Jill Clayburgh, who became a feminist icon with her performance in “An Unmarried Woman,” has died. She was 66.
The cause was chronic leukemia, her husband, playwright David Rabe told the press. The Oscar nominated actress had lived with the disease for 22 years.
Clayburgh honed her craft on the stage before breaking into movies with a series of performances in “An Unmarried Woman” and “Starting Over” that showcased a new kind of cinematic woman. Here was an intelligent, funny, and slightly neurotic presence — undeniably feminine, but always questioning what role women should play in a decade that promised greater freedoms but still maintained a low glass ceiling.
Unlike contemporaries such as Ellen Burstyn or Jane Fonda, who seemed to barrel through their film roles, Clayburgh could appear more withdrawn and doubt-plagued. Whereas Burstyn and Fonda always exuded confidence, Clayburgh’s best screen roles dramatized the search for validation.
For her performance as Erica, a jilted New York housewife in 1978’s “An Unmarried Woman,” Clayburgh was nominated for an Oscar for best actress and received a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
She followed up with a pair of memorable performances the next year, as a schoolteacher falling in love with a divorced man (Burt Reynolds) in “Starting Over” and as an opera singer in the sexually provocative “La Luna.”
Clayburgh was again nominated for an Oscar for “Starting Over,” but the woman who helped usher in a new kind of feminism in the seventies never found her cinematic footing in the eighties.
She etched strong performances in Costa-Gavras “Hanna K.” (1983) and “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” (1982), but they were neither box office nor critical hits and her screen career trailed off as the decade came to a close.
Clayburgh had periodically popped up in a series of supporting roles in “Running with Scissors” (2006) and the forthcoming “Love and Other Drugs,” not to mention co-starring in the ABC drama “Dirty Sexy Money,” but largely left Hollywood behind to raise a family with Rabe in Connecticutt.
Throughout her career she would balance both film and stage work, appearing in shows such as “Pippin” (1970), and revivals of “Design for Living” (1984) and “Barefoot in the Park” (2006).
In addition to her husband, Clayburgh is survived by a daughter, the actress Lily Rabe; a son, Michael; a stepson, Jason; and a brother, James.