How Glenda Jackson Changed Hollywood’s View of Women in Love

“She’s 100% a professional, and this is a great night for professionals,” said the actor Juliet Mills as she accepted Glenda Jackson’s first Best Actress Oscar on the absent winner’s behalf at the 1970 Academy Awards. On the face of it, it sounds an oddly impersonal thing to say in the circumstances — almost as if Mills knew nothing of Jackson, and opted for the vaguest praise possible. (In fact, it was probably a veiled dig at that year’s Best Actor winner, George C. Scott, who had rather more acrimoniously declined to attend the awards.)

It proved, however, a rather apt way for Jackson, then 34, to be welcomed into Hollywood’s inner circle. A proudly working-class Brit who didn’t look or act (on screen or off) like the blushing English roses typically imported from across the pond, Jackson had markedly more interest in being a professional actor than in being a movie star. That spared her, even as she racked up assignments and awards, much of the fuss and frippery associated with A-list status — going to the Oscars included. (She was a no-show each of the four years she was nominated, but did turn up once to present Best Actor. A pro indeed.) And when, in middle age, she tired of acting altogether, she quit as unassumingly as she arrived — instead entering British politics with a sense of liberal-minded duty uncommon in the ranks of celebrities-turned-statesmen.

Jackson, who died Thursday at the age of 87, leaves a legacy that is split into two equal halves, neither one an addendum to the other. In the U.S., where she’s best remembered for the slyly modern sexuality and regal Masterpiece Theater bearing she brought her screen roles, people might not grasp what a formidably outspoken and enduring figure she was on the British political scene from the end of the Thatcher era to the eve of Brexit. To many of her compatriots, meanwhile, she was a Labour Party MP first and foremost, an actor a fairly distant second. (In the mid-2000s, I temped at the Department of Health as a ministerial correspondent, when a typically forceful letter arrived from Jackson; a young, admiring colleague thought I was pulling his leg when I mentioned her gilded film career. “I suppose Tony Blair has an Oscar too,” he quipped, before I directed him to IMDb.)

The Labour voter in me is thankful for her service; the film critic in me greedily wishes she’d acted more. Jackson wasn’t an overnight success: Her ingenue years, after winning a scholarship to RADA, were spent in repertory theater, assorted waitressing and retail jobs, and even as a bluecoat (a kind of performing steward) at a Welsh holiday resort. The Royal Shakespeare Company finally took her on, albeit after more than one audition. There, director Peter Brook cast her in the landmark play “Marat/Sade” as murderous revolutionary Charlotte Corday, and again in the 1967 film version.

It was an eye-catching big-screen debut, equal parts vulnerable and fearlessly deranged, and palpably colored by the hunger of an actor who had waited for such an opportunity. The confirmation of that promise came with Ken Russell and Larry Kramer’s bristlingly sensual adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” a period piece that nonetheless chimed with a New Hollywood spirit of feminist and sexual rebellion. 

Jackson’s vital, spiny performance as Gudrun, a strong-willed Midland villager in love with a brawny industrialist but chafing against patriarchal control, embodied the film’s spirit of challenge and curiosity. With her angular, die-cut features, signature dark bob and direct, driving gaze, she wielded a carnal magnetism that subverted pin-up standards; United Artists executives who allegedly resisted her casting, concerned that she wasn’t pretty enough, couldn’t have missed the point any more blatantly. Performances like hers, by and large, didn’t win Oscars — that she did, beating industry it-girl Ali MacGraw in the drippy box-office goliath “Love Story,” signaled expanded possibilities for women in Hollywood who wanted to be leading ladies and character actors at once.

The next year, in John Schlesinger’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” she’d bring that same coolly updated femininity to an accordingly contemporary story, as the female third of a polysexual love triangle. Brisk and witty when not tightening with raw rage, it’s perhaps the best work of her film career, and landed her another Oscar nod; if she hadn’t got it for that, she’d likely have nabbed one for her fire-breathing Elizabeth I in “Mary, Queen of Scots,” mopping the floor with Vanessa Redgrave’s timid title character.

But that same year, playing that same Virgin Queen, it was a more nuanced, expansive turn in the BBC miniseries “Elizabeth R” that cemented her in the minds of mainstream audiences, and won her a pair of Emmys to boot. The daughter of a builder and a checkout worker, Jackson brought a welcome lack of hat-in-hand deference to her portrayals of royalty. Her Elizabeth wasn’t merely an imperious ruler, but a flawed, conflicted woman; around the same time, she had more fun still with Cleopatra, raucously sending up the Egyptian icon in one of several sketches with beloved British comic duo Morecambe & Wise that revealed her hitherto untapped capacity for frisky comedy.

That ability would net her a widely unexpected second Oscar, only three years after her first, for a chic, droll turn opposite George Segal in the minor culture-clash romcom “A Touch of Class.” Jackson was so firmly in the zone at that point that she could win prizes merely for breathing, though her bright-and-breezy side would actually be used to better effect a few years later in “House Calls” and “Hopscotch,” an underrated, irresistible pair of romps with Walter Matthau. The contrast between his shaggy warmth and her cut-glass chill fizzed into Hepburn-Grant-level chemistry.

Jackson’s ‘70s purple patch also included Joseph Losey’s “The Romantic Englishwoman,” another frank exploration of desire and feminine ennui, an Oscar-nominated filmization of her West End stage triumph in “Hedda,” and an altogether shattering turn as the eccentric, solitary poet Stevie Smith in the indie biopic “Stevie,” a film that oddly took three years to make its way across the U.S., earning her major critics’ awards at both ends of its rollout. 

But Hollywood’s interest in her dissipated: Either they didn’t know what to do with her or she had little interest in what they had to offer. The ‘80s confined her to TV movies, modest charmers like the Pinter-scripted “Turtle Diary” and further, lesser collaborations with Russell; all the while, her left-wing political interests grew, as she campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and courted offers to stand for Labour. Toward the end of the decade, she was finally persuaded, and by 1992, she had halted her acting career to devote herself to politics full-time, winning the parliamentary seat of Hampstead and Highgate, which she then held for 24 years.

Stringently and vocally critical of the Conservative Party, she saved her thespian fire in this period for the House of Commons — most famously in a blistering takedown of Margaret Thatcher’s political legacy, mere days after the former Prime Minister’s death, during a session reserved for tributes. Fellow ministers jeered Jackson’s untempered attack on the “heinous social, economic and spiritual damage” wrought by Thatcher on British society; more gleeful liberals ensured the speech went viral. 

Clearly Jackson hadn’t lost her taste for an audience, and when she finally retired from politics in 2015, she returned to acting as if no time had passed. But it had, and to her benefit: her comeback, in the title role of a gender-flipped “King Lear” on the London stage, was staggering, drawing not just on her trademark venom, but on the frail vagaries of ageing too. A return to Broadway followed, as she scooped her first Tony for leading a revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” while her brittle, devastating inhabitation of a dementia-stricken woman in the BBC film “Elizabeth is Missing” scored her a well-deserved TV BAFTA. 

Only cinema has been slow to welcome her back: A teasingly brief cameo in the 2021 romance “Mothering Sunday” preceded what we can only hope is a more substantial farewell, playing opposite Michael Caine in the upcoming “The Great Escaper.” The synopsis suggests a supportive-wife part of the type Jackson resisted most of her career, but let’s wait and see. The thrill of Glenda Jackson’s performances has always lain in their flinty, watchful details, often subverting the confines and conventions of British heritage cinema: a professional to the last, but a rebel too.

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