May 9, 1936 – Glenda Jackson
”As I’ve had occasion to say before, I’m a pretty anti-sociable Socialist.”
Glenda Jackson disappeared from showbiz for three decades, but she is back, and she just received her fifth Tony Award nomination last week (her first was for Marat/Sade in 1966! Her last was for Macbeth in 1988). Jackson claims that she cares nothing about awards, making me wonder where she keeps her two Academy Awards, her Golden Globe, her BAFTA, and her two Emmys.
The two Oscars, neither of which she showed up to collect, were for Women In Love (1970), where she plays a free-thinking sculptor who walks away from a romance to pursue her own ambitions; in A Touch Of Class (1973), where her character is a divorced fashion designer who has an affair with a married man, just for the sex. She appeared in three films featuring bisexual love triangles: The Music Lovers (1970) and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), along with Women In Love.
Now, a half century after those films, at 81-years-old, she is back on Broadway in Edward Albee‘s Pulitzer Prize–winning Three Tall Women. It is a play considered revolutionary when it opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 1994, with its unflinching depiction of old age. She plays a woman, simply called ”A”, who is more than 90 years old. She reflects on her life with a mixture of shame, sorry, and satisfaction, recalling the joy of her childhood and her early marriage, when she felt an overwhelming optimism. She also bitterly recalls the events that caused her regrets: her husband’s affairs and death, and her estrangement of her gay son.
Albee was working through some of his own troubled memories in Three Tall Women. He was adopted by a conservative, emotionally abusive New England couple who disapproved of him being gay. He left home at 18-years-old like the son in this play. Albee:
“The play was a kind of exorcism. And I didn’t end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started.”
Jackson walked way from acting to serve as a member of Parliament for 23 years. She left politics in 2015, not because she wanted to retire but because ”it was time for someone else to have a go”. She had no plans to pick-up her acting career again, but she started to get interesting offers. First, she did a BBC radio series of dramatized Émile Zola’s novels. Jackson:
”I’ve always loved radio, because you don’t have to wear makeup or learn your lines or worry about bumping into the furniture.”
Then, fearlessly, she took on the title role in William Shakespeare‘s King Lear at the Old Vic. For the demanding, physical role, Jackson went to her community pool every morning and swam to build her stamina.
She received rave reviews. A woman portraying the broken-down king was not a new idea. Jackson made no effort to look like a man in the production. Jackson:
”One of the interesting things for me about Lear, what I’ve found is that as we get older, those hard-drawn territorial lines that define gender, which we are subject to the minute we are born, begin to fray, to blur. Were all human. Regardless of the envelope.”
”The really interesting thing is the issue about age, I mean, for our age now, certainly for the western world, because there have been incredible advances in medical and psychological science. We are living longer. But are we living longer, or are we existing? ”
In King Lear, the old monarch is betrayed by his children, teeters on the brink of insanity, and dies disillusioned. Traditionally, the play is the big thing in an older male actor’s career. For Jackson, it was neither a last hurrah, nor a late-in-life gender bender.
Many artists, when they have enormous success, have no problem moving on up in social status. Yet, Jackson has remained true to her family, and her working-class roots, and to the people she represented as a Minister of Parliament. She lives in a house that she shares with her son, Dan Hodges, a political columnist, and his family. She holds on to her indignation, much of it on other people’s behalf. When the Labour Party approached her in 1990 about running for a Parliament seat, Jackson went door to door, seeking support.
During her time in Parliament, she delivered a resounding denunciation of all things Margaret Thatcher, in part saying:
”…everything I had been taught as a vice, under Thatcherism, was in fact a virtue ”
”My country is being destroyed. When I heard Mrs.Thatcher say there was no such thing as a society, I was so furious, I walked into my French door and nearly broke my nose!”
You can watch her speech on YouTube; it has received nearly 2 million hits.
On the #MeToo, movement, with millions of people sharing their own stories, Jackson said:
”What I find interesting is the underlying hypocrisy, as if nobody knew this was going on, which is utterly absurd, everybody knows, and it goes on in every single area of life. And you know, it doesn’t have to be sexual harassment. There’s just this automatic belief that women can be bullied, that their opinions are reserved for a very narrow lane of human life.”
”When I was first elected to Parliament, someone asked me: ‘How are you going to manage in what is essentially a men’s club?’ I answered: ‘Well, that’s been my experience all my life.”
As for Hollywood, Jackson is forthright about the misogyny she encountered in the film industry:
”Virtually nothing has changed. It seems to me remarkable that writers still don’t find women interesting, that women are still seen as being an adjunct to what is the main dramatic force, and that is the male lead.”
”I’d spend weeks preparing for an audition, only to hear, ‘Oh, thank you, darling, but we’re looking for a blonde’. It’s not personal, but you feel it.”
Back in the 1970s, I was obsessed with Jackson. She had quite a run for a while. In 1971, in order to play Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC’s Elizabeth R (1971), Jackson had her head shaved, and she won two Emmy Awards for her performance. That same year, she also portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in the film Mary, Queen Of Scots, had a small, but unforgettable turn in Ken Russell’s musical The Boy Friend and won a BAFTA for her role in John Schlesinger‘s brilliant Sunday Bloody Sunday.
Melvin Frank saw her comedic potential and offered her the lead female role in his A Touch of Class (1973), and she won an Oscar. She continued to work in the theatre to play the lead role in Henrick Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1974. A film version directed by Trevor Nunn was released as Hedda (1975) for which Jackson was nominated for another Academy Award. In 1978, she scored big at the box-office in the romantic comedy House Calls, with Walter Matthau. They made such a great team that Jackson and Matthau paired again in the comedy Hopscotch (1980).
In 1970, I was 14-years-old, and I was simply crazy for her performance in Ken Russell‘s The Music Lovers where she plays the rapacious Russian countess who fails to bed Richard Chamberlain as gay Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (also #BornThisDay). After seeing it, I could think of little else for weeks.
”They needed a shot of me rolling naked on the floor of the train. Some champagne glasses fell on me, and Ken said, ‘Come on, clean her up, she’s not bleeding much!’ Then a piece of luggage fell off an overhead rack, knocking over a crew member. The next thing I know, the cameraman is lying in my lap saying: I’m a ma-ma-married man! I’m a ma-ma-married man!”’
In Ken Russell’s The Rainbow (1988), Jackson plays Anna Brangwen, mother of Gudrun, the role for which she won her first Academy Award 20 years earlier.
Three Tall Women is playing at the John Golden Theatre through June 3. Jackson shares the stage with last year’s Tony Award-winner Laurie Metcalf, nominated again this year, and Alison Pill. It is directed by two-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello, who is also nominated this year. Jackson, who doesn’t really go for competition is up against Condola Rashad for Saint Joan, Lauren Ridloff in Children Of A Lesser God, and Amy Schumer for Meteor Shower. The Tony broadcast is June 10 on CBS.
”Acting only exists when you’re doing it. If you’re not doing it, there’s nothing to miss.”