Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just Being

I was saddened by the recent death of Jill Clayburgh, an actress whose roster of leading or costarring roles is relatively small and who, I realized, I've seen in only a few things. But I've always liked her.

I remember when An Unmarried Woman came out in 1978. It was not a film I was old enough to see on my own, nor would I have had the opportunity had I wanted to—I was a 16-year-old boy; it was An Unmarried Woman. The pictures of a bearded Alan Bates intrigued me more than anything. I saw it a few years later in college, one of the free Saturday-night movies on campus. Because of my still-young age and the fact that the early '80s weren't so far removed from the late '70s, I don't think it resonated fully—how could it have? I remember liking it as a movie well enough. (I had by then seen Clayburgh's follow-up, the 1979 comedy Starting Over, and was familiar with her appeal.) And the bearded Alan Bates was just as sexy as I'd imagined.

This weekend, I rented An Unmarried Woman and was taken anew by it and by Jill Clayburgh. Would you believe that a 49-year-old man in 2010 could find a lot to identify with in the story of a thirtysomething woman in 1978 who is suddenly single and must navigate the world of dating, sex, independence, attachment, responsibility, risk-taking, and love (and not-love)? Well, it's true. I watched the whole thing through another time with the very interesting dual commentary by Clayburgh and director Paul Mazursky (who didn't seem to have been in the same room at the same time).

I also rented Starting Over, which I enjoyed when it came out (I think I saw it with my parents and brother). This time, it struck me as slighter than I remembered, but Burt Reynolds is totally endearing, as is Jill Clayburgh again, though to me it was more his film (yet she got an Oscar nomination, as did Candice Bergen, who was comical but wooden as usual).

Jill Clayburgh's acting has a low-key naturalness that's refreshing, like someone who's just being yet whose subtle illumination draws you to her. Her obituary in the Washington Post—which, surprisingly, was much better than the one in the New York Times—ended with this:

Ms. Clayburgh was proud of her understated acting style, believing it was more true to her characters and to life itself.
"I don't like being knocked out by performances," she told The Washington Post in 1978. 'I don't want anyone to say, 'what a fantastic actor' about me."
In the DVD commentary, Paul Mazursky said he originally offered the part to Jane Fonda, who turned it down because it wasn't political enough. He said, What do you mean? It's as political as you can get. After the movie came out, she told him he was right.

Fonda would have given the movie a different slant—I suspect much greater seriousness and overall angst. Had I seen that version, I probably would have come away saying, "What a fantastic actor."

After watching the actual movie—with Jill Clayburgh—I thought, "That was really, really good."

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