Friday, April 30, 2010

Birthday Girls: Jill Clayburgh

Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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

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Blogger Laika said...

Ah, the strange case of Marsha Mason - four oscar nominations to Gena Rowlands' two, and over the same period.

Something strange was going on with actresses in the seventies - it sometimes seems like there were fewer good leading roles for them then in any other period of American film-making, with even Sissy Spacek and Faye Dunaway forced to take what they could get between the odd legendary role, and yet somehow Mason, Clayburgh, Fields and Jane Alexander were all able to carve out their niches. And Sybil Shepherd was briefly a big star, whilst Anne Bacroft and Shirley MacLaine more or less sat out the decade, bar a Turning Point or two. Clearly, your best bet was to hook up with a director.

Thanks for this entire run of articles - here's hoping they keep coming.

5:24 AM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

This is almost painful. Post after post I realize how little I actually know about movies. The good thing is that that means there is so much for me to see and learn although some things are probably not worth the time. I didn't know Clayburgh and I only know Mason because she (well, kind of) posts at Nathaniel's site.

I have to admit, it's fun to read about a film or a performance I haven't seen. It's cerainly better than reading your negative comments on some of my loved ones. :p

Anyway, lovely piece. I'm going to look up all the unknown words (100?). I would say you're such a great teacher of both film and the English language (especially for a foreigner like me) but that's kind of your official occupation, so it probably goes without saying. But I said it anyway. :)

I really hope "How Do You Know" will be good especially because I want an impressive comeback for Nicholson.

5:34 AM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger Bill C said...

Saw STARTING OVER on a Pakula kick a few years back. (Now there's a frustrating director.) I barely remember any scene you quoted, and find that I get the film mixed up with THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, just because Bergen here seems like the prototype for Kathleen Turner in that.

I find Clayburgh so embodies the touchy-feely late-'70s that she leaves a slime on her movies, much like the aforementioned Mason. I get vaguely embarrassed watching her, too, for how much pity she's capable of inspiring when her characters are wounded.

10:05 AM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Whatever happened to Marsha Mason? That I want to know. I feel like if you had a look into my brain when you say that Burt was your reason for avoiding Starting Over. I still have never seen it, saw it showing recently and Burt Reynolds really does little for me. I only remember seeing Jill in Starting Over, and even that I can't remember clearly. Good writeup, nonetheless. I'm looking forward to post on Marsha, although I'm wondering if it'll be a positive or a negative.

8:41 PM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I saw my first Jill Clayburgh performance with you (when you had a lot more than 33 pictures to go) and i still remember VIVIDLY that we both had the same reaction to her gauziness... only you instantly had a description for it ;)

i've never seen this one. I have way more than 33 left to go.

10:14 PM, April 30, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

This is the only one of Clayburgh's performances I've seen, and I think you're pretty much right on about it (*sigh* as usual). You're too gentle, if anything - she's not "bad", but she is profoundly invisible. Something like a doormat, but there's not enough "there" there for me to get offended on her behalf. I remember wishing desperately that Reynolds would end up with Bergen, despite the generic convention, because at least she had some bite to her performance. And yet I still like Clayburgh more than Mason, who has always made me want to pull out my eyes and stuff them in my ears, that I might neither see nor hear her.

Laika has it right: something very strange was going on with actresses in the '70s.

3:40 PM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger Goran said...

I feel like I want to put up a defence for late 70s Clayburgh. (Outside of her extended Frasier gig, Mason you can keep.) But I haven't seen Starting Over and it's been too long since I saw Unmarried Woman.

In any case, I totally get the Clayburgh appeal, both in terms of what actress lovers could get from her as well as what insecure women with an arts degree could get from her. I remember appreciating how effortlessly, charismatically and credibly she did a 1978 Carrie Bradshaw without the materialism or the anti-intellectual bent. And I remember appreciating how much the era's outwardly liberated women who hated their bodies and husbands and hated themselves even more because of that could have enjoyed this fantasy of a ballsy, idealised version of the late-70s liberated woman who manages to ditch the husband rather than hang around for 40 years of bitterness for the sake of the children.

All that said, my favourite performance in that movie was Kelly Bishop - the best friend. At a crucial juncture in the film she gets the showy monologue - you know the one I mean: "I know I'm beautiful but damn it I'm aging". Except she doesn't make it showy, but grounded and believable and a little bit devastating.

8:34 PM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger Matt said...

I think Clayburgh is very skillful here, but she plays the character as too ditsy.

A funny thing about Clayburgh's vagueness: as an extra, I had the opportunity to watch her work in a brief scene in a season finale of the TV show, "Ally McBeal." She was seated the whole time, and I remember her slipping off her shoes and doing the scene barefoot, playfully wriggling her feet under the table the whole time. (The camera crew wasn't going to film her feet.) So she does have a quirky, idiosyncratic side to her.

While filming, she spoke very softly--I could barely hear from two feet away--and seemed, in acting terms, to be doing hardly anything at all. Yet a month later when I caught the episode on TV, there she was, vibrant and laughing and animated, all in a series of bright close-ups. Interesting how much a camera can pick up.

This makes me think that TV is perhaps the medium that shows Clayburgh to her best advantage, although she did get rave reviews for her theater work in the '60s and '70s.

5:30 PM, July 31, 2010  
Anonymous Picking up Women said...

I notice that in their later, way-off-the-radar projects, Mason has played governors and senators and Clayburgh has played judges.

10:15 PM, March 15, 2011  

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