Sunday, September 10, 2017

façade: Glenda Jackson

Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, Glenda Jackson walked away from acting, movies and the stage to pursue a political career. She became a member of Parliament in Great Britian, working on behalf of the Labour Party.

Well, today, while perusing the New York Times' voluminous Fall Preview sections, there it was - an ad for the first New York staging of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winner, "Three Tall Women," starring Laurie Metcalf, Alison Pill and, top-billed, Glenda Jackson, each playing the same woman in different stages of her life. Glenda Jackson is back and I. Can't. Wait.

The production opens at the John Golden Theater on March 29th, following a month of previews. In his capsule descriptions of Broadway's fall productions, Times reporter Steven McElroy writes that the show is about Albee's "relationship with his adoptive mother who didn't approved of his homosexuality," but noticeably missing, for some unfathomable reason, is any mention of Jackson's first acting assignment after a 25-year absence.

Jackson made a crucial decision to walk away and, when she did, people - her fans, the critics - seemed to walk away, too. In the opposite direction. In the past few years, Jackson's name has rarely been invoked in reviews or film essays.

For those moviegoers who have forgotten, or younger moviegoers who don't know Glenda Jackson and don't care, she was a force of nature. She was positively electric. There was always this unquenchable hunger in a Glenda Jackson performance. It was as if she wanted to make acting so much more than what it was. She was restless, active - an indication perhaps that there was an activist buried inside her and aching to get out.

It was during her last few years of acting that Jackson became involved in politics, entering the House of Commons in the 1992 general election as the Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hampstead and Highgate in the London Borough of Camden. Her days in politics became numbered when, in 2013, she criticized the policies of Margaret Thatcher, an unpopular move, and she decided not to seek re-election in 2015.

I'm confident that she gave the same on-going passionate performance in her new role as a politician as she did on stage and on screen. It will be a pleasure, once again, to witness that no-nonsense Jackson drive - that sometimes frightening energy that she brought to so many films.

So many films... Where do I start?

If I were to pick, the essentials for a Glenda Jackson film festival would include:

"Women in Love" and "The Music Lovers." Two by Ken Russell, the first an Oscar winner for Jackson. "Women in Love," adapted by Larry Kramer from D. H. Lawrence's 1920s novel about the complex relationships among two women and two men, is sex-charged in an adult way that evades today's smirky, sexless films. It is highlighted by (1) Jackson's willfully unsympathetic performance as one of the women, (2) several bracing sex scenes and (3) a full-frontal nude wrestling sequence involving Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. "The Music Lovers," meanwhile, is Russell's contemplation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's struggles with his homosexuality and his unwise marriage to a nymphomaniac. Richard Chamberlain plays Tchaikovsky and the homosexual panic that overcomes him, unleashed in a small private room on a speeding train, is truly harrowing, not the least of which is Jackson's predatory sexuality role in it."Stevie." Robert Enders' endearing adaptation of Hugh Whitemore's West End stage play is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt. Through the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry, which Jackson recites directly into the camera at intervals, and her bracingly articulate conversations with her aunt, we come to know Smith and her emotional problems intimately.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday."  John Schlesinger's lascerating psychodrama, written by Penelope Gilliatt, in which Jackson and Peter Finch, whose characters are vaguely aware of each other, share the same callous young lover (male) who alternates between them. Finch, subtle as always, plays a doctor dealing with Jewish guilt about his sexuality and his family's expectations for him to marry. Jackson, whose character has more masculine qualities than Finch's, is positively intimidating here, never more so than when she screams at a child for chasing a dog fatally into traffic.

"Turtle Diary." Harold Pinter adapted the Russell Hoban novel for director John Irvin. It's a gentle tale about two people - Ben Kinglsey and Jackson (also atypically gentle here) - who bond over the sea turtles in captivity at a London zoo. Although they would never call themselves animal activists, they are - and they plot to kidnap the turtles and return them to the ocean. The supporting cast includes the singular Eleanor Bron (always compulsively watchable), Richard Johnson, Jeroen Krabbe and the invaluable Michael Gambon as another gentle soul taken with Jackson.

"The Boy Friend." Finally, another Russell title, his G-rated, yet wildly gay, adaptation of the charming Sandy Wilson musical with Twiggy in an awesome performance as a backstage assistant for a cheesy acting troupe(performing the Wilson show) who is called into service, a la Ruby Keeler, to take over the lead role when the star breaks her leg. The star, Rita Monroe, is played by an uncredited Jackson who gives a wickedly snarky performance. The idea of Twiggy replacing Jackson in anything adds to the hilarity of this whizzing, breezy musical.

These few titles make me long to see Glenda Jackson again. She's 81 now and the likelihood that she will ever make another movie is slim. It is also unlikely that we will ever see the likes of her again. But then there's Broadway, Albee and "Three Tall Women."

* * * * *
(from top) 

~Glenda Jackson in her prime 

~Poster art for "Three Tall Women"

~Jackson with Oliver Reed in "Women in Love"
~photography: MGM/U.A. 1969©

 ~Jackson with Mona Washbourne in "Stevie"
~photography: First Artists 1978©

 ~Jackson with Peter Finch and Murray Head in "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
 United Artists 1971©

~Jackson with Michael Gambon in "Turtle Diary"
~photography: Britannic  1995©

~Twiggy in "The Boy Friend"
~photography: MGM   1971©

~Glenda Jackson today 


Brook Seawell said...

There's really no problem with Glenda Jackson's career: rather than go through the bull about parts for aging actresses, she turned to another passion, politics. She really wanted to make a difference in the world, and (hopefully) she did what she could. But show business isn't the only thing in the world, and she's one person who proved it. But she was a galvanizing and (yes) polarizing actress: she could sometimes come on so strong that she seemed to be grating. But in later years, her acting had become a marvel of simplicity: her performances in movies such as STEVIE, THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER and THE RAINBOW were amazingly direct and unaffected. But she has chosen her own path and it's not like she's disappeared from view, she's just disappeared from the movies. I'm glad she's back

Brian Lucas said...

Jackson's place in history may have suffered from the relative inaccessibility of her films. Until fairly recently, it was near impossible to find A TOUCH OF CLASS, despite her Oscar win. Maybe you can find an out-of-print VHS of HEDDA somewhere. Luckily, SUNDAY, BLOODY SUNDAY and STEVIE are available to stream on Netflix Instant Watch, and some titles are on DVD.

Another factor may be that few of the directors Jackson worked with became must-see auteurs for younger generation of moviegoers 20 years ago.

joe baltake said...

Brian- Good to hear that "Stevie" is available in some form at least. I love that film. -J

Fiona said...

Whether hypnotizing a bull in "Women in Love" (an actual bovine, not Oliver Reed)or giving George Segal "A Touch of Class," Jackson was the definitive actress of the early '70s (until Diane Keaton came along), a formidable and intelligent presence and one hell of a stage actress. I saw her on Broadway in "Strange Interlude" in the late 1980s and I'm still processing the many layers of that performance.

Charlotte said...

Fiona: I'm still processing that "Strange Interlude" performance, too. Don't forget how great she was as a nun in "Nasty Habits," Watergate set in a convent. David Thomson described her as being "militantly intelligent." Thanks, Joe, for celebrating the definitive British actress of the 1970s, even if I don't ever want to watch her writhe naked again on the train-carriage floor in "The Music Lovers"!

Bennett said...

Really loved her in Sunday Bloody Sunday and her turns as Elizabeth I.

Bill said...

I thought she elevated Nasty Habits, playing Nixon as a Mother Superior... "But it would be wrong..."

Shawn said...

Yes, "Stevie" - Turtle Diary" - exactly the type of movies that I can see you writing about here in "Cinema Obscura."

Vanessa said...

Easy to forget that Jackson won a second Oscar just 3 years after her first, for A TOUCH OF CLASS.

joe baltake said...

"A Touch of Class" is pretty much a forgotten film in general, which is curious, considering how huge it was in its day. Speaking of Oscars, Jackson deserved one for the affecting "Stevie."

J. Dickman said...

Glenda Jackson, what an actress! Her performance in Elizabeth R is incomparably great. It makes all the recent performers of the role look like silly school girls.

john said...

I always wondered what happened to her. She was one of favorite actresses. John.

godard said...

There seems to be an unwritten clause in the contract of nearly every intelligent actress - one saying that she must appear to apologize for her brains. Jackson never did, and that was bracing

Kevin Barry said...

I made a trip to London in October exclusively to see Ms Jackson as King Lear at The Old Vic. It was also one of the few times the entire text has been performed (4 hours). The inventive production was an extraordinary experience, a new and revolutionary take on the great play, and Glenda did not disappoint in her powerful interpretation. She was also very kind and gracious to spend some time with me after the exhausting performance. We talked about Sunday Bloody Sunday, Turtle Diary, Brexit and Trump!

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Wow! -J

Lorianne said...

Glenda Jackson remains one of my all time favorite performers, so much so that I named my cat Glenda in 1975. She was my greatest cat ever by the way, living up to her namesake.

Janice said...

If you had told me Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau would make an ideal screen couple, I would have thought you were nuts. Then I saw "House Calls." The movie has some problems, but not the two leads. They're both wonderful, with special props going to Jackson.

Kiki said...

Oh Joe, I LOVED Glenda Jackson, the actress -- ever since she did Charlotte Corday in the stage version of Marat/Sade. I agree on all points except The Music Lover. Hated it. But did I mention I sped read through a bio of Oliver Reed (Women in Love) recently. What a dreadful man he was although the author tries to explain it all by his being a dysletic alcoholic. Just an actor behaving badly, says I!

Marvin said...

Thanks for this. I have noticed that a lot of very knowledgeable, and articulate, people comment on your articles. Marvin

kaletzkya said...

Her best performance.

And it was far from unpopular. She left Parliament after serving for over 20 years, and her seat was secured for Labour by another woman , Tulip Siddiq.

Thatcher was scum, the worst thing to happen to Britain since Hitler and his war.

Taylor said...

Great clip, Kaletzkya!