The Force and Range of Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson in John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

“I didn’t win them,” Glenda Jackson once said of awards. “They were given to me.” The English actress, who died on Thursday at the age of eighty-seven, was too busy to fly to Hollywood to collect the Academy Award for Best Actress she’d won for her performance in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969). She stood Oscar up again when she won a second time for playing a British divorcee having an affair with a married American (George Segal) in Melvin Frank’s 1973 comedy A Touch of Class.

It’s not that Jackson never showed up to accept an award. She was gracious and had kind words for her American hosts when, after four nominations, she finally won her first Tony in 2018 for her turn in the production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women directed by Joe Mantello. The year before, she delighted the audience after Cate Blanchett handed her the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress. Having served as a member of Parliament for twenty-three years, Jackson had returned to the stage to play King Lear at the Old Vic in London.

“I was expecting her to be good,” wrote Susannah Clapp in the Guardian. “I was not prepared for her being one of the most powerful Lears I have seen.” Accepting her award, Jackson first tried to get the crowd back in their seats. “We don’t do standing ovations in England, come on.” She then noted that throughout her career as an actress, she “never got a good notice in the Evening Standard.” And of course, the conservative paper had little praise for Jackson as a Labour MP. “So I’m left wondering, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

Born the eldest of four daughters of working-class parents, Jackson won her first scholarship to a grammar school and her second to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. For too many years, she worked odd jobs between occasional roles on regional stages until Peter Brook, impressed by “the sudden plunges she took and by her intensity” in her auditions, cast her in the 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade—more commonly referred to as Marat/Sade.

In 1967, Brook took the show to Broadway, where Jackson earned her first Tony nomination for her portrayal of the inmate who plays the assassin, Charlotte Corday. Most of the cast, including Jackson, reprised their roles for the adaptation Brook shot at Pinewood Studios. Not counting her fleeting and uncredited appearance in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), this was Jackson’s first film role. Brook cast her again in Tell Me Lies (1968), an adaptation of Denis Cannan’s anti–Vietnam War play US, and in Negatives (1968), directed by Peter Medak (The Ruling Class), Jackson played half of a couple whose erotic adventures entail dressing up as the Edwardian murderer Dr. Crippen and his lover, Ethel Le Neve.

Women in Love was not only Jackson’s breakthrough but also the first of six collaborations with Ken Russell. Filmmaker Joe Talbot (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) is particularly enraptured by the scene in Women in Love that has Jackson’s free-spirited Gudrun frolicking through a meadow followed by a smitten industrialist (Oliver Reed), “and she’s literally dancing circles around him. If you didn’t know the context of the characters, you’d almost think Jackson was dancing circles around Reed the actor. She commands him and us, her wonderful, large mouth threatening to devour him whole.”

Jackson’s year of thunder was 1971. She starred in Russell’s The Music Lovers as Nina, the nymphomaniacal wife of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain), and appeared briefly in Russell’s The Boy Friend as a diva upstaged by Twiggy. She played Elizabeth I in Charles Jarrott’s Mary, Queen of Scots opposite Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary and in the landmark six-part BBC series Elizabeth R. She was also a regular guest on the network’s hit comedy sketch program The Morecambe & Wise Show, sending up herself and everything else and displaying a knack for comedy that would eventually lead her to Hollywood and A Touch of Class.

In John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday—this is still 1971—Jackson played Alex, a divorced consultant sharing a boyfriend (Murray Head) with a middle-aged doctor (Peter Finch). “Glenda Jackson was the obvious choice for Alex,” wrote screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt at the time. “I once wrote about her that she was the only Ophelia I had ever seen who was capable of playing Hamlet.”

“For a brief, intense period in the ’70s,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “Glenda Jackson was the very epitome of bohemian Brit chic in the movies: gamine in a worldly English way, intellectual, liberated, and frank but with a capacity for demure naivety.” She was a cruel Mother Superior in Damiano Damiani’s The Devil Is a Woman (1974); she costarred with Susannah York in Christopher Miles’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids (1975) and appeared with Michael Caine and the late Helmut Berger in Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman (1975); and she was nominated for another Oscar for playing the lead in Hedda (1975), Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

In the late 1970s, Jackson won critical accolades for her portrayal of the British poet Stevie Smith in Robert Enders’s Stevie (1978) and made the first of two winning comedies with Walter Matthau. She’s a divorcee again, and he’s a doctor treating her for a fractured jaw in Howard Zieff’s House Calls (1978). The pairing clicked with audiences, and the two stars reteamed in Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch (1980), a comedic spy thriller “with Jackson’s tart briskness of delivery a perfect foil for Matthau’s immaculately timed drawlings,” as Glenn Kenny wrote here in 2017. Matthau “was funny,” Jackson told the Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck in 2018, “but he was also very serious about the things that mattered to him. Oh, God, did I enjoy working with him!”

The 1980s saw Jackson working with Robert Altman on Health (1980) and Beyond Therapy (1987) and with Ken Russell again on Salome’s Last Dance (1988) and The Rainbow (1989). The highlight of the decade, though, could well be her performance as Nina Reeds in the 1985 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 five-hour play Strange Interlude. Over the course of nine acts, Nina ages twenty-five years. “Nina is but a conceit designed to represent successively every breed of woman O’Neill could imagine (from wanton to predatory mother), and the motivation for her maniacal behavior (the death of her betrothed in World War I) is ludicrously thin,” wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times. Jackson “nonetheless jumps through each hoop with grace and conviction: She’s equally mesmerizing as a Zelda Fitzgeraldesque neurotic, a rotting and spiteful middle-aged matron and, finally, a spent, sphinx-like widow happily embracing extinction.”

For all that, the furious pace of the early 1970s had wound down, and Jackson, who had been an active member of the Labour Party since she was sixteen, retired from acting in 1991. The following year, she won a seat in Parliament that had been held by the Tories for two decades. She opposed the monarchy, the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, and a fair number of Tony Blair’s economic policies, but as Claire Armitstead writes in the Guardian: “Grandstanding opportunities were limited to occasions such as the death of Margaret Thatcher, when she cut through sentimental parliamentary etiquette with her own salty verdict on an ideology of ‘greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees.’”

Jackson’s triumphant return to acting in 2015 led to that first Tony, making her just one of two dozen actors to score the Triple Crown (Oscar, Emmy, Tony). In 2019, she took her King Lear to Broadway, delivering what Parul Sehgal, writing for the New York Times Magazine, called “the only truly contemporary interpretation of Lear I’ve ever seen.” Director Sam Gold told Sehgal that Jackson is “going to go through something most people don’t go through. You’re all invited. Glenda Jackson is going to endure this, and you’re going to witness it.”

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