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Jill Clayburgh: 1944 - 2010

Jill Clayburgh: 1944 - 2010

Jill Clayburgh, the Oscar-nominated actress whose portrayal of suddenly single women in the 1970s helped define feminism in movies and reshape the role of leading lady, died today at her home in Lakeville, Connecticut; she was 66.

A stage actress who started appearing onscreen in the 70s, she suddenly became the "It Girl" -- or rather, "It Woman" -- with her acclaimed performance as an upper-class Manhattan wife suddenly left by her husband in the comedy-drama An Unmarried Woman. For a brief time one of Hollywood's most recognizable actresses in both comedy and drama, her career took a rapid decline in the 80s before she resuscitated her career with a number of television and film roles. Still, despite her career ups and downs, she remained one of the most important actresses of the 70s, alongside Jane Fonda, Glenda Jackson, Diane Keaton, and the young Meryl Streep (with whom she was friends) -- women whose films were marked by their portrayals of strong, independent women who didn't need a man to complete their lives and were prepared to take a stand by doing so.

Born in New York City to a manufacturing executive father and a mother who was the production secretary for theatrical producer David Merrick, Clayburgh had a privileged Upper East Side upbringing, attending the noted Brearley Academy and then Sarah Lawrence College. After joining the Charles Street Repertory Theater in Boston, she worked primarily onstage, moving to Broadway for such shows as Pippin and The Rothschilds.

After sporadic film and TV appearances (including a stint on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow), Clayburgh nabbed her first big role in 1972's Portnoy's Complaint. Roles in TV shows such as Medical Center, Maude, and The Rockford Files followed (she received an Emmy nomination for the 1975 TV movie Hustling), before she essayed the role of Carole Lombard opposite James Brolin's Clark Gable in the critically lambasted Gable and Lombard (1976). The lavish biopic was soundly drubbed and might have marked the end of her career had it not been for a number of acclaimed performances and box office hits in rapid succession. Clayburgh earned acclaimed opposite Peter Falk in the TV cancer drama Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story (1976) and that same year co-starred opposite Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the blockbuster hit comedy Silver Streak. She held her own against two other high-profile, wildly popular leading men--Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson--in the football comedy Semi-Tough (1977) before landing the role that would make her a superstar of the decade: Erica in Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman.

The story of a well-to-do wife and mother who is left by her husband for a younger woman, and attempts to reclaim her identity as a single woman in a world marked by the rise of feminism, the film was a lightning rod for many of the issues of the late 70s, from divorce to sexual liberation. With its message that it was okay not to be married, the film was a box office and critical hit, winning Clayburgh the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. An Unmarried Woman would receive three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Actress, but lost both awards to Vietnam-themed dramas The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (Jane Fonda was the Best Actress winner).

Anointed as the screen's quintessential liberated woman, Clayburgh followed that film in 1979 with two wildly disparate roles, as an opera singer who seduces her 15 year old son in Bernardo Bertolucci's Luna, and as a slightly ditzy kindergarten teacher who falls in love with a recently divorced Burt Reynolds in the comedy Starting Over. The former film was reviled by critics, while the latter earner her a second Academy Award nomination (surprisingly, she received Golden Globe nominations for both films).

The early 80s saw Clayburgh play two more independent women in the comedies It's My Turn and First Monday in October, as well as a Valium addict in the adaptation of the bestselling memoir I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can. But as the 80s came under the influence of the Reagan administration and lost interest in the burgeoning feminist movement, roles for Clayburgh became less easy to attain, and a string of film flops followed throughout the decade. Roles in low-budget movies and telefilms followed, though it was through a number of television appearances in the late 90s and early 2000s that Clayburgh revitalized her career on the small screen: there were acclaimed but failed sitcoms Everything's Relative and Leap of Faith, and a well-received turn as the mother of Calista Flockhart's titular character in the hit show Ally McBeal.

After appearances on The Practice and Nip/Tuck (the latter earning her a second Emmy nomination), she co-starred in the TV series Dirty Sexy Money opposite Donald Sutherland as the matriarch of a wealthy New York family. In the mid-2000s Clayburgh also starred on Broadway in Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way and in the 2006 revival of Barefoot in the Park. Her most recent roles include the upcoming comedy-drama Love and Other Drugs, as well as next year's Bridesmaids.

Clayburgh married acclaimed playwright David Rabe (Hurlyburly, Streamers) in 1979; she is survived by Rabe and their daughter, actress Lily Rabe, who will be appearing opposite Al Pacino, with whom Clayburgh was involved in the early 70s, in the new Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice, which has currently been delayed.