Glenda Jackson, Oscar-winning actor turned politician, dies at 87

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Glenda Jackson, Oscar-winning actor turned politician, dies at 87
Her death was confirmed by Lionel Larner, her longtime agent, who said that she died after a brief illness.

by Benedict Nightingale

NEW YORK, NY.- Glenda Jackson, the two-time Oscar winner who renounced a successful film and stage career in her 50s to become a member of the British Parliament, then returned to the stage at 80 as the title character in “King Lear,” died Thursday at her home in Blackheath, London. She was 87.

Her death was confirmed by Lionel Larner, her longtime agent, who said that she died after a brief illness.

On both stage and screen, Jackson demonstrated that passion, pain, humor, anger, affection and much else were within her range. “I like to take risks,” she told The New York Times in 1971, “and I want those risks to be larger than the confines of a structure that’s simply meant to entertain.”

By then she had won both acclaim and notoriety for performances in which she had bared herself physically and emotionally, notably as a ferocious Charlotte Corday in Peter Brook’s production of Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” and as Tchaikovsky’s tormented wife in Ken Russell’s film “The Music Lovers.”

And she had won her first best actress Oscar, for playing the wayward Gudrun Brangwen in Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” (1969); her second was for her portrayal of the cool divorcée Vickie Allessio in “A Touch of Class” (1973).

Jackson pivoted to politics in 1992, and was elected as the member of Parliament representing the London constituency of Hampstead and Highgate for the Labour Party. After the party took control of government in 1997, she became a junior minister of transport, only to resign the post two years later before a failed attempt to become mayor of London.

She did not run for reelection in 2015, declaring herself too old, and soon returned to acting.

Throughout her career, Jackson displayed an emotional power that sometimes became terrifying, and a voice that could rise from a purr to a rasp of fury or contempt, although her slight physique suggested both an inner and outer vulnerability.

Her notable roles on the big screen included her depiction of the troubled poet Stevie Smith in Hugh Whitemore’s “Stevie” (1978) and as the needy divorcée Alex Greville in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971). On Broadway, she won praise as the neurotic Nina Leeds in Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” in 1985 and a best actress Tony for her role as A, a woman over 90 facing mortality, in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” in 2018.

Many of Jackson’s performances provoked shock and awe with their boldness, none more so than her “Lear” in 2016. Though she had a reputation as a dauntingly confident actor, she admitted to having attacks of agonizing nerves before going onstage, and at London’s Old Vic, these were particularly acute.

“I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was arrogance or just insanity,” she recalled of preparing for the most demanding of male roles in what she called “the greatest play ever written.” Her performance after 23 years away from the theater drew wide acclaim.

“You’re barely aware of her being a woman playing a man,” Christopher Hart wrote in The Sunday Times of London. “It simply isn’t an issue.”

Glenda May Jackson was born on May 9, 1936, in Birkenhead, near Liverpool in northwest England, the eldest of four daughters of Harry, a bricklayer, and Joan, a house cleaner and bartender.

Soon after her birth her parents moved to the nearby town of Hoylake, where home was a tiny workman’s house with an outdoor toilet, a cold water tap and a tin tub for a bath. The war increased the family’s privations. “We used to eat candle wax as an alternative to chewing gum,” she remembered. “The big treat was a pennyworth of peanut butter.”

With her father called into the navy, Glenda became increasingly crucial to an all-female household, something that explained, she said, both her defiant feminism and her “bossy streak.” She also proved bright and diligent, winning a scholarship to West Kirby County Grammar School for Girls. But she did not flourish there and left at 16. She was, she recalled, undisciplined and unhappy, “the archetypal fat and spotty teenager.”

She was working at a pharmacy store and performing onstage as a member of a local theater group when, in 1954, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, which had begun to encourage the enrollment of working-class students, including Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. (Jackson remained convinced that she was plain, even ugly — a belief later reinforced by the academy’s principal, who told her that she could become only a character actress and “shouldn’t expect to work much before you’re 40.”)

The schooling prepared her for what became six years in provincial repertory.

In 1958 she married Roy Hodges, a fellow actor. Regional stage work meant periods of unemployment, odd jobs and poverty for the couple, and Jackson later admitted that she had shoplifted food and other essentials that she could conceal under her coat.

Her big break came in 1964, when Brook brought her into an experimental group he was assembling for the recently formed Royal Shakespeare Company. He later recalled her as “a very curious figure — a hidden, shy and yet aggressive, badly dressed girl who seemed resentful of everything.” But in an audition, she had left him mesmerized by “the sudden plunges she took and by her intensity.”

Brook cast her in “Marat/Sade,” which transferred to Broadway in 1967, leading to a Tony nomination for Jackson’s Charlotte Corday.

But she disliked the experience, which, she said, left the company “in hysterics — people twitching, slobber running down their chins, screaming from nerves and exhaustion.” Nor did she enjoy the three years she spent with the RSC, though her roles included a sharp, shrewd Ophelia in Peter Hall’s revival of “Hamlet” and several characters in Brook’s anti-Vietnam War show, “US.” She was not, she decided, a company woman.

Such did her reputation as a “difficult” actor begin. She was regarded as aloof and egoistic, and could be contemptuous of actors she found lacking in commitment, bellicose in rehearsal rooms and unafraid of challenging eminent directors. Gary Oldman, who starred with her in Robert David MacDonald’s play “Summit Conference” in 1982, called her “a nightmare.”

Yet Trevor Nunn, who wrangled with her in rehearsals, later called her “direct, uncomplicated, honest, very alive.”

“Of all the actors I’ve worked with, she has a capacity for work that’s phenomenal,” Nunn said. “There’s an immense power of concentration, a great deal of attack, thrust, determination.”

Motivated in part by her dislike of Hollywood glitz, Jackson did not attend either of the Academy Award ceremonies for which she was honored as best actress.

What mattered more, she said, was “the blood, sweat and tears” of creating a role. For her Emmy-winning performance in the television serial “Elizabeth R” (1971), she learned to ride sidesaddle and to play the virginals, and mastered archery and calligraphy. She also shaved her head — all to add authenticity as her queen evolved from youth to crabbed old age.

Subsequent stage roles included Cleopatra in Brook’s revival of “Antony and Cleopatra” for the RSC in 1978, Racine’s Phèdre at the Old Vic in 1984, Lady Macbeth in a disappointing “Macbeth” on Broadway in 1988, and the title character in Brecht’s “Mother Courage” in 1990.

Though she won awards for “Stevie,” including one for best actress from the New York Film Critics Circle, and received good reviews for her work in the television movie “The Patricia Neal Story” (1981) and Robert Altman’s “Beyond Therapy” (1987), her later screen work was generally less successful.

With characteristic candor she was often withering about her own efforts, calling her performances in the film version of Terence Rattigan’s play “Bequest to the Nation” (released as “The Nelson Affair” in 1973) and as Bernhardt in the movie “The Incredible Sarah” (1976) “ghastly” and “lousy,” respectively.

She brought that candor to Parliament in 1992, when she declared, “Why should I stay in the theater to play the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’?”

Most scripts she had been sent were poor, she said, and contemporary dramatists were not writing good roles for women. Moreover, she said, she had a hatred of a Conservative government which, inspired by “that dreadful woman Margaret Thatcher,” seemed to be dismembering the welfare state the Labour Party had created after the war.

In Parliament, Jackson took an interest in homelessness, housing, women’s rights, disability issues and, especially, transportation. After resigning from her transport post, she was a Labour backbencher, joining those who opposed Britain’s part in the Iraq War in 2003, declaring herself “deeply, deeply ashamed” of her government and calling for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s resignation.

Jackson and Hodges divorced in 1976. In later years she shared a London house with her only child, political journalist Dan Hodges, and his wife and children. She preferred, she said, to remain unmarried, explaining that “men are awfully hard work for very little reward.”

Jackson also shunned the trappings of celebrity, dressing inexpensively, using public transportation and relegating her Oscars to the attic. She was, she admitted, a solitary person with not many friends.

But she did perhaps fulfill her own ambition: “If I have my health and strength, I’m going to be the most appalling old lady,” she said. “I’m going to boss everyone about, make people stand up for me when I come into a room, and generally capitalize on all the hypocrisy that society shows towards the old.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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