Films

‘Here comes that crazy mother’

Rita Christopher October 15 1979
Films

‘Here comes that crazy mother’

Rita Christopher October 15 1979

‘Here comes that crazy mother’

At a Dallas press conference several years ago, Jill Clayburgh fled from the room in tears. Today, the 34-year-old actress fields reporters’ insistent queries with the suppressed delight of a pro. “Just say Luna was a fun movie," she says, grinning. “Just say Bernardo was fun; Italy was fun; everything was fun.” Her ice-blue eyes dance mischievously. Once you get the hang of it, putting on the press is a breeze.

From another corner of the packed room, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci blows Clayburgh a kiss. "When I met Jill, I ; sensed a kind of allure,” he says. “She was quite a superstar and at the same time, she is someone you could meet on the subways.” Given the eclectic nature of Manhattan subway riders, Clayburgh could indeed be a metropolitan straphanger. Wearing high boots, a flowing orange skirt and an embroidered vest, she combines expensive chic with the touch of flakiness that is the hallmark of the well-heeled New Yorker. And Clayburgh is a natural for the role. Born on Manhattan's fashionable Upper East Side, she attended an exclusive girls’ school and the equally selective Sarah Lawrence College. But a classmate

introduced her to summer stock, and after graduation Clayburgh served an apprenticeship at Boston's Charles Playhouse, where she met AI Pacino, whom she lived with for five years. Now married to playwright David Rabe (Streamers), Clayburgh still reminisces with Pacino about such trivia as catching mice in their apartment: she used a mousetrap; he preferred to catch them in paper bags and set them free.

Clayburgh drew approving notices for her roles in several Broadway musicals including The Rothschilds and Pippin, but her first major film appearance in Gable and Lombard was the kind of over-produced bomb that has ended many a promising career. Clayburgh, however, drew some favorable comment and landed parts in Silver Streak and Semi-Tough. Still, critics were unprepared for the dramatic range Clayburgh exhibited in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

“She gave an absolutely fascinating performance,” recalls Bertolucci, who cast

Clayburgh in Luna when the film’s schedule conflicted with Liv Ullman’s, his original choice. “Bernardo didn't ask me to read from a script because he hadn’t written one yet,” says Clayburgh. “But I knew he was auditioning me all the same. I was very nervous and I wore very high heels. I towered over him. ”

By the time filming began, the awkwardness was gone. “It was a fantastic experience for me,” says Clayburgh. The memory brings new animation to her face: “I don’t think it took particular courage to make this film, not even with the very explicit sex scenes. Everyone knows actors do wild things. I mean look at Nicholson and Brando. I guess if you work with a European director, you take your clothes off.”

Whatever her state of cinematic dishabille, Clayburgh claims Luna was good for her. “Before this, everywhere I went they said, ‘Here comes An Unmarried Woman.’ Now they can say, 'Here comes that crazy mother,’ ” she says, adding: “But they won't say that forever either.”

Rita Christopher