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Our April 30th Birthday Honoree is Actress Jill Clayburgh, a Native New Yorker.

Jill Clayburg (1944-2010), an Oscar-nominated actress known for portraying strong, independent women. She was born in New York City, the daughter of Julia Louise (nee Dorr), an actress and theatrical production secretary for producer David Merrick, and Albert Henry "Bill" Clayburgh, a manufacturing executive. Her paternal grandmother was concert and opera singer Alma Lachenbruch Clayburgh. She married playwright David Rabe and they lived on the Upper West Side and had a daughter Lily Rabe, an actress who is known for her work on Broadway (The Merchant of Venice) and in American Horror Story. Clayburgh also had a stepson, Jason, who was from her husband's previous marriage.


Ms. Clayburgh, who began her career in films and on Broadway in the late 1960s, was among the first generation of young actresses including Ellen Burstyn, Carrie Snodgress and Marsha Mason who regularly portrayed characters sprung from the new feminist ethos: smart, capable and gritty, sometimes neurotic, but no less glamorous for all that. “I guess people look at me and they think I’m a ladylike character,” Ms. Clayburgh told The New York Times in 1982. “But it’s not what I do best. I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams.”


Clayburgh died on November 5, 2010 after an over 20-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She was surrounded by her husband and family in her home in Connecticut. Around the time of her death, her husband had announced in lieu of a funeral, there would be a memorial in her honor.

She was raised on Manhattan's Upper East Side where she attended the all-girls Brearley School. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied religion, philosophy and literature, but ultimately decided to be an actress. She received her acting training at HB Studio in Greenwich Village. As a child, Clayburgh was inspired to become an actor when she saw Jean Arthur as Peter Pan on Broadway in 1950.


Clayburgh began acting as a student in summer stock and, after graduating, joined the Charles Street Repertory Theater in Boston, where she met another up-and-coming actor , Al Pacino, in 1967. They met after starring in Jean-Claude Van Itallie's play America, Hurrah. They had a five-year romance and moved back together to New York City.


In 1968, Clayburgh debuted off-Broadway in the double bill of Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx and It's Called the Sugar Plum, also starring Pacino. Clayburgh and Pacino were cast in "Deadly Circle of Violence", an episode of theABC television series NYPD, premiering November 12, 1968. Clayburgh at the time was also appearing on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, playing the role of Grace Bolton.

She was a recipient of the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her breakthrough role in Paul Mazursky's comedy-drama An Unmarried Woman (1978). She also received a second consecutive Academy Award nomination for Starting Over (1979) as well as four Golden Globe nominations for her film performances. Her many television credits include guest appearances on “Law & Order,” “The Practice” and “Nip/Tuck,” and a recurring role on “Ally McBeal” as Ally’s mother, Jeannie. Most recently Ms. Clayburgh was a member of the regular cast of “Dirty Sexy Money,” broadcast from 2007 - 2009 on ABC.f


In 1969, Clayburgh made her screen debut in The Wedding Party, written and directed by Brian De Palma. The Wedding Party was filmed in 1963 (during which Clayburgh was at Sarah Lawrence) but not released until six years later. The film focuses on a soon-to-be groom and his interactions with various relatives of his fiancée and members of the wedding party; Clayburgh played the bride-to-be. Her co-stars included Robert De Niro, in one of his early film roles, and Jennifer Salt. In his review from The New York Times, Howard Thompson wrote, "As the harassed engaged couple, two newcomers, Charles Pfluger and Jill Clayburgh, are as appealing as they can be."


She starred in the acclaimed TV movie Griffin and Phoenix (1976) co-starring with Peter Falk. It tells the story of two ill-fated middle-aged characters who both face a terminal cancer diagnosis and have months left to live. Also in 1976, she had her first big box office success playing the love interest of Gene Wilder's character in the comedy-mystery Silver Streak, also starring Richard Pryor. Critics felt Clayburgh had little to do in Silver Streak, and The New York Times called her "an actress of too much intelligence to be able to fake identification with a role that is essentially that of a liberated ingenue."


In 1977, she had another hit with Semi-Tough, a comedy set in the world of American professional football, which also starred Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Clayburgh played Barbara Jane Bookman, who has a subtle love triangle relationship with both Reynolds and Kristofferson's characters. Vincent Canby liked her performance, writing, "Miss Clayburgh, who's been asked to play zany heroines in Gable and Lombard and Silver Streak by people who failed to provide her with material, has much better luck this time. She's charming," and The Washington Post enjoyed her chemistry with Reynolds: "Reynolds and Clayburgh look wonderful together. They seem to harmonize in a way that would only be more apparent - and make their eventual recognition of being in love seem more appropriate." Both Semi-Tough and Silver Streak earned her a reputation "as a popular modern stylist of screwball comedy" and The Guardian noted how Clayburgh "had the kind of warmth and witty sophistication barely seen in Hollywood since Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur".


Clayburgh's breakthrough came in 1978 when she received the first of her two Academy Award for Best Actress nominations for Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman. In what would be her career-defining role, Clayburgh was cast as Erica, the courageous abandoned wife who struggles with her new 'single' identity after her stockbroker husband leaves her for a younger woman.


Upon release, An Unmarried Woman drew praise and was popular at the box office, briefly making Clayburgh, at 34, a star. Clayburgh's performance garnered some of the best reviews of her career: Roger Ebert called the film "a journey that Mazursky makes into one of the funniest, truest, sometimes most heartbreaking movies I've ever seen. And so much of what's best is because of Jill Clayburgh, whose performance is, quite simply, luminous. Clayburgh takes chances in this movie. She's out on an emotional limb. She's letting us see and experience things that many actresses simply couldn't reveal" while The New York Times wrote, "Miss Clayburgh is nothing less than extraordinary in what is the performance of the year to date. In her we see intelligence battling feeling – reason backed against the wall by pushy needs."


Writing for The New Yorker, veteran critic Pauline Kael noted:


"Jill Clayburgh has a cracked, warbly voice -- a modern polluted-city huskiness. And her trembling, near-beautiful prettiness suggests a lot of pressure. On the stage, she can be dazzling, but the camera isn't in love with her -- she doesn't seem lighted from within. When Erica's life falls apart and her reactions go out of control, Clayburgh's floating, not-quite-sure, not-quite-here quality is just right. And she knows how to use it: she isn't afraid to get puffy eyed from crying, or to let her face go slack. Her appeal to the audience is in her addled radiance; she seems so punchy that we're a little worried for her. No other film has made such a sensitive, empathic case for a modern woman's need to call her soul her own. "


Clayburgh's final film was in the 2011 hit comedy Bridesmaids, playing the mother to Kristen Wiig's character Annie Walker. "I felt honored the moment she signed on to do the film," Wiig said about Clayburgh to Us Weekly in 2011. "She was a very maternal, nurturing spirit. She was also game for anything. There were times when she was saying things and I would just start laughing… She was amazing."


(sources: wikipedia; nytimes.com; ourbiography.com)

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OWNING NEW YORK

Henry M Orenstein

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hank.orenstein@corcoran.com

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