Saturday, November 6, 2010
R.I.P. Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010)
God, I loved this woman. And I do mean WOMAN. She was every inch a woman, not a girl. Every time the camera mapped her face, as perfect as it was, I was enthralled. Yesterday, Ms. Clayburgh died of leukemia, from which she had suffered for more than two decades. And I am so sad about it. It's difficult to scan all of the movie-related deaths out there, and I try not to focus on them. But this one is a bear, and I cannot let it pass without comment.
Her run in films was short--only from the mid 70s to the early 80s--but starting with Darryl Duke's terrific 1976 TV movie Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story, she was a gem. Appearing aside Peter Falk as a man dying of cancer, she blew the TV screen apart with her energy. She was obviously strong from the get go. She put forth a spirited intelligence that was beyond what I can express. If I can be less intellectual and more personal here, I have to say I could look at her face for a thousand years--her penetrating eyes, exquisite nose, pointed chin, marvelous smile, apple cheeks, auburn hair and athletic body: she was simply, utterly ravishing.
Nothing put forward Clayburgh's singular presence more than her signature role in Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, in which she played Erica Benton, a happily married Manhattan lady surprised by her husband (the forever after hateful Michael Murphy) when he admits he's fallen for another woman (HOOWWW??). Just look at her face as she hears the bad news; it, and the whole scene, is really remarkable:
Mazursky's movie (possibly his best, and he's being lionized by the Los Angeles Film Critics this year) staunchly maps Erica's growth from victim to heroine and as such An Unmarried Woman stands powerfully as a prime document for the independence, sans man, of the American female. I'll never forget seeing her, after her first romantic dalliance following her divorce, dancing lithely through her New York apartment. It's a moment that, even as a 13-year-old kid, made me wonder and marvel at what a woman could be:
Though earlier I'd seen her movies like Hustling, The Terminal Man, and 1976's Silver Streak (as the steadfast female counterpart to confident co-stars Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor), she hadn't made her mark for me. But then she appeared opposite Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in Michael Richie's excellent Semi-Tough, where she played an open-minded love interest for both leads. Following the Mazursky film (for which she earned Best Actress at Cannes; Jane Fonda stole the Oscar away from her that year, though), Clayburgh scored again in Alan J. Pakula's profound romantic comedy Starting Over.
Written and co-produced by James L. Brooks (it could be said that this was his debut film, as it seems more like a Brooks production than a politically-minded Pakula affair), Starting Over featured Clayburgh as a shaky single diving back into the dating scene, with Burt Reynolds an equally cautious, newly-divorced teacher as her rocky match. Clayburgh's performance here compliments her star-making turn in An Unmarried Woman, because it seamlessly interplays with both Reynolds (who was never better) and Candice Bergen (as Reynolds' showy ex-wife). Here, you could really feel how a man would want to spend his life with the lovely, troubled, funny, mouthy, bashful, brave Clayburgh. Boy, her patient and then explosively angry moments in that dunking booth are completely astonishing (she'd get her second Oscar nod for this one):
She was beautiful, still, in Claudia Weill's It's My Turn, opposite Michael Douglas. And her performance as a mother too into her heroin-addicted son in Bernardo Bertolucci's Luna was stunning. She was the lead in Costa Gavras' controversial Israli/Palestinian conflict drama Hanna K (which I've yet to see, but after checking this scene out, I will soon):
Then she made yet another now forgotten mark of brilliance as a TV journalist hooked on Valium in I'm Dancing as Fast As I Can, and as the first female Supreme Court nominee, opposite Walter Matthau, in the excellent, intelligent Ronald Neame film First Monday in October. But after that, she seemed to disappear from theaters (maybe as a victim of the 40-year-old actress curse). As many movie actresses do, she kept working on television, ultimately landing a prime parts in Nip/Tuck and the recent Dirty Sexy Money. She still has a final movie swan song in the can with the upcoming Edward Zwick comedy Love and Other Drugs (reason enough to see that film). Her final film appearance seems to be in Paul Feig's BRIDESMAIDS, where she joins a spectacular crew of actresses, playing lead Kristen Wiig's quirky mother.
I'll always wonder, though, what she looked like (angelic, I'm sure) singing "Love Song" alongside John Rubenstein on Broadway in Bob Fosse's Pippin. "Love Song" is a gorgeous bit of Broadway melody, and to have seen it sung partly by Clayburgh, well into her career on Broadway, would have been sublime. Here's the big scene, performed by William Katt and Leslie Denniston. If you can, imagine Jill in the lead here (and, no slam to Denniston, it's easy to do):
I have rarely seen a woman on screen I wanted to kiss, caress, and converse with more than Jill Clayburgh. I will truly miss her, and will always adore her.