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Mr. Movie: Jill Clayburgh

By the time of her early death at 66, Jill Clayburgh was largely forgotten. But in a six-year span bridging the late ’70s and early ’80s, she was about as hot as it gets, starring in five excellent films.


While Silver Streak (1976) largely belongs to Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Clayburgh has a nice turn as the love interest and holds her own against those two superstars. This is a clever movie that deftly combines comedy and suspense. Wilder is on a trans-continental train ride and for some reason someone wants him dead. Pryor is, as always, hilarious.


In Semi-Tough (1977), Clayburgh is again matched with two heavyweights, Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. They are professional football players and she is sort of their mutual girlfriend. Adapted from Dan Jenkins’ hilarious novel, this is a winning combination of comedy and drama. While most of Ms. Clayburgh’s duties involve being straight woman to the two stars, she is darn good at it.


An Unmarried Woman (1978) pulls no punches in its depiction of real people in real life. Clayburgh’s bravura performance as a dutiful wife abandoned by her feckless husband for another woman earned her an Oscar nomination. She lost to Jane Fonda for Coming Home, but her performance is a masterpiece. Michael Murphy is the deserting husband, Alan Bates the guy who picks up the pieces.


The next year brought Jill Clayburgh another Oscar nomination for her stellar performance in Starting Over (1979). This time she lost to Sally Field for Norma Rae. Clayburgh is the new love interest of recently divorced Burt Reynolds, who can’t seem to get over his ex-wife (Candace Bergen). James L. Brooks’ sparkling screenplay from Dan Wakefield’s novel gives the cast plenty to work with. Very funny.


In First Monday In October (1981), Clayburgh is the first female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The film lost some sting when Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the court for real just before the release date. But, Clayburgh plays a staunch conservative whose frequent battles with curmudgeonly Walter Matthau and Barnard Hughes provide plenty of laughs.


Clayburgh is a Valium addict who quits cold turkey in the harrowing I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982). She is very good, but the movie really isn’t. After this film, Clayburgh pretty well drops off the map.


All of the films in this column are available on DVD. All are for grown-ups.