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.