Birthday Girls: Jill Clayburgh
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1979 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field for Norma Rae)
Why I Waited: I waver on screenwriter James Brooks and director Alan Pakula, wasn't wowed by An Unmarried Woman, and rarely make a habit of movies headlined by Burt Reynolds. I didn't anticipate disliking Starting Over but couldn't find a good hook, either, aside from some curiosity about the Oscar-nodded supporting turn by Candice Bergen.
The Performance: Fairly soon in this cycle, I'll have reason to comment on a Marsha Mason performance, but since Clayburgh is popping up first, I'll say this now: between the awards seasons of 1977 and 1981, Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason combined for five Academy Award nominations and seven Golden Globe nominations as leading actresses, each of them enjoying one Globe year apiece of being nominated in the dramatic and the comedic races simultaneously. For awards junkies, and for a very specific period, these are defining performers. For almost anyone else, or at any other time, they absolutely aren't. Their services were so eagerly sought that they both turned down the title role in Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won the Oscar over this second of Clayburgh's two nominations. Mason was also included in this field, for a film called Chapter Two, which not only sports as thuddingly generic a title as Starting Over, it practically sounds like the same movie. Mason is angular whereas Clayburgh, even in Sven Nykvist's typically strong lighting for Starting Over, looks like you're seeing her through gauze. They are not the same actor, but they have had virtually the same career. I notice that in their later, way-off-the-radar projects, Mason has played governors and senators and Clayburgh has played judges. If you've seen their work, you know the reverse would never work, but that clear, micro-scale difference doesn't change their macro-sameness, or how instantly, equally eligible these ostensible movie stars suddenly seemed for the drabbest, most functional parts in the business.
The only actresses I can think of from the 80s who were so suddenly ubiquitous and then quite abruptly weren't are Debra Winger and Kathleen Turner, but they both come across as too hot and temperamental for Hollywood to handle. Clayburgh and Mason, quite to the contrary, seem so understated in their appeal that you don't wonder what happened to them so much as you wonder what shifted for a beat in Hollywood that buoyed them so fleetingly near its peak. In this regard, Clayburgh raises a more complex riddle, because it wasn't just Hollywood that came calling: political provocateurs like Costa-Gavras, indie feminists like Claudia Weill, and Continental voluptuaries like Bernando Bertolucci all handed plum roles to her. How I wish Bertolucci's La luna, made the same year as Starting Over, had been the vehicle to pique AMPAS's attention, because then I could have screened a movie with this plot thumbnail, c/o IMDb: "While touring in Italy, a recently-widowed American opera singer has an incestuous relationship with her 15-year-old son to help him overcome his heroin addiction." But instead, what's on the menu is a cozy dramedy about a recent divorcé (Reynolds) who gets fixed up with a quietly plucky kindergarten teacher his age (Clayburgh), only he can't quite relinquish the idea of making things work with his sexier ex (Bergen), a key-challenged singer-songwriter who's nonetheless on the verge of a big break. From the writer who brought you Terms of Endearment, sure, but also, somewhat mystifyingly, from the director at the helm of Klute and The Parallax View and the cinematographer of Cries and Whispers.
Even brooders and paranoiacs, I suppose, need to ease up on the pedal from time to time, and if you can get past a script that's even more sexist than the one Brooks wrote for As Good As It Gets, Starting Over is actually kind of charming. You can trace a lot of the charm to Clayburgh, whose trademark soft-sell approach to the character works better for me here than in her career-making role in An Unmarried Woman, where I wanted someone more intrepid, more forthrightly interested in complexity. Here, Clayburgh's vagueness keeps the good-sport teacher from being too clichéd a lifeforce, or an obvious audience favorite. Beyond what's indicated in the script, Clayburgh's haziness provides a real alternative to Bergen: she's nicer, warmer, and more stable, yes, but it's tricky to fault the Reynolds character for wanting a little more sleekness and jazz.
All three principal actors, whatever their individual drawbacks, and in tandem with one of the era's most renowned stewards of film performance, exude promise and engagingly modest appeal as they explore multiple sides of their roles. Whereas Reynolds and Bergen are tasked to make their characters palatable, and maybe to file a calling-card for more grown-up roles, Clayburgh's challenge is to make the "nice" woman a bit more layered. To this end, she shows a deft hand at adding simple grace notes to her body language and inflections, and she succeeds at making the character funny, at least often enough that you keep paying attention. Her intro is as showy as they come. Thinking that Reynolds is stalking her on a dark suburban street, when in fact he's making his way to the same blind-date dinner party that she is, Clayburgh's first line is, "Get the fuck away from me, I have a knife, I'll cut your fuckin' balls off, so help me!" That's a gimme, but she cleverly mixes abashedness and annoyance when Reynolds quotes her verbatim to their friends: "A really well-bred person wouldn't have repeated that," she deadpans, and that's closer to the note she holds in her stronger scenes. On her first proper date with Reynolds, whom she isn't convinced she likes (and nor are we), she blurts out on the subject of wanting children, "If you're over 35 and you have your first baby, all your tubes fall out or something." One cannot be sure if she's embarrassed at saying something she means or something she doesn't, or if she just finds the whole notion of a procreative future a bit funny, after being alone so long that she decorates her apartment more like her schoolroom than she probably realizes.
We all know the sitcommy beats of Brooks' writing, even when, as in Terms, he's working from someone else's novel. So, you can more or less predict that Clayburgh will get two more tantrums, some tears, a form of betrayal just as she's getting comfortable, and a lot of wry comments along the way: e.g., she feels that Reynolds's frankly expressed desire to have sex with her would feel less endocrine and more personal if he appended, "I want to have sex with you, Marilyn." Clayburgh handles all of this just fine, even if you couldn't fairly accuse her of surfeiting the character with personality. As usual, she's basically the vessel of the script, and I'd love her to have pushed more. No one's expecting Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, but even MacLaine and Winger in Terms thrived by coloring amply outside their lines. Clayburgh pushes, but only in small ways: getting a laugh out of pointedly dropping her groceries, inwardly taking her lumps after a streak of profanity in front of her pupils and their parents, and sneaking in some genuine middle-aged wisdom during a quick, almost whispered aside about being frightened by one man's lack of even rudimentary self-knowledge. She's spot-on during an important scene where Reynolds takes a call from Bergen during Thanksgiving dinner. Any actor would grasp the annoyance of being downplayed in your new lover's overheard chat with a recent ex, but Clayburgh also captures the masochism of how some women convince themselves they'll be rewarded for looking sunny and accommodating in the shadow of a rival, or in response to obvious callousness.
Yet it's hard, finally, not to think of the actress and not just the character as perpetrating that very error in judgment: that she'll stay ahead, that she'll be durably loved, if she sands down her idiosyncrasies (what are Jill Clayburgh's idiosyncrasies?) and dutifully stands by her screenplay, in sickness and in health. She peppers her lurking blandness enough that she deserves points not just for trying but for raising the film up a notch on the meter of unconfrontational entertainment. Her husbandry of the jokes is steady, she's a competent manager of sticky sentiment, and she in no way begs for the spotlight. And so it's with some irony that, despite earning praise the year before for playing an emboldened singleton, Jill Clayburgh's virtues as an actor amount to being a kind of good wife to scripts like the one for Starting Over, with all the retrogressive, self-effacing connotations that a phrase like "good wife" can entail. Unfortunately, what the role and the movie and a lot of other movies could really use is a proudly inventive mistress.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 33 to Go