Actress Jill Clayburgh dies at 66

A look at some of the film industry figures likely to appear during the 2011 Academy Awards "In Memoriam" montage.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 9:50 PM

Jill Clayburgh, a two-time Academy Award nominee for best actress, who was best known for her realistic, emotionally searing portrayals in the late-1970s films "An Unmarried Woman" and "Starting Over," died Nov. 5 at her home in Lakeville, Conn. She was 66 and had battled leukemia for 21 years.

Ms. Clayburgh was part of the generation of female actors, including Sally Field, Faye Dunaway and Marsha Mason, who came of age during the feminist revolution of the 1960s. She brought an unflinching honesty to her roles, whether playing a prostitute in the 1975 television movie "Hustling," a Supreme Court justice in "First Monday in October" (1981) or a valium addict in "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can" (1982).

Her signature role, however, came in 1978 when she played Erica, a jilted wife and mother in "An Unmarried Woman," directed by Paul Mazursky.

When casting the film, Mazursky said, "I was looking for three qualities: vulnerability, intelligence and a sexuality that wasn't brazen."

After her husband leaves her, Ms. Clayburgh's character has to pick up the pieces of her life. She becomes involved with other men and tries to forge ahead without losing her dignity.

The role was considered a breakthrough in screen acting for women, combining anger, vulnerability, overt sexuality - there were several nude scenes - and psychological depth.

Critic John Simon wrote in the National Review that Ms. Clayburgh portrayed "a woman rendered in all the complex interplay of antithetical impulses."

In 1988, entertainment critic Ryan Murphy wrote that Ms. Clayburgh's performance was "arguably the most well-rounded female character of '70s cinema."

Ms. Clayburgh won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and was a favorite for the Academy Award but lost to Jane Fonda in "Coming Home."

In the 1979 romantic comedy "Starting Over," Ms. Clayburgh played a woman who becomes involved with a divorced man (Burt Reynolds) who can't get over his ex-wife (Candice Bergen).

Ms. Clayburgh received her second Oscar nomination for best actress but lost to Sally Field in "Norma Rae" - a role Ms. Clayburgh had turned down.

"Everyone couldn't understand why I turned it down," she told the Hartford Courant in 1999. "People thought I was nuts. And I was."

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