Posted by medusamorlock on November 10, 2010
The passing a few days ago of actress Jill Clayburgh really strikes a blow into the hearts of women of a certain age, for whom Ms. Clayburgh was almost an avatar, living out different lives that we weren’t, but might have, in different circumstances. Lovely to look at but not a devastating beauty, with Jill it was instead her intelligence and grace under fire that sealed the deal, making her an audience favorite for a generation. Losing her too early — at 66 — deprived us of yet another place she could have taken us further…the aging of a classy woman in the 21st century. Other actresses will have to step in for her now.
I was disappointed to find relatively few of her movie trailers online, but we can start with a few of her early television appearances. Her first, on 1968′s N.Y.P.D. TV series, is extra-interesting because of her co-star — her then-boyfriend Al Pacino, who asked if his real life girlfriend could play his girlfriend for his guest appearance on the show. So we’re seeing a fresh-faced 24-year-old Jill Clayburgh romping with her real beau Pacino in these opening moments of this tense TV cop drama. Even in these few scenes she has a unique physicality and face, so different from the vacuous starlets we might have been used to.
As her career progressed, especially in stagework, she also appeared in small movie parts and more TV shows, including the 1972 pilot for the dainty mystery series The Snoop Sisters starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick. Here’s a clip from the first part of the program, which has quite a bit of Jill:
A couple of years later she had a nice part on an episode of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking and hilarious series Maude, where she played an office colleague of Walter (Maude’s husband played by Bill Macy). The entire episode is on YouTube in three parts, and Jill’s very much in evidence in the first third. I think you’ll be amazed by how matter-of-fact — and for laughs — the threat of suicide by pill overdose is played in the scene, and just the notion of killing oneself in general. Not that it isn’t funny, but seems very different in tone than what you’d find today on a hit sitcom. I won’t post it here but do go and watch if you’re interested.
After a guest appearance on the popular The Rockford Files, Jill made a big splash in the somewhat controversial TV movie Hustling, starring Lee Remick as a reporter doing an expose on prostitutes, with the special help of Jill as Wanda, a tough-talking NYC streetwalker. (The trailer is on Amazon here.) This well-reviewed TVM is also available on Netflix streaming or on DVD, so Jill’s amusing and hearty performance is pretty easily seen, which is a great thing. Her long legs are much in evidence here in her ultra-miniskirts as she strides around the sidewalks of New York, and she got an Emmy nom for her role, too.
What was supposed to be Jill’s breakthrough screen role was in Universal’s 1976 lush classic Hollywood biodrama Gable and Lombard, starring James Brolin as Clark Gable and Clayburgh as Carole Lombard. I wrote a bit about this interesting but failed movie a while back here on Movie Morlocks. Suffice it now to say that Jill gave it her all and for that matter so did Brolin, but the movie didn’t become the success that the studio hoped for. That same year she returned to the small screen in a well-received intimate TV movie called Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story, co-starring Peter Falk. Falk and Clayburgh played unlikely romantics who were brought together by their shared terminal illnesses and their also shared determination not to wallow in the tragedy of their situation. Here’s a little clip from the movie:
At this point Jill Clayburgh really hit big in her screen roles. 1976 saw her starring with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the murder and mayhem comedy Silver Streak, a popular action mystery that showcased Jill’s easy charm and made rail travel look exceedingly cool again (for a while, anyway).
She brought a strong female presence and highly developed knack for physical comedy to the burly 1977 football comedy Semi-Tough, starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson as rival gridiron players and Jill as the daughter of the team owner.
Jill really came into her own with her powerful Oscar-nominated performance in the title role as An Unmarried Woman, a sexy, contemporary look at the life of a vibrant newly-divorced career woman in NYC. Writer-director Paul Mazursky found in Jill the ideal combination of strength and vulnerability to make An Unmarried Woman speak to a generation of women who were striving to spread their wings. Maybe the women could even have the romantic luck of Jill in the movie, and fall in love with a sensuous artist, played by Alan Bates. Jill Clayburgh made it seem possible.
Though it’s probably the precursor of way too many imitation scenes — on the male side with Tom Cruise in his Risky Business underpants dance, and on up to every overly cutesy girls-dancing-by-themselves scenes, and I’ll include singing into hairbrushes, bouncing on beds, and the like — the sight of Jill pirouetting in her apartment with a view is still beguiling, despite its hellish spawn.
Jill momentarily turned her back on Hollywood stardom with a detour into Bernardo Bertolucci territory with her overly-loving mother role in La Luna, an artist entry about an opera singer devoted to her teenage son. The film was a huge departure for her after her string of popular successes — there’s a long review of the film here on the Shooting Down Pictures blog which you might enjoy reading — and you also might like to watch the movie which is available here online in its entirety. Not for everybody, as much for its lavish sensibility and its subject matter, but a bold choice for Clayburgh at the time when she could have been cashing in on her solid commercial successes.
The late 1970s and early 1980s brought more popular acclaim for Jill, in movies like 1979′s Starting Over, where she starred along with Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen in the gently comedic tale of a romantic triangle. The Movie Screenshots blog has a two pages of great screengrabs from the movie here and here, and they are worth taking a look at to see how movie romances looked when grown-ups used to star in them. Jill recieved her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Starting Over.
Her next big-screen outing was 1980′s It’s My Turn, with Jill as a married math professor who finds herself attracted to a self-confident professional baseball player, played by Michael Douglas. Charles Grodin portrayed Jill’s architect husband, and Jill once again brought her unique blend of sex, sensibility and sweetness to her performance.
Jill played the first female Supreme Court Justice in 1981′s First Monday in October, opposite Walter Matthau as a curmudgeonly male chauvinist fellow Justice. (First Monday in October trailer available here, and the film is also available on Netflix). Jill’s ability to pull it off is testament to her special skills at combining comedy with common sense again. She not only was funny and winning, but also seemed to be accomplished enough to make it as a Supreme Court Justice. Even her comic work was weighty and based in a credible atmosphere of reality.
The next year she starred in the screen adaptation of television producer Barbara Gordon’s harrowing story of battle against Valium addiction. I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can sounds and feels and looks more like a TV Movie, and probably should have been one, but Jill gives it her best go and skillfully makes pill-taking look like a very unpleasant avocation.
I’m not going to detail every one of her subsequent credits, but if you take a look at them you’ll probably be surprised at the amount of television work that Jill Clayburgh did over the years. She became one of the defacto “Queens of the TV Movie” (a nickname first given to Elizabeth Montgomery), and she played in an assortment of titles, from portraying actress Jill Ireland in the TVM of her life, to the ill-fated Kitty Menendez in the TVM about the Menendez Brothers’ murder of their parents.
Most recently the talented Ms. Clayburgh had concentrated on her television work, including a major co-starring role on the Dirty Sexy Money TV series which concluded last year. There were clearly many more wonderful roles yet to be performed that we won’t be seeing now, but we can rejoice and celebrate the tremendous body of work she left for us to enjoy. I’ll leave you with some lovely images of the supremely talented woman who left us much too soon.
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