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Glenda Jackson: Head of the Class (1926-2023)

By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Glenda Jackson embraces a regal role in Elizabeth R (1971)
Glenda Jackson embraces a regal role in Elizabeth R (1971)

My late mother wasn’t being deliberately ironic when she told me that Glenda Jackson was “a class act” in the 1974 romantic comedy A Touch of Class and that I had to see it.

She had only seen Ms. Jackson in that movie and Ken Russell’s 1969 film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, but she was insistent that I check out the rom-com about an extramarital affair in which Jackson co-starred with George Segal. She won Academy Awards for Best Actress for both efforts.

“You’ll love her voice. And her attitude. And her hair,” my mom promised.


I saw the movie on television in 1980 or thereabouts—I was 16, 17 years old—and my mom was right. Ms. Jackson was a class act through-and-through, with crystalline diction, a serious attitude (in a movie that was surprisingly cavalier about infidelity) and awesome hair. She was also as focused an actress as I had ever seen at my young age, a quality that would come into play in her later career as a member of the British Parliament.

With Jennie Linden in Women in Love (1969)
With Jennie Linden in Women in Love (1969)

Jackson died on June 14 at her home in Blackheath, London. She was 87. According to her agent, Lionel Larner, her death came after a brief illness.


I saw a handful of the two-time Oscar winner’s other films over the next couple of decades, including John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Hugh Whitmore’s Stevie (1978), Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1971) and The Rainbow (1989) and the comedy Lost and Found (1979), which reteamed her with her Touch of Class co-star George Segal.


Just as I was beginning to dig deeper into her filmography and such lesser-discussed features as Damiano Damiani’s out-there convent melodrama The Devil is a Woman (1974), Jackson got out of the acting game and became a member of the British Parliament.

With George Segal in A Touch of Class (1973)
With George Segal in A Touch of Class (1973)

A lifelong liberal, Jackson was elected to Parliament as a member of the Labour Party in 1992. She would ultimately spend 23 years as a Labour Party lawmaker, including serving as a minister for transport in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first government in 1997.


The always outspoken Jackson proved to be just that when it came to expressing her hatred of the Conservative government, a dislike which was partially fueled, she claimed, by “that dreadful woman, Margaret Thatcher.”

Glenda Jackson virtually vanished from the screen for more than two decades. I was left trying to fill in the blanks on her prior filmography, which included her much-lauded take on Queen Elizabeth I in the 1971 television miniseries Elizabeth R.

Representing the Labour Party in Parliament (2013)
Representing the Labour Party in Parliament (2013)

Of course, I had also missed out on the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran’s extensive stage work in London and on Broadway in the ‘60s,’70s and ‘80s. Jackson, starring in well-received productions of Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Macbeth, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, among others, won a Tony Award for her role in a 2018 revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.


I had one glorious opportunity to see Ms. Jackson on stage at London’s Old Vic Theatre in her leading turn in King Lear in 2016. Her performance in what she described as “the greatest play ever written” was imperious and awesome. It didn’t so much as bring a fresh take to the famously demanding male role as much as a fierce and intimidating one.

She won rave reviews and an Olivier Award nomination before bringing the play to Broadway in 2019 to even more praise.

As King Lear at London's Old Vic Theatre (2016)
As King Lear at London's Old Vic Theatre (2016)

Ms. Jackson had finished filming a new movie with Michael Caine only a few weeks prior to her health failing. The film is The Great Escaper and it tells the true story of how an octogenarian escaped from his English care home in 2014 to attend the attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings in France. Jackson portrays veteran Caine’s wife.

It marks Caine and Jackson’s first collaboration since they co-starred in the charming 1975 comedy The Romantic Englishwoman.

It’s nice to know that for her final film, Jackson worked alongside another class act from Britain who has one helluva voice.

 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.



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