Tuesday, February 7

Glenda Jackson

She burst onto the world scene in the late 1960s with her independence, intelligence, slightly androgynous looks and saucer-like, mocha nipples, all of which were in full bloom in most of her subsequent movies. For my money, I didn't think I'd ever seen anyone quite like her. The 1970s were unquestionably her most acclaimed decade. By the early 1990s she was doing TV movies and then said goodbye to it all and went into politics.  What a career!  What an actress! What a woman!

She was born in Cheshire, England, in 1936. to a working-class family.  Dad was a bricklayer and Mom worked as a cleaner and held some retail jobs.  Despite Jackson's eventual ties with the powerful in both acting and politics, she never lost those early values nor did she attach much importance to the high life.

As a teen the acting bug bit her and she performed with a local drama group.  Like her mama, she worked in retail where she claims her greatest ambition was to work at the cosmetics counter. But at the same time she had applied and was accepted at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She then appeared in repertory for six years or so with most everyone declaring her a revelation.

She was just 22 when she married in 1957 to Roy Hodges, a Labour Party advisor and commentator and later political blogger. The marriage, her only, would last until 1976, and produce her only son, Daniel, in 1969. 

Movie work began in the mid 50s with a couple of turns as an extra (nothing exciting) and some guest roles on the telly.  During this time she appeared far more on the stage.  It's fair to say the first time anyone noticed her on any screen was in 1967 in Marat/Sade where she played Charlotte Corday, a waif-like narcoleptic who murders de Sade.  She had also played the role earlier on the stage.

I first saw her in 1968 in a film playing at a local art house. Negatives starred Peter McEnery and Diane Cilento who were my reasons for attending.  Jackson and McEnery are a married couple who constantly argue and have lots of sex. Cilento enters their relationship after the couple learns she has been secretly photographing them.  It was a dreary thing but I was happy about my introduction to Jackson.  I saw her as someone in a league all her own.

I was immediately drawn to her strength. Could it have been any more obvious... then or ever?  We know how attracted I have always been to smart-mouthed actresses and while Jackson's characters were that as well, strength is really what needs to be captured.  And it was a strength that was in tandem with a fierce intelligence.  I think she was a woman's woman, as one refers to some men as a man's man.  Her characters were most always strong, smart and forthright.  

I'm also fairly certain men, overall, were not so attracted to her because of the strong/smart/forthright issues and because she wasn't soft or some glamorpuss.  On the other hand, many of her roles were highly sexualized, some bordering on being a dominatrix, so maybe there was a following there. 

Super fame came with Women in Love (1969) and so did an Oscar. Never had any woman ever won the big prize for being so nude in a film.  It's even more astonishing when one considers she was five months' pregnant.  One would certainly never forget the nude male wrestling scene either.  Based on D. H. Lawrence's provocative novel of 1920s love relationships, it was Jackson's first work under flamboyant director Ken Russell, making only his third film.  The plot concerned two best friends in love with sisters, resulting in very different lives. Gorgeously photographed, the film and its stars, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Jackson (as the ball-buster Gudrun) and Jennie Linden, created international sensations.  

The following year she teamed with Russell the second time for The Music Lovers. Richard Chamberlain plays composer Tchaikovsky who is so tortured by being gay that he marries a nymphomaniac (guess who?) whom he cannot satisfy.  It apparently had some wonderful music and a lot of angst and I was told by my buddies at the time to avoid seeing it, as they'd wished they had. Still, I am determined to see it one day.

A watershed year came to the actress in 1971, beginning with the TV miniseries Elizabeth R in which Jackson won a very deserving Emmy playing Elizabeth I.  She went on to an Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning role in Sunday Bloody Sunday, co-starring Peter Finch, which hopefully you'll recall just reading. She did a cameo for Russell in Twiggy's The Boy Friend.  And finally, again as Queen Elizabeth, she was sensational opposite an equally-impressive Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots.

Jackson was reunited with Finch for The Nelson Affair (Bequest to a Nation in Britain) 1973.  The story of the love affair between the aristocratic Lord Nelson and the vulgar Lady Hamilton was a better showcase for Finch than Jackson and she thought she was positively dreadful in it.  She felt about the same playing legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt three years later in The Great Sarah. Neither film did particularly well at the box office.

I couldn't believe that she took second billing in 1973 to George Segal in A Touch of Class but I was shocked that she won another Oscar for it.  And judging by the audience reaction at the ceremonies, so was everyone else.  She was the best thing about it, ok, but it was merely a routine comedy, the kind Hollywood grinds out when there are no better scripts.  Perhaps she won because the voters were simply so shocked that she could even do comedy.  She and Segal were reunited for a second comedy in 1979, Lost and Found, which is fairly unmemorable.

I thought Jackson and Michael Caine were a good match in the unexpectedly involving The Romantic Englishwoman (1975).  The story examined a marriage where the wife strays. That same year Jackson copped her final Oscar nomination for a brilliant piece of work in Hedda (1975). Gee, how could anyone have thought of her to play the strong-willed, control-freak that Henrik Ibsen created as Hedda Gabler

After those dramas she went back to comedies, one of which was Nasty Habits (1977).  The story of two nuns vying for a promotion to Mother Superior was amusing but the great joy was the cast.... Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Anne Jackson and Anne Meara joined Jackson.  It must have been a warm set considering the acting husbands of Page (Rip Torn), Anne Jackson (Eli Wallach) and Meara (Jerry Stiller) were all aboard as well.

Two more comedies came, both of which costarred Walter Matthau, House Calls (1978) and Hopscotch (1980).  I couldn't believe she was paired with him (of course I tended to think that with all actresses who were his leading ladies) and twice, no less. In both films he was trying hard to play Cary Grant and she was certainly channeling a young Katharine Hepburn... very well, in fact, but both films are forgettable.

She had one of her softest roles in Stevie (1978), as the emotionally-challenged British poet, Stevie Smith, who lives with her eccentric aunt (Mona Washbourne). Hopefully all Jackson
fans have seen this special work.

Director Robert Altman with his three Health leading actresses

It's said that Jackson walked away from acting at the height of her career in 1992 but that is simply not true.  Her legendary films are all in the late 60s and 70s and things had started slipping by the 80s... beginning with a super flop, Health.  Robert Altman's political satire was released in the months surrounding the 1980 U.S. presidential primaries.  Cigar-chomping Jackson and dedicated virgin Lauren Bacall were rival candidates with James Garner, Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett and Alfre Woodard filling in the spaces of the episodic comedy. Of course I found some favor with it because of this megawatt cast.

TV's The Patricia Neal Story (1981) was a tour-de-force for Jackson and rightly got her an Emmy nomination.  She nailed it as the award-winning actress who suffered and recovered from debilitating strokes.  Dirk Bogarde was wonderful as Neal's husband, kiddie lit author Roald Dahl.  You may have read about Neal earlier here.

The last note-worthy project that I saw of Jackson's is actually one of my favorite roles of hers although I suspect in a film that was largely unseen.  The Return of the Soldier (1982) co-starred Julie Christie, Ann-Margret and Alan Bates.  The bleak story concerns Bates' return from WWI, shell-shocked and with amnesia, married to Christie but longing for Jackson, a past love.  Despite Jackson's longtime nonchalance about her acting, there is no doubt this woman brought a humanity to all her wonderful work.

She still worked as an actress for another 10 years although it was spotty and mainly in television.  She was being drawn elsewhere. The dew had come off the blossom for acting and it had never been there for the side show.  I was never part of the glitzy, glamoury, showbizzy part of the entertainment world, she said. I don't think I could ever have been.  It wouldn't have interested me and you know... I wouldn't have been very good at it.

In 1992 when she won a seat in the British House of Commons, she was expected to bring glamor and celebrity to the Labour party and she brought neither. She didn't even wear makeup while she dug in to the everyday life of a constituency MP. She was a fearless politician, determined to get rid of Margaret Thatcher and delighted in opposing Tony Blair.  I may have heard something about her once or twice in 25 years.

Today, after 
saying so long to politics, she lives in the basement of her son's home while she returned to stage acting, most recently in King Lear, in the title role, no less. She had this to say: I've been away from it (acting) for 25 years and I was moaning when I left at the lack of how creative writers don't find women interesting.  They are always adjunct to the male driving dramatic energy and I come back after 25 years and it's exactly the same

I take no exception to that but I hope that this phenomenal, nearly 81-year old actress sees fit to return to the movies.  She says the stuff she's been sent isn't worth her time but adds we shall see. Oh yes, yes, yes, let's see. What a dazzling event that would be.

Next posting:
A movie review

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