Jill Clayburgh, R.I.P.

It was awful to hear about the cancer death of Jill Clayburgh at her home in Lakeville, Ct. Friday night.

She was a great actress on screen and stage, and one of the most charming show people you could ever hope to meet.

Clayburgh was smart and funny and always happy to talk about favorite roles such as her landmark performance in the 1978 Paul Mazursky film “An Unmarried Woman” (below).

The first time I interviewed her, we spent a good chunk of the meeting talking about our shared admiration for Jean Arthur.

Clayburgh said that seeing Jean Arthur on stage in the title role of “Peter Pan” was a life-changing experience that fueled her childhood ambition to act. She was pleased — and surprised — when the critic Pauline Kael compared her with Jean Arthur more than once (including in Kael’s otherwise devastating pan of “Gable and Lombard” that Clayburgh did with James Brolin before her breakthrough in the Mazursky classic).

In 1981, Clayburgh appeared in the film version of a play that had been written for Arthur a decade earlier “First Monday in October.” The movie wasn’t very good, but Clayburgh’s performance as the first female Supreme Court justice was a lively and funny homage to one of her favorite actresses.    

Clayburgh backed away from her acting career to raise her children more than 20 years ago and true to her plan returned to the New York stage in full force a few years back. In one season alone, Clayburgh appeared in three plays (including a last minute replacement job when one off-Broadway theater needed a new female lead).

One of Clayburgh’s best stage performances of her comeback period was as the 1940s era wife in a fine Westport Country Playhouse production of “All My Sons,” directed by Doug Hughes, with Richard Dreyfuss and Sam Trammell.

Clayburgh didn’t become a film star until she was in her 30s and had already done a lot of work on the stage in both musicals and dramas (the first time I ever saw her was in the original Bob Fosse production of “Pippin” in 1973).

The actress brought both great technique and life experience to the big roles she was able to play during her brief reign as a film star. The year after her triumph in “An Unmarried Woman” she gave another strong (and Oscar-nominated) performance in Alan Pakula’s brittle comedy “Starting Over.”

In 1980, she was a delight in a now virtually unknown romantic comedy, “It’s My Turn,” that paired her with Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin.

Clayburgh’s most daring film performance was as the opera diva fixated on her drug addicted teenage son in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 film “Luna” (above right, known as “La Luna” in Europe). The actress lip synched to recordings by Maria Callas and dug into her character to a very disturbing degree. The result was a bit like the female equivalent of Marlon Brando’s shattering work in Bertolucci’s earlier film “Last Tango in Paris.”

“Luna” has become something of a lost film since the early 1980s, but will be shown Dec. 23 as part of the Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA will be screening a new print and if we’re lucky that means a DVD is (finally) on the way.

Clayburgh will also be seen playing the mother of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the forthcoming film “Love and Other Drugs.”

Joe Meyers