The Curious Career of Jill Clayburgh

Now that the golden girl of the '70s is beginning to reappear on the big screen, it's a good time to look back and trace her long, strange trip of hard work, talent, good luck and questionable decisions.


Now that the golden girl of the '70s is beginning to reappear on the big screen, it's a good time to look back and trace her long, strange trip of hard work, talent, good luck and questionable decisions

Back in the late '70s, Jill Clayburgh seemed to ascend "overnight" and became--out of nowhere--America's premier feminist sweetheart, an icon of The Liberated Woman's Life. In two of her biggest success, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over, she played dramatic and comedic variations, respectively, on the character she became identified with: an intelligent, sophisticated, anxiety-ridden woman unsure about commitment. With her pleasing and accessible, rather than drop-dead, good looks, Clayburgh was an almost-revered ideal and her career was red-hot. But while typecasting certainly made her a star, it carried the usual price. It turned out that movies about librated women were just another passing Hollywood fad, and when audiences had enough, Clayburgh's star began to fade.

Unlike Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton, who also rode the "new American women" trend to the top, Clayburgh had no real previous screen presence and no evident powers of instantaneous self-reinvention. As Clayburgh later acknowledged in an interview, "It's a tricky thing for an actor to be too closely associated with the material she plays."

When Clayburgh agreed to be interviewed at the Westchester County, New York, country home she shares with her kids and her husband, playwright David Rabe, I wanted to talk with her about her career moves, good, bad and accidental. For Clayburgh didn't just disappear from view--she's consistently made films for TV, and in the last couple of years she's begun to take on small roles again in feature films, one in last year's regrettable Whispers in the Dark and another in the current Rich in Love. But then, Hollywood careers never continue in a straight upward trajectory toward heaven. I wanted her comments as, together, we plotted the course of an actress who's been pretty much all over the map.

Clayburgh's house is a big, rambling affair with plenty of children (her two, plus neighborhood friends) and dogs running loose. It is so picture-perfect it reminds me of a '50s sitcom--that is, until I see photographs of Madonna and Sean Penn decorating the kitchen. The Clayburgh/Rabe home may be rustic and homey, but two mainstream show-biz careers are run out of this place. When I compliment Clayburgh on how non-Hollywood her house seems, she laughs, "I always wanted a perfect life, and now I have one."

When we sit down in the study to chat with the tape recorder running, Clayburgh clears up at once any notion that when she hit the big time in the '70s it was an "overnight" success. "I wanted to act," she says, "and I worked on it." And she started early.

Growing up privileged on New York's Upper East Side, she had the requisite childhood problems that draw so many to acting. She once told Saturday Review that she was "a bossy brat," sufficiently unhappy that her parents sent her to a psychiatrist in the second grade, and that she's been in therapy ever since. "And I always will be," she said later. "I don't have to worry about terminating [treatment], because I'm incapable of it." When I ask Clayburgh about all this, she says, "Not the second grade--it was the fourth grade! I was an angry child. I don't go [to therapy] intensely--you know, this is not a Woody Allen comedy. But she has helped me a lot." So Clayburgh is no longer angry? "Talk to my family," she says with a laugh.

Clayburgh attended all the "right" schools, and while in college at Sarah Lawrence she made her film debut opposite another struggling young actor, Robert De Niro, in Brian De Palma's early movie, The Wedding Party. Not long after, she met another actor on the rise, Al Pacino, and lived with him in New York for several years while both tried to get their careers off the ground. Clayburgh did a year on a soap and even a Camay soap commercial, experiences she recalls with no fondness.

"Commercials are hell. I used to sit with Blythe Danner and Sandy Duncan and Diane Keaton for sometimes six hours before they'd even see us. They didn't give a shit about our time. I had thought I'd make money doing commercials, but by the time I bought the clothes to wear to the auditions, paid for the taxi ride there, and wasted my day waiting around--it was a no-win proposition. It was just endless to get these roles, and then you end up sitting in this fucking tub of Camay soap destroying your skin! Oh, I hated it."

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  • James and Peg says:

    A wonderful article! Well written and researched. Loved Jill's honesty, too. It seems she was much at ease with Golden. And Golden was able to draw frankness and charm from Jill...ya gotta like that!