Jill Clayburgh, who represented a new breed of film actresses in the 1970s, died Friday after a two-decade bout with leukemia at age 66. In 1978, she was a Best Actress Oscar contender for her raw portrayal of “An Ummarried Woman.” She lost that race to Jane Fonda, who won her second Academy Award for “Coming Home.” The following year, Clayburgh showed her flair for comedy as the object of Burt Reynolds‘ affection in “Starting Over.” She was again Oscar-nominated but was bested by Sally Field who swept the film awards that year for “Norma Rae.”
Clayburgh was a child of privilege, growing up in New York and attending Sarah Lawrence College. She made her film debut in 1969’s “A Wedding Party,” directed by fellow Lawrence grad Brian DePalma and co-starring another up-and-comer, Robert DeNiro. After early success in the theater, including acclaimed appearances in the Broadway musicals “Pippin” and “The Rothschilds,” Clayburgh headlined the controversial 1975 telefilm “Hustling.” She lost the Best TV Movie Actress Emmy to Katharine Hepburn (“Love Among the Ruins”).
After starring in 1976’s ill-fated “Gable and Lombard” as screen comedienee Carole Lombard to James Brolin’s Clark Gable, Clayburgh bounced back with two hit comedies — “Silver Streak” and “Semi-Tough” — before landing that breakout part in “An Unmarried Woman.” The Paul Mazurksy picture captured the voice of liberated women and contended for Best Picture as well.
Clayburgh was never one to turn away from a challenge, and in 1979 took on the role of a mother who seduces her son in “Luna.” The Bernardo Bertolucci film divided critics but Clayburgh earned a Golden Globe Best Drama Actress nomination; she was defeated by Field for “Norma Rae.” That same year, she was also a Globe Comedy/Musical Actress contender for “Starting Over,” but was edged out by Bette Midler (“The Rose”). Two years later, Clayburgh lost that same race — for “First Monday in October” — to Bernadette Peters (“Pennies from Heaven”).
In the intervening years, Clayburgh worked sporadically in movies and television, even landing a Guest Drama Actress Emmy nom for “Nip/Tuck” in 2005, before returning that same year to her first love, the stage, in the dark comedy “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.” The following year, she sparkled in a rialto revival of “Barefoot in the Park.” More recently, she starred in TV’s “Dirty Sexy Money” as the grande dame of a dysfunctional family.
Her own home life was far removed from that. Married to Tony-winning playwright David Rabe (“Sticks and Bones”) since 1979, Clayburgh devoted herself to her family, including daughter Lily Rabe who is a rising actress and set to star opposite Al Pacino, with whom Clayburgh was involved in the 1970s, in a Broadway production of “The Merchant of Venice.” Clayburgh is also survived by her husband, son Michael Rabe and stepson Jason Rabe.
Photo: Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman” (20th Century-Fox)