Actress Jill Clayburgh passed away at her Lakeville, Connecticut home on Friday at the age of 66, marking the end of a 21-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Her husband, Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, noted that she fought the disease courageously and privately -- not even co-stars in recent films knew that she was sick -- making it "an opportunity for her children to grow and be human." But her long and silent fight with cancer wasn't the only mark of Clayburgh's strength.
Today's audiences might know her as Tish Darling from the late television series 'Dirty Sexy Money,' or Agnes Finch in 'Running with Scissors,' but Clayburgh's career spanned over forty years, boasting seventy credits, two Oscar nominations and a Cannes festival win for Best Actress. But it isn't the awards that mark the indelible impact of Clayburgh's craft -- it's her starring role in Paul Mazursky's 'An Unmarried Woman.'
Her time as Erica showed off her considerable talents, for sure, but the film also offered up something infinitely more important -- a role model, a source of inspiration and strength to the women who watched her.
Clayburgh's Erica is a wealthy Manhattanite on the Upper East Side who struggles to reclaim her identity after her husband of 16 years leaves her for a young woman he met at Bloomingdale's. Today, that storyline might see a woman frazzled and grasping for some sense of identity, before some sexy man rides in and washes all her troubles away. But in the late '70s, strong women were exploding across the screens, and she was the one that saved the day.
From Barbra Streisand's outspoken communist in 'The Way We Were' to Faye Dunaway's cutthroat executive in this week's Movie Club pick, 'Network,' women were given a great sense of identity -- lives that stretched beyond the men they were involved with on the screen. With Erica, Clayburgh got the chance to channel her own "willful" behavior into the character, making this newly single woman struggle and mourn without ever seeming weak.
Erica's pain is expressed with her resolve and strength, rather than her tears. From the moment she hears of her husband's infidelity, she refuses to cling, and immediately begins to define herself without a man. There's this frenetic energy that pours out of the screen when her doctor hits on her, and she says, sternly, that it's "a definite f**king pass." Yet this strength and resolve is intermingled with moments of extreme femininity and softness -- discussing her first period -- and Clayburgh never made it seem like some juxtaposition of masculinity and femininity, but that both this strength and this gentleness are part of the same human experience.
She and her friends -- a frank bunch that talk about love and sex well before the world of 'Sex and the City' -- even discuss the lack of female role models at that time -- wishing for women like Katharine Hepburn, and searching for someone they can relate to or admire. Was it Mazursky's cue to the viewer that Erica could be this woman? Did he ever dream how inspirational she would become? I'm not sure. Either way, he was committed to her being her own woman, even in the ending scene, offering up a feeling of liberation as much as love -- it's up to the viewer as much as it is spelled out on the screen.
It's such a rare characterization, even now, that Clayburgh's Erica has remained a source of strength to women going through divorce as much as women over all. As she quietly fought cancer, Clayburgh continued to act. She'll soon appear in the Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal-starring 'Love and Other Drugs,' and Gyllenhaal has noted to the press how 'An Unmarried Woman' helped his own mother through divorce: "I know my parents were recently divorced and my mother said that 'An Unmarried Woman' was such an incredible film for her to watch, you know, and helped her so much." (She filed for divorce only two years ago in 2008.)
There's a chance that this praise makes Clayburgh sound larger than life, but that wasn't the case. The reason her death is notable is because she was a real, fallible woman. She revealed strength and weakness. Clayburgh wasn't a female Terminator, an unstoppable machine evolved beyond emotion. Her impact was in revealing that women can be strong, and independent, and every other segment of the human experience.
She will be missed.