Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010)

Posted by · 9:39 am · November 6th, 2010

It’s odd to think that younger readers may principally recognize Jill Clayburgh, the New York City-born actress who passed away yesterday after a long battle with leukemia, from her Emmy-nominated role in TV’s “Nip/Tuck” — where she played Bobbi Broderick, a vengeful victim of unsuccessful liposuction, done in the hope of securing a job ahead of younger, thinner rivals.

It was a sharp, upsetting performance, all the more haunting because it was easy to imagine Bobbi as the soured middle-aged self of Erica Benton, the unaffected, sexually liberated divorcée she played, to career-making effect, in Paul Mazursky’s 1978 romantic dramedy “An Unmarried Woman.”

The film is rarely spoken of today, but Clayburgh’s immense performance, balancing sweetly goofy comedy with stabs of untempered pain and anger, was something of a feminist touchstone for the depiction of “real” women in American cinema — she won Best Actress at Cannes for her efforts, and was nominated for an Oscar that unwisely went to Jane Fonda instead.

Clayburgh carved a niche for herself as the go-to actress for put-upon contemporary female characters in such films as “Starting Over” (landing her a second consecutive Oscar nod), “It’s My Turn” and “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can,” though neither she nor the films quite matched the heights of “An Unmarried Woman,” and her stardom slipped somewhat. In the 1990s, she interestingly took on flipside of that abandoned-wife character, playing instead a middle-class mom who leaves her entirely family without warning, in Bruce Beresford’s underrated domestic drama “Rich in Love.”

From then on, it was mainly the small screen that beckoned, though she received some notice for her tangy supporting work in “Running With Scissors” (the feature directing debut of “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy, plainly a fan of the actress), and will say her posthumous farewell to cinema audiences in the upcoming “Love and Other Drugs.”

I encourage you to take this opportunity to seek out “An Unmarried Woman,” however — and not just for sentimental reasons. The film now creaks here and there, but there aren’t many mainstream Hollywood pictures today that would take such a microscopic perspective to an ostensibly unremarkable female protagonist, or at least one made remarkable chiefly via the nuances and fractures of a single performance.

[Photo: PopMatters]

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10 responses so far

  • 1 11-06-2010 at 10:50 am

    Edward L. said...

    Sad to hear this news. She was the female lead in one of my favourite childhood films, Silver Streak (still a very nice film, in fact), and I’ve always liked her. I’m also a big admirer of her performance in Bertolucci’s La luna – she is unlikeable, pained, crazed, vulnerable – a spectacular, very brave performance.

  • 2 11-06-2010 at 11:31 am

    gilda said...

    An unmarried woman was a groundbreaking movie at that time–and she was unforgettable. Still remember the scene when her husband tells her on the street that he’s in love with someone else and she vomits into a trash can. Scenes with her and Alan Bates were fantastic–she was wonderful at displaying vulnerability as well as strength.

  • 3 11-06-2010 at 1:37 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Can’t say I share your support for either an Unmarried Woman or Clayburgh in it, though I haven’t seen it in years. Still, sad to hear of her passing.

  • 4 11-06-2010 at 2:29 pm

    billybil said...

    I think Edward caught the essence of what I found special about Jill Clayburgh’s performances – brave. She is one of the best at being “real” to me – establishing and maintaining a every-day truthfulness in her work that certainly reflects an independent film approach to screen acting. I think she stumbled upon a few starring roles which set her apart a bit and perhaps established unrealistic expectations for a career trajectory. I suppose she seems like the Catherine Keener of her time but with a couple of “big” movie breaks (or choices). I’m glad she continued to work but I think she was one of those actresses in America who never get as much work as they should because her “type” of work just isn’t written enough in our country.

    I think it’s quite nice that a bloke from across the seas wrote such an appreciative notice upon her passing. International cinema is a great thing, isn’t it? And you know how I feel about you, Mr. Lodge.

  • 5 11-06-2010 at 2:50 pm

    gilda said...

    She won the best actress award at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman (French translation was Une femme libre) and my Belgian cousins all remembered her fondly today, so perhaps she was appreciated in Europe more than here.

  • 6 11-06-2010 at 5:10 pm

    Mayukh said...

    Phenomenal actress. She charmed the hell out of me in Starting Over. I think Jane Fonda sure as hell deserved her Oscar – I’m not a huge fan of An Unmarried Woman – but I was shocked and so saddened to hear this news. Really a terrible loss, hopefully a reevaluation of her career will happen soon.

  • 7 11-07-2010 at 11:29 am

    kel said...

    she kinda looked like Diane Keaton…

  • 8 11-07-2010 at 5:54 pm

    caleb roth said...

    I can’t see why one has to dismiss Jane Fonda’s marvelous performance only to praise Clayburgh. You don’t need to mention Fonda to do it. Clayburgh was good enough to have an obituary that doesn’t make a case for one performance that was not as good as the one who took the prize. It’s not time to discuss old Oscar seasons. Her career was much more than it.

  • 9 11-07-2010 at 6:10 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    In my defence, it was an aside, not a discussion. But your point is noted.

  • 10 11-07-2010 at 8:52 pm

    Sean said...

    Clayburgh was a class act! I admire her greatly.

    Yes, she should have won over Fonda. Coming Home was one of her weaker performances especially The China Syndrome.