Although she would devote most of her forty-year career to film, twice Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh (b. New York, NY, 30 April 1944; d. Lakeville, CT, 5 November 2010) began her career on Broadway in two hit musicals, The Rothschilds (1970, 507 performances) and the record-breaking Pippin (1972, 1,944 performances). She reached the pinnacle of her popularity in the late 1970s, portraying complex, independent, but edgy women representative of the New Age feminist movement (An Unmarried Woman 1978, Starting Over 1979).
Jill Clayburgh was raised on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side, went to the prestigious Brearley School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Sarah Lawrence College in 1966. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrial textile executive and a former secretary to theatrical producer David Merrick. Her paternal grandmother was socialite and opera singer Alma Lachenbruch Clayburgh.
Before her graduation from college, Clayburgh had already made her screen debut in The Wedding Party (1963, released 1969), written and directed partly by fellow Sarah Lawrence student Brian De Palma. The film also marked Robert De Niro’s debut as well as that of Clayburgh’s college friend Jennifer Salt. In 1966 she went to Boston to join the Charles Street Repertory Theater, where she remained for a year. There she met and worked with Al Pacino; they moved together to New York and maintained their relationship for five years, appearing in a N.Y.P.D. episode in November 1968. Meanwhile Clayburgh studied acting at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village.
Her Broadway debut was in an ill-starred play, The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson (December 1968), that lasted no more than five performances, but nonetheless introduced her successfully into the professional theatre world. She was cast as Hannah Cohen, the love object and eventual wife of Nathan Rothschild in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1970 musical The Rothschilds. Two years later she was featured as Catherine, the sympathetic mate to the hapless hero of Stephen Schwartz’s hit musical Pippin, singing “Kind of Woman” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” Neither of these roles was satisfactorily meaty, however, and after a few ventures into television (including Search for Tomorrow and CBS Daytime 90), she decided to focus her energies on film.
She could not have chosen a better time. As she remarked in an Associated Press interview promoting Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman in 1978, “There was practically nothing for women to do on the screen in the 1950s and 1960s … Sure, Marilyn Monroe was great, but she had to play a one-sided character, a vulnerable sex object. It was a real fantasy.” In An Unmarried Woman, Clayburgh’s character, Erica, is an apparently contented housewife and mother who is suddenly confronted with her husband’s infidelity and demand for a divorce. She ultimately finds a new life, a new lover, and independence. Not only did this role bring Clayburgh an Oscar® nomination and the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, but it solidified her as the perfect representative of the liberated woman in an all-too-familiar predicament. “I guess people look at me and they think I’m a ladylike character,” she told The New York Times in 1982. “But it’s not what I do best. I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams.”
The following year she was again nominated for an Academy Award, for Starting Over (1979) with Burt Reynolds. Also in 1979, she married screenwriter David Rabe, in whose 1982 drama I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can she starred.
Among the fifty-odd pictures she made for both large and small screens were Gable and Lombard (1976) with James Brolin, Griffin and Phoenix (1976) with Peter Falk, Silver Streak (1976) with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, First Monday in October (1981) with Walter Matthau (she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress), Shy People (1987) with Barbara Hershey, and Running with Scissors (2006) with Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin. Television series have included The Rockford Files, Law & Order, Frasier, Leap of Faith, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Dirty Sexy Money. She received Emmy Award nominations for her part in the made-for-television movie Hustling in 1975 and for guest appearances in the series Nip/Tuck in 2005.
Jill Clayburgh never appeared in another Broadway musical, but she did return four times to the Great White Way in “straight” plays: Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (1974), the 1984 revival of Noël Coward’s Design for Living with Raul Julia and Frank Langella, Richard Greenberg’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way (2005), and, in a final blaze of glory, the revival in 2006 of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park.
When Clayburgh died in November 2010 from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, she had been suffering from the disease for twenty-one years. The movie Love and Other Drugs (2010), in which she played the mother of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, was dedicated to her memory. Clayburgh’s last appearance was in the film Bridesmaids (released 2011). She is survived by husband David Rabe, their daughter, actress Lily Rabe (b. 1982), son Michael Rabe (b. 1986), and Clayburgh’s stepson, Jason Rabe.
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection