This was a very dispiriting week, in that the deceased died young. There was Monica Johnson, 64, the co-screenwriter of Albert Brooks’ brilliant comedies in the 70s and 80s. I read online that Chris Udvarnoky, 49, passed; he and his twin brother Martin were a memorable double team in The Other (1972), a singular but satisfying film credit. And then Jill Clayburgh, 66. There are a lot of great actors, “my” actors, who are at, near, or a little older than 66. Which is to say, two years younger than my parents, who had me when they were 23. Which got me thinking that when I’m 66 my daughter will be 23. And that got me thinking, will I be…
Never mind. Too depressing.
Best to look on the bright side, which is easy to do when considering Jill Clayburgh. She rarely let in rain. I don’t really like the picture I found, I think a publicity still from the short-lived TV show Dirty Sexy Money–beautiful, yes (she was always that), but too poised, regal, slightly frosty. I loved her disheveled, uncertain, not altogether in control, in search of something, as in her defining, Oscar-nominated role in 1978, An Unmarried Woman. She was like a saner Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda without the steely edge. Relatably frazzled, funny, life-sized.
She scored again on similar terrain in the delightful Starting Over (1979), helping Burt Reynolds find his bearings as freshly unmarried man as they inched their way to possible couplehood. When I realized I didn’t have that on DVD I immediately ordered a used copy on Amazon in tribute. She and Candice Bergen, as the ex Reynolds can’t get over, were Oscar-nominated for their roles in a smartly scripted (James L. Brooks) comedy-drama, an unusual credit for director Alan J. Pakula coming on the heels of All the President’s Men (1976) and his other, more paranoia-tinged films. (Reynolds was ticked off that he didn’t get a nomination, but in the fullness of time he can take solace in the fact that his leading ladies in his leading man heyday tended to do good work; he and Clayburgh had previously made a more cockeyed comedy team in the 1977 sports satire Semi-Tough.)
Her stardom didn’t last. Subsequent name-the-title-credits like It’s My Turn (1980), a decent rom com with Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin, and First Monday in October (1981), released in a hurry to capitalize on Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court appointment, failed to capitalize on her particular gifts. (The early 80s, which spawned Meryl Streep and Kathleen Turner, erased gains and opportunities for actresses who came onto their own in the previous decade.) And a performer who warmed up chilly pictures like the underrated Michael Crichton adaptation The Terminal Man (1974) with George Segal threw herself into Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna with as much intensely operatic gusto as possible, not enough to save an incest-themed flop from oblivion. (In this country it seems to exist only on the Fox Movie Channel, having bypassed home video since VHS.) She and European art cinema weren’t a match, as one of her last marquee credits, Costa-Gavras’ even more obscure Hanna K. (1983), proved.
But she soldiered on, admirably as we just discovered, given the leukemia that had quietly plagued her since her mid-40s. TV, where she received a career-boosting Emmy nomination in 1975 for the telefilm Hustling, proved hospitable, with a stint on Ally McBeal (which inherited from her most famous parts) and another nomination for an episode of Nip/Tuck, where her character retaliated for what she considered botched plastic surgery by stalking one of the doctors. Nip/Tuck (and Glee) producer Ryan Murphy rewarded her with a plum crazy lady part, with ragged, matted hair, in 2006’s otherwise negligible Running with Scissors (pictured). Its size was typical of her latter film parts; a happy exception, ripe for rediscovery, was 2001’s Never Again, on Starting Over ground with Jeffrey Tambor.
I saw her twice when she revived her dormant New York theater career in recent years, in 2005’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, a show more memorable for its title than anything else, and Sarah Ruhl’s much better The Clean House (2006), as a cleaning obsessive. We’ll see her again in movies, the forthcoming Love and Other Drugs (one scene with Segal) and a Judd Apatow something called Bridesmaids, with Jon Hamm. Small parts, for an actress who was never small, and something to look forward to when the loss subsides.
Her daughter, Lily Rabe, is an excellent Portia in The Merchant of Venice, now on Broadway after this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park stint. Al Pacino (Shylock) lived with Clayburgh for several years. I feel for them, and of course playwright husband David Rabe, in this difficult time.
Clayburgh helped me out once. After I washed out of the National Spelling Bee (“attrition” got me) on the state level my parents took me to see Silver Streak (1976) in consolation. Love at first sight made up for the sting.
RIP Jill Clayburgh, dancing on.