The awkward 1970s leading lady: Happy Birthday, Jill Clayburgh

This was part of a larger series. I would throw a name at Mitchell, ask him to describe that person in “one word” and then we would discuss. Here’s our discussion on Jill Clayburgh.

SOM: One word.

MF: Awkward.

You know I have this whole thing about the 70s, and 70s filmmaking and 70s actresses. Jill Clayburgh, in much the same way Diane Keaton was, was so awkward. Even when she was playing women who were successful, she was still always a little bit awkward and unsure. She was this beautiful woman who wasn’t a knockout, she was a successful woman who wasn’t always competent. I think my favorite Jill Clayburgh movie is Starting Over with Burt Reynolds. It’s marvelous.

MF: Jill Clayburgh got to be famous in a very brief window of time that was tied to women’s liberation. She wasn’t famous for very long although she continued to work. She made An Unmarried Woman, and Starting Over, she played the first fictional woman on the Supreme Court in First Monday in October.

MF: She got to play grownups. She didn’t have to play child-brides or coquettish victims. She got to play grownup women with all of their power and neuroses intact, and not many people had that. Even Jane Fonda had to start as a sex kitten. Diane Keaton got to do it. The thing with Diane Keaton, of course, is that – not to take anything away from Diane Keaton – but she was Woody Allen‘s muse –

SOM: And Warren Beatty’s. She was tied to the two most powerful men in Hollywood at the time.

MF: She reaped the benefits of her incredibly interesting love life. Not that she didn’t deserve those parts, or that she slept her way to the top, but that the collaboration, emotionally, sexually, professionally, was fabulous, and she did it the way a man would do it. And she didn’t get shit for it. Like, “Look at Diane Keaton fucking to get a part.” She earned it. But that’s what Jill Clayburgh represents to me: the 70s woman. Diane Keaton, Jill Clayburgh, Jane Fonda… They got to play grownups. As the 80s came, and suddenly blockbusters came, and we had Tom Cruise, and Risky Business, suddenly an actress as beautiful and skilled as Rebecca De Mornay has to be a sex kitten for a horny teenager. We went backwards. Imagine if Rebecca De Mornay had become famous in the 70s. Imagine the roles she would have gotten.

MF: Jill Clayburgh escaped that. She started in the theatre, she was in the original Pippin, she comes up on my Shuffle every once in a while. And then she went back to the theatre, basically.

SOM: I loved seeing her in Bridesmaids.

MF: She’s so good and so real. It’s so sad that she passed away, in so many ways. Because, of course she’s playing Kristen Wiig‘s mother. Of course she is.

MF: In some ways, the character that Kristen Wiig is playing is the daughter of the neurotic “I hope I’m getting this right” character that Clayburgh played in the 70s. There’s a continuum there that I think is really great in Bridesmaids, and it would have been interesting to see her have that opportunity to play that in more dramatic parts. You know, play the mother of the daughter that she raised, in the Hollywood sense. There’s a daughter in An Unmarried Woman, and it would be interesting to see: where is she right now? How did her parents’ divorce and her mother’s response to it affect her life? It’d be interesting. One of the things I love about Catherine Deneuve‘s career is that she’s continuing to play interesting women who are the older versions of the women that we loved from her when she was younger.

MF: So many of Deneuve’s films are about what it must have been like to be such a beautiful woman. It is a part of her character. In France, they still revere her, and they revere women of a certain age, and in America we don’t. Jill Clayburgh wasn’t Rebecca DeMornay or Tawny Kitaen or Kelly LeBrock. She was a grownup woman playing grownup women, but after that brief window of time in the 70s, there was only room for Meryl Streep.

MF: Meryl Streep or Glenn Close but Glenn Close was sort of asexual in a lot of ways. She was either a sexual threat or she had no sex whatsoever. Except for the golden age of Hollywood when the studios made “women’s pictures”, there’s very little room for the female movie star.

MF: In a world that caters to blockbuster fan-boys, using the Kelly LeBrocks of the industry … in that world, there’s no place for Jill Clayburgh.

 
 
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8 Responses to The awkward 1970s leading lady: Happy Birthday, Jill Clayburgh

  1. I must say I somehow missed her passing so I’m saddened there won’t be any more great performances from one who, as you both say, didn’t get to do enough (not that any amount of her would have been enough!) My favorite performance of hers was in an early episode of the Rockford Files where she played a vaguely clueless hippy chick. It was exactly the kind of stereotypical TV role that might tempt an actress of her caliber to condescension but she played it with tremendous empathy. Like every other role she “got ” it, and got it in a way nobody else would have….made something workaday memorable.

    And I’m happy to see Rebecca De Mornay getting some love! I always liked her, but re-visiting some of her prime roles lately has given me a whole new appreciation.

    http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=8072

    Always love these conversations btw.

    • sheila says:

      NJ – that Rockford Files episode sounds great! I’m sure I saw it in its original release – it was a favorite of my dad’s, and often we watched it too – but I can’t remember it.

      She really was just so unique. If she had come along a decade earlier or a decade later, her career wouldn’t have happened. and that makes me sad. Such a brief window for what we would now condescendingly call “quirky” actresses – like Keaton and Clayburgh and Karen Black – to not be character actresses but STARS.

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    I’d include It’s My Turn among her best movies. And she had a terrific part on a Law & Order episode where she played a divorce lawyer so consumed by besting her opposing counsel (played by Tony Roberts) that she sells out her client, convincing her to plead guilty to a murder she didn’t commit. Very different from her 1970s star roles, but she keeps the character recognizably human, when so many others would have made her a monster.

  3. Todd Restler says:

    I saw An Unmarried Woman in the theater when I was 9. My parents took me to everything. I just remember it seeming so adult and real.

    What seared my brain to this day was Clayburgh’s reaction to her husband’s confession on a busy NY street.

    She’s so amazing there. She of course is crushed but acts like she doesn’t care, even laughing at her husband, as if to treat him like a pathetic loser. She does everything she can to maintain the upper hand in the situation. Of course she falls to pieces the minute she’s out of his sight (Does she throw up? I can’t remember. I think so.)

    I actually remember that from 43 years ago. That’s how good she was. I think it was the first time I actually was aware in the moment of this thing called “acting”, and that some people were really good at it.

  4. J Rado says:

    Has anybody written a biography of Jill Clayburgh would love to read a detail account of her life she was a terrific and beautiful actress God bless her

    • sheila says:

      Pretty sure no one has – it would be great, she was such a defining figure of that era, and it’d be great to have someone dig into why in an in-depth way.

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