Born in Manhattan in 1944, her wealthy family consisted of a Jewish, textile salesman father and a Protestant mother who was Broadway producer David Merrick's secretary and also a part-time actress. Young Jill had the finest education including Brearley School and Sarah Lawrence College where she first caught the acting bug.
After college she joined the Charles Street Repertory Theater in Boston where she received most of her training. She moved back to New York in the late 60s and began appearing in a number of productions including the original The Rothschilds and Pippin.
She rather easily secured work in television as well (including a year-long stint in the soap, Search for Tomorrow) and then made her first big-screen movie, The Wedding Party (1969), a slight effort, which was also the first film for Robert DeNiro. An early Brian D'Palma directorial effort, it concerned a man with second thoughts about marrying.
From 1970-75, she lived with Al Pacino. Living with a fellow actor of his enormous talent, even if most of his work was still ahead of him, must have helped steer Clayburgh in some positive directions. You couldn't prove that by her small role in Portnoy's Complaint (1972), which was not a very good film, or The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973). where she did sparkle some in another small part but everyone was watching Jacqueline Bisset and Ryan O'Neal.
I liked Gable and Lombard (1976), a corny and sentimental look at two of Hollywood's biggest superstars of the 1930s, but it didn't fare too well because people thought it was too corny and sentimental and simply off-the-mark. I, of course, give most movies about Hollywood a look-see and almost always like them at some level. I thought she and James Brolin, both pretty minor league at the time, were good.
One reason Clayburgh played Carole Lombard so well was that in so many ways the young actress was like the 30s icon... and also another one from the same decade, Jean Arthur. In fact, I thought Clayburgh resembled Arthur. All three were smart or canny but still a bit daffy and yet warm and sophisticated. All had that touch of sarcasm along with wittiness. I loved watching those old Arthur and Lombard flicks and Clayburgh appeared to fill their shoes and fill a bit of a void. I determined to stick with her films and see what happened.
Her upward swing clearly began with Silver Streak, a comedy-thriller, that although tame by today's standards, was a fun romp in 1976. Her appearance supports the above paragraph. The film had several things going for it. It was a train movie, first of all. It seems to me that this is a plot that has served cinema quite well forever. There is nothing like sinister folks, murder and mayhem on a speeding train. Let's do emphasize speeding since that fact allows for one of the great finales in my memory that finds me usually gripping my seat in anticipation. The one thing different here from most of the other train flicks is that we laugh a lot. And we all needed a good laugh at the time, for sure.
This is the first and I say the best of the four Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor pairings. It would not have been the same movie without them. I hate to say it, considering this is a piece about Clayburgh, but she doesn't get quite the same plaudits as the guys do or the film itself. It's not that she didn't deliver the goods but her role was little more than the love interest.
Semi-Tough (1977) is a rom-com that has her as an independent football owner's daughter living with two professional players (Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson) in a platonic relationship that takes on a different hue when one of them makes a pass. She deserved better... and it was coming up next.
Clayburgh won the hearts of audiences, particularly female audiences, for An Unmarried Woman (1978). It is an acting triumph for the actress and the film for which she is best-remembered. She played what she came from, an upper crust New Yorker. Her husband leaves her for a younger woman and she goes through an emotional period of re-evaluation, attempting to discover who she is and who she wants to be. Clayburgh displays such perfect vulnerability. She coaxes us into caring about her and her welfare, especially as she takes baby steps in embracing a new relationship, while putting her new man through a little of the hell she's been through. Nods must also go to Michael Murphy as the scumbag ex and Alan Bates as the sexy artist new beau.
|With Alan Bates & Paul Mazursky on the set of An Unmarried Woman|
Director Paul Mazursky was looking for someone who projected strength, independence and likeability. He remembered having her read for roles in two of his previous pictures. She didn't get either but the point was that he remembered her. The film stands as her best work and put her in line for awhile as one of those actresses directors thought of for showy roles as strong, independent women. She eschewed the label of feminist while offering that she thought she did her best work playing women who were coming apart at the seams but climbed back up. She was rightfully nominated for her first Academy Award.
One wonders why she turned down another role of a fiercely independent woman, Norma Rae (1979), but Sally Field is probably glad she did. Clayburgh elected to appear in Luna that same year because she wanted to work with Bernardo Bertolucci in the glamour role of an internationally-famous opera star who almost has an incestuous relationship with her son. It gathered some momentum on the art house circuit.
She gained another Oscar nomination for Starting Over (1979), again with Reynolds, and again, as an unmarried woman. But this time she likes her status as a spinster schoolteacher who deliberately keeps herself dowdy so as to not be hurt by another relationship.
Also in 1979 she married playwright David Rabe. She first encountered him in 1973, while she was still with Pacino, when she auditioned for and was turned down for his play In the Boom Boom Room. By all accounts is was a good partnership.
I don't know why her films of the 80s didn't do so well at the box office but they didn't. She sparkled as a math professor who has an affair with an ex-baseball player, Michael Douglas, in It's My Turn (1980). First Monday in October (1981), in which she played the first female Supreme Court justice, is the only one of all the films mentioned here that I didn't see. It took a gargantuan effort to get me to any movie starring Walter Matthau. I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982) was adapted by Rabe from Barbara Gordon's autobiographical bestseller about a working woman withdrawing from Valium addiction. Unfortunately, few others wanted to dance.
Then Clayburgh more or less slipped off the big screen radar. There was a couple of decent films left, but mostly she did movies that few have heard of and had a number of parts where she was listed way down in the cast. She always appeared on television but she certainly did more of it at this point, both guest shots and recurring appearances on Ally McBeal, Leap of Faith, The Practice, Nip and Tuck and Dirty, Sexy Money.
What happened? Some liked to say she accepted too many poor-quality scripts, but that's more of an effect than a cause. Why was she no longer getting the choice stuff? What happened to being the poster girl for women's causes? She apparently made a statement to the effect that if she didn't get better roles, she'd rather not work. Clearly not the swiftest of moves and certainly a case for be careful what you wish for. The good offers, by and large, did not come.
She didn't work for five or so years in the 80s due to or at least said to be due to raising her family. The Rabes now had two children, one of whom, Lily Rabe, grew up to be an actress who became well-known for her appearances opposite Jessica Lange on television's American Horror Story.
Then, as if her employment opportunities weren't sketchy enough, around 1990 she discovered she had leukemia. I don't recall how public that knowledge was but if it was, it couldn't have done her a lot of good. Insurance becomes an issue and audiences don't embrace seeing those who are ill in romantic roles.
One thing, of course, that most actors suffered from in the 70s and onward is a lack of a contract with one of those huge studios that kept their troops on payroll and in the public eye. Many actors in the 70s and since seem as though they're disposed of pretty cavalierly. Too bad.
With all this said, I enjoyed these next four films and her performances in them. She wanted to work for Costa-Gavras because he showcased women so well but Hanna K (1983) but it is one of his least-successful films. Clayburgh hit all the signals as a lawyer in conflict with her Israeli ex-husband and a Palestinian over an ancestral home but the film languished at the box office.
Shy People (1987) is my second favorite Clayburgh film. She plays a magazine writer who convinces her editor to let her write a series of articles about her roots. She and her daughter (Martha Plimpton) travel to the Louisiana bayou region and discover a long-lost cousin (Barbara Hershey) living in poverty. The difference in cultures proves difficult for all concerned. It is a wonderful film, with three exciting female performances, that has been sadly overlooked.
Dysfunctional families who live in big southern mansions surrounded by weeping willow trees are always to my liking which then brings us to Rich in Love (1992). Clayburgh plays the wife of Albert Finney and she leaves him and her family high and dry because that life is no longer to her liking. Found among the steamy tensions are Piper Laurie, Kathryn Erbe, Kyle MacLachlan, Ethan Hawke and Suzy Amis.
Ryan Murphy directed and adapted Augusten Burroughs' amusingly odd autobiographical work, Running with Scissors (2006). It focuses on a young boy who is sent to live with his mother's weirdo psychiatrist when she feels his home life is too chaotic. Clayburgh has a smaller role as the shrink's daft wife. It was sad to see the rather insignificant roles she had in the comedies, Love and Other Drugs (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011). Both were released posthumously.
Jill Clayburgh Rabe passed away on November 5, 2011, from leukemia at her home in Connecticut. She was 66 years old.