In 1981, when the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, was still a gleam in Pres. Reagan’s eye, Jill Clayburgh was on a soundstage playing Ruth Loomis, the first female Supreme in Ronald Neame’s “First Monday in October.” Brainy, mouthy, near-beautiful, Clayburgh was the go-to actress to boldly go where no woman had gone before.
Clayburgh, who died Friday at her Connecticut home at 66 after living two decades with leukemia, was the Hollywood face of what was quaintly known as Women’s Lib. For five years between 1977 and 1982, the Oscar-nominated star of “An Unmarried Woman” and “Starting Over” personified the American female defined by her professional rather than her marital status. Here was the woman who spoke her mind and owned her sexuality among the most macho of men, as she did in “Semi-Tough” (1977), tumbling in and out of the sack with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofersson.
She was equally adept at heavy and light, juggling TV dramas like “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” and “Hustling” and movie comedies like “Silver Streak” and “It’s My Turn.” Although I had sen her in “Pippin” on Broadway, the first time I really appreciated her was in “Semi-Tough,” as rich girl Barbara Jane, trying on her wedding dress while asking football player Burt Reynolds, “Billy Clyde, why is it that we never ------?” She made the F word seem natural as breathing. Her most memorable role was as Erica in “An Unmarried Woman,” dancing to Tchaikowsky in knee socks, learning to live and love after her husband ditches her.
I liked her combination of long-stemmed patrician looks and earthy sexuality. You?