

I am 46. I remember discovering An Unmarried Woman on HBO in my teens, having had a crush on this woman after seeing Silver Streak in a theater multiple times when I was 12 and then loving Starting Over when I was 15. It was breathtaking. Not only her, but Bates, whose work I knew from other films, and Michael Murphy, who I knew from Woody and Altman, and the supporting cast, who have defined the idea of New York film actors for much of my life. I grew up with three sisters and a broken mother and amazingly enough, Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh taught me a lot about women that I could never have figured out… at least not until decades later. I watched that movie a lot of times. I tried to figure out the subtext as I enjoyed the surface.

Clayburgh turns up, for a few minutes, in Love & Other Drugs, coming out in a few weeks. She teams with George Segal, as mom & dad to Jake Gyllenhaal. George seems to be in pretty good shape. He is also connected to Mazursky and I have gotten to spend time with both of them in recent years. The next time will be sadder for the loss.

Thanks for the memories… Jill Clayburgh will not be forgotten.

9 Responses to “Goodbye To Jill Clayburgh”

  1. leahnz says:

    jill was the real deal. may her lovely self rest in peace.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtywvNE7QK4&feature=related

  2. hcat says:

    Saw Semi-Tough for the first time about two months ago and she was great in it, funny, cute, vulnerable. She had a great comic touch with a strong sense of experience underneath it.

  3. holly penland says:

    I am saddened by the death of an amazing beautiful actress who sadly never got the limelight she very rightly deserved. May u find peace love and joy in this new part of your spiritual journey. Blessed be.

  4. Marie Willis says:

    Unmarried Woman was an unforgetable movie. I’ll always remember how good an actor she was and an inspiration to many. May she rest in peace.

  5. Joe Leydon says:

    Wish more people had seen her terrific comic turn in 2001’s “Never Again.”

    http://bit.ly/90Qf0f

  6. All I will say is that she damn-well should have gotten another Oscar nomination for Running With Scissors in 2006. She was the rare kosher performance in a film filled with ham, and all the more powerful for it.

  7. chris says:

    …and she worked with Bertolucci (“Luna”) and she was a big hit on Broadway in “Pippin” (before my time, but she’s a hoot on the cast album).

  8. aframe says:

    It was not at all her fault, but I felt horribly embarrassed for her in Never Again, *especially* in the strap-on scene. Ugh. Eric Schaeffer… *SMH*

  9. Joe Leydon says:

    Aframe: Just curious: Are you under or over 35? Reason I ask — and I don’t mean this to be insulting or condescending — but I have found that many (if not most) people under 35 simply have some sort of reflexively negative response to any movie in which people in their 50s (or older) have sex with age-appropriate partners. Seriously. I actually remember an Entertainment Weekly review of “Town and Country” in which the writer did the equivalent of throwing up in print while expressing distaste for a scene in which Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn got it on. Of course, I know there were many other reasons why many other folks hated “Town and Country.” And I also know that many (if not most) folks didn’t care much for “Never Again,” either. But I have to say: Everyone I’ve ever talked to in my own age group who saw “Never Again” liked it primarily because it did emphasize that people over 50 still fucked.

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