Retired from stage and screen since 1992, when she entered into British politics and was voted Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate in the London borough of Camden, Glenda Jackson must be the only member of Parliament to have had her nipples suckled by Oliver Reed (then again, Reed did drink to excess, so who knows for sure?). Jackson’s film career took off when she won her first best actress Oscar for Women in Love (1970); her competition that year actually included Ali MacGraw in Love Story, so this first win is understandable, though her second best actress win, for a joyless sex comedy called A Touch of Class (1973), is much less explicable. Then again, Jackson’s stardom in the early seventies has its inexplicable sides: has any other actress made such an impact on screen by purveying nearly nothing but abrasive bad temper? In film after film, Jackson carped, sniped, bitched, moaned, barked and howled at her leading men and her audience, but there would be moments when she let us see glimpses of a wounded adolescent defensiveness in her moody, pockmarked face, with its mistrustful eyes and disagreeably pouting mouth, and at moments like these she could be touching, if the role required it.
Jackson caused a stir in the seventies as a kind of British S/M sex symbol, always taking her clothes off and rolling around on the floor for Ken Russell, and she was quite limited, really, but so particular in looks and manner that she carved out her own cinematic world where she is forever telling off men and disparaging their sexual technique, not to mention putting down America (a few lines of English chauvinism must have been written in as a requirement in her contracts). There was a recent discussion of Jackson on the indispensable DataLounge site where several commenters noted that if Jackson hadn’t retired, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren wouldn’t have film careers, and that’s probably true; surely she would have scooped up most of Dench’s roles and maybe even won a third Oscar for a cameo Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Surely, too, Jackson would have put Cate Blanchett through an even worse ordeal in Notes on a Scandal (2006) and provided a much more critical portrait of the second Elizabeth in The Queen (2006).
One DataLounge commenter said that Jackson had “only a few tricks, but they were impressive when you first saw them.” These “tricks” can be quickly itemized: for general frustration or melancholy, Jackson always squeezes her eyes shut as hard as she possibly can. Her mouth seems to have a life of its own; it stretches and purses and habitually crinkles up in disgust, as if she has no control over it, and her tongue would sometimes emerge from this drawbridge mouth when she was trying to be sexy/snakelike. Every now and then, her face would get an apprehensive, self-deprecating look, most clearly seen when she first meets Tchaikovsky in Russell’s insane The Music Lovers (1971). When she has no idea what to do, she falls into a kind of withdrawn perversity, as in the end of her marathon performance as Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude (1988), where she starts to parody Eugene O’Neill’s baldly Freudian material. Sometimes she spoke in a hushed, purring monotone, trying to fake out George Segal or Walter Matthau in her sour 70s comedies before unleashing an ear-shattering, mercilessly enunciated verbal attack on them.
Jackson has plodded along politically for a while now, and actually has a website where you can read “Newsflashes from Glenda” about goings on in her district. Apparently you can also write to her with your concerns at Jacksong@parliament.uk, though I would assume no-nonsense Jackson would not take kindly to time-wasting e-mails about how much you enjoyed her performance on the BBC in Elizabeth R (1971). She seems hands-on and hardworking as MP, from what I’ve read, and was not afraid to be one of the first of her party to criticize Tony Blair over his participation in the Iraq war. Perhaps she made the right decision to retire from acting: at her worst on screen, she tensely bulldozes her way through reams of dialogue with no nuances or modulation of tone. After nearly twenty years away, however, Jackson still has some fervent fans that insist she was one of our finest actresses. I’m not so sure. She’s unbearable in some films, especially her tantrum-throwing Sarah Bernhardt in The Incredible Sarah (1976), and her disastrously miscalculated queen in Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1986), but Jackson certainly wasn’t remotely like anyone else, and her best work as an actress deserves to be remembered.
1. Marat/Sade (1967): After a working-class childhood, Jackson spent nearly ten years of dues paying in repertory theater and odd jobs before finding her métier by joining Peter Brook’s experimental Theater of Cruelty, which had its roots in the teachings of Antonin Artaud. The Brook company made a sensation, in London and then in New York, with this Peter Weiss play (which has a hilariously long original title) about a madhouse performance directed by the Marquis de Sade; it was literally in-your-face 60s theater, with the actors, or “inmates,” terrifying the audience from the stage nightly, just as they attempt to terrorize the camera in the film. Jackson is clearly a star in the making in the middle of the ensemble, playing a semi-catatonic girl playing Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat. She constructs a whole performance that’s emotionally disconnected from every word she says, and it could get tiresome very easily if she wasn’t so immersed in madness, plotting the pitiful rise and fall of this girl’s confused mind with great discipline and imagination.
2. Women in Love: Ken Russell’s crude sensibility does a disservice to D.H. Lawrence’s best book, but this adaptation is often diverting on its own terms, and Jackson’s Gudrun, which Lawrence uncharitably modeled on Katherine Mansfield, is still an impressive creation. She’s stylishly moderne here in her blue cloque hat and green stockings and her incisive voice is good-humored for once, with a touch of likable bitchery; she’s at her most physically expansive, and her Peter Brook training shows in the sequence where she scares off a herd of bulls with an angular, aggressive dance in the open air. Jackson’s pretty funny when she first takes her top off for Oliver Reed; at first, she has a “why not?” look on her face, but after she bares her breasts for him, it quickly changes to a frank “what am I doing?” expression. She makes an agonized grimace when Reed humps her, like an aged dowager having a stroke (who can blame her?), and her ball-busting persona comes to the fore in the last scenes, hatefully, but strikingly. Russell cannot shape or use what she is doing, but her Gudrun remains a three-dimensional, interesting bohemian in a hairy, clammy film that smells of sweat and unsatisfactory sex.
3. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971): In this decent, depressed John Schlesinger movie about a bisexual love triangle, Jackson does a real star turn as Alex Greville, a woman encased in turtleneck sweaters against the English cold, sipping bad coffee, smoking cigarettes to their bitter end. This is the rare Jackson film where words are not paramount; in fact, most of her performance has to be given in silent close-ups, where she is asked to look with rueful longing at her unfaithful lover (Murray Head). Unlike practically everything else she did, Sunday Bloody Sunday requires Jackson to drop her take-charge theatrical manner and settle down into film acting with the camera close in, so that her every thought can be read. She clearly has misgivings about this way of working, but she lets these misgivings feed the emotion of her work; at the end, trying to free herself from her miserable situation, her Alex says, “There are times when nothing has to be better than anything,” and Jackson has personalized this woman’s need for solitude to such an extent that it feels like a glimpse of her soul that has nothing to do with technique, which she too often used as armor for battle to keep herself hidden or safe.
4. Mary, Queen of Scots (1971): Jackson is at her sharp-clawed best in this fast-moving Hal Wallis production on the rivalry between her Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave’s foolish Mary Stuart. It came out in the same year as Jackson’s famous, nearly ten-hour Elizabeth I television series, Elizabeth R, and I much prefer her sly vaudeville turn as the Virgin Queen in this movie to her rather monotonous performance in the deadly accurate, poorly filmed Masterpiece Theater show, which goes on and on but produces little in the way of drama or even character development (the absurd casting of Vivian Pickles as Mary Stuart doesn’t help). When Jackson cries, “I am but barren stock!” here, she manages to be campy and tragic at once, and her explosion of “Jesus!” at Vanessa’s exasperating Mary could be our own. We don’t get a chance to get tired of Jackson’s “few tricks” in this film, and they are impressive enough to make you see why she was such a distinctive actress in this period.
5. Stevie (1978): The articulate Jackson was critical of her own material in interviews, often scathingly so, but she seems to have enjoyed playing the poet Stevie Smith, both on stage and in this film translation. “I liked Stevie Smith,” she said, high praise for her. “She stood four square and looked the big things straight in the eye.” These “big things” include Smith’s morbid yet tonically cheerful obsession with death, expressed to the full as she scrawled her poems at her office job and at home in the suburbs with her aunt (Mona Washburne). Though Jackson has some help from Washborne and Trevor Howard, who plays a convenient male friend, this is basically a one-woman show where she delightedly unwraps bits of Smith’s novels and poems for us, sometimes directly to the camera, sometimes with her slanted eyes cast sadly or humorously askance.
Jackson replaces her own hollow, unpleasant laugh with a wonderful kind of hooting giggle, drawn up directly from her nose, and she keeps her mouth under control for once, unless she allows it a childish little moue, for Stevie Smith was childish, in a severe, magical way, and she made her own tiredness and boredom seem like adventures. I have problems with Jackson in almost everything she did, but I love every minute of this performance, with its insistent upwards inflections and its unerring emphasis on the right words in each bit of Smith’s verse, so that every line reading feels like a treasurable fetish object. Jackson’s negative temperament matches up with Smith’s macabre viewpoint so ideally that her own blockages and tensions are lightened and dissolved; it’s a perfect melding of acting technique and deep feeling, difficult to see now and even when it came out, but the best argument that something was lost when Jackson went into politics.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.