When I think of Jill Clayburgh, I think of vomit.
Wait, let me rephrase that. I think of the celebrated scene in the 1978 movie "An Unmarried Woman" when the husband (Michael Murphy) of Clayburgh's character Erica tells her their marriage is over and she rushes to a street-corner trash can and discreetly upchucks. (That's right, he breaks the news in public.) Director Paul Mazursky could have turned it into a comic spew or merely a stricken look, but he didn't. In keeping with Clayburgh's finely-drawn mouseburger realism, Erica's puke becomes a messy, almost-contained spilling over of all the anxiety we carry with us every day, an anxiety that's finally realized and has no where else to go but up and out.
The indignity of it all, an indignity made worse by the husband himself breaking down in tears -- he's in love with another woman and he's miserable because Erica doesn't deserve a wretch like him, he's so sorry -- and thus denying the wife of the deserved melodrama of her own tantrum. Men: Always the victim, even of their own sins, a point another movie and another actress might have ruthlessly hammered home but that Clayburgh and "An Unmarried Woman" just let go. His pain is no longer hers. It's that simple and ultimately that liberating.
The men, you may recall, had their own revolution in the late 1960s, Dustin Hoffman leading the charge for the new menschlischkeit who overthrew the studs of the classic studio era. Behind him followed a lot of short, dark, and unhandsome -- the Elliott Goulds and Alan Arkins -- and wild cards like Jack Nicholson, who rose from B-movie weirdo to the constantly-firing nerve center of the New Hollywood. Actresses had to wait a while before they were allowed to back away from prettiness into believability, with Ellen Burstyn breaking ground in 1971's "The Last Picture Show" and 1974's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and Gena Rowlands scorching the earth in 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence." From them follow Norma Rae and the Goodbye Girl, Annie Hall and the Coal Miner's Daughter.
And Erica and her relatives, the characters Jill Clayburgh brought to life in her peak film run from 1976 to 1983, after graduating from Sarah Lawrence and making her mark on the New York stage in the 1960s. At her most popular, she appeared in ten movies in seven years. Some were duds of towering wrongheadedness -- who thought an actress who imbued averageness with unexpected grace could play the elegant Hollywood madcap Carole Lombard in 1976's "Gable and Lombard"? Others were failures of ambition: I'm glad I saw Clayburgh as an incestuous mom helping her son shoot up heroin in Bertolucci's "Luna" (1979), but I don't think I need to see it again. (Which is why I probably will.)
More interestingly, she was Hollywood's go-to romantic lead for a few years, the object of Gene Wilder's ardor in "Silver Streak" (1976) and a playful foil to Burt Reynolds in "Semi-Tough" (1977) and "Starting Over" (1979). The latter, a touchingly funny tale of divorced misfits, pitted sweetly neurotic Clayburgh against Candice Bergen, a sardonic glamour goddess in the classic mold and a woman who probably could have played Lombard. The movie left you with no doubts about where your sympathies should lie: With the rival most like you and me.
Well, it was the 70s, and we didn't trust glamour gods just then. The pendulum would swing back in the 1980s with the arrival of a new generation of strong actresses playing strong heroines: the Jodie Fosters and Susan Sarandons, the Glenn Closes and Jessica Langes. Can you imagine Clayburgh in the raucous, special-effects playland of the Reagan era, going up against aliens and the Ghostbusters as Sigourney Weaver did?
No, she was made for more nuanced times and less digestible truths. Do yourself a favor and rent "An Unmarried Woman" -- one of Clayburgh's two Oscar nominations (the other was for "Starting Over") and a film that has aged beautifully despite giving Erica an easy out in that raffish artist boyfriend played by Alan Bates. The film and its central performance are living, breathing relics of a time when we said we wanted our movie stars to be as much like us possible -- and we actually meant it.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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