Monday 23 April 2018

Jill Clayburgh

Actress who loved the stage made her name with a series of rounded portrayals of strong women

Jill Clayburgh, who died on November 5 aged 66, established her reputation as a serious actress in the Seventies, for her rounded portrayals of strong, independent women.

Her most famous role was probably in An Unmarried Woman (1978) as Erica -- the wife of a stockbroker who deserts her for a younger woman after 17 years of marriage. One critic declared: "The actress exudes a wealth of inner activity and an ample repertoire of fascinatingly changing expressions, better than any kind of static, conventional prettiness."

Clayburgh was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for that role, losing out to Jane Fonda; but she did share, with Isabelle Huppert, the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

She was born in New York City on April 30, 1944. Her father was a company vice-president, while her mother had worked for the producer David Merrick. Her paternal grandmother had been an opera singer. The family was well-off, and Jill was educated at Brearley, the exclusive all-girl establishment in Manhattan before going on to Sarah Lawrence College.

While still a student she appeared in an independently produced film, The Wedding Party, alongside a young Robert de Niro. She then studied acting in Manhattan with Uta Hagen and gained experience with the Charles Playhouse in Boston, where she met and fell in love with Al Pacino.

She made her debut on Broadway as Hannah Cohen in the successful musical The Rothschilds (1970). A decision to try her luck in Los Angeles led to a part in a screen adaptation of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1972) before she returned to Broadway to appear in another musical, Pippin. This was followed by the role of Dottie Moore in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers in 1974.

Clayburgh's breakthrough came when she was offered the part of the prostitute Wanda in the television film Hustling, which saw her nominated for an Emmy. "I played this whore as funny, sensitive, childlike, and quite mad -- a girl who just doesn't know how to make it, a state I know something about," she said in an interview at the time.

Subsequent films included Gable and Lombard (1976), in which she portrayed the screen star Carole Lombard; Silver Streak (also 1976), alongside Gene Wilder; and Semi-Tough (1977), in which, according to one critic, she came across as "that rare commodity among young American film stars, an actress who is sexy without being merely a sex object".

It was a quality which appealed to Paul Mazursky when he was seeking an actress to play the heroine of An Unmarried Woman. "I was looking for three qualities," he later recalled. "Vulnerability, intelligence and a sexuality that wasn't brazen."

After her success in An Unmarried Woman Jill Clayburgh appeared in La Luna, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who praised her ability "to move from one extreme to the other in the same shot, be funny and dramatic within the same scene". Her performance in the same year, in Starting Over, as a schoolmistress who falls for a divorced man (Burt Reynolds) brought her a second Oscar nomination.

Clayburgh was better known in the latter part of her career for television work.

She was Calista Flockhart's mother in Ally McBeal and, more recently, appeared with Donald Sutherland in the series Dirty Sexy Money. She continued to appear on stage.

Clayburgh had been suffering from leukaemia for many years. She married, in 1979, the playwright David Rabe, who survives her with their son and their daughter, the actress Lily Rabe.

Sunday Independent

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