Glenda Jackson stepped off the number 53 bus. She was a picture of conspicuous normality: fleece, jeans, bags of shopping. We had arranged to meet at Deptford Cinema, a volunteer-run project that brings the world of film to a defiantly unhip corner of south east London. The space – converted from a workshop that had long been derelict – has a plywood and exposed brick charm. In her own way, so has Jackson.
Lyn Pinkney, who appeared alongside Jackson in both the stage and the 1967 film versions of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade, spoke of her co-star as “flat as a pancake, no makeup, lank unattractive hair…but an actress like Glenda makes you believe she’s beautiful.”1 Jackson’s gift is to make you believe in almost anything with only the smallest transformations in voice or manner. She belongs to an exclusive group of screen actors – Streep, Day-Lewis, Brando – who are able to suggest hidden depths without holding anything back.
I first encountered Jackson on IMDb.com as a teenage film nerd and was intrigued by her truncated filmography. She is one of those rare performers to have won two leading role Oscars (for Ken Russell’s Women in Love in 1971 and Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class in 1973). Yet with so few of her films available on DVD, her place in world cinema doesn’t always get its dues. She straddled two worlds – theatre and film – and then moved into a wholly exotic third when she became MP for Hampstead and Highgate in 1992.
If she’s an anomaly it was not entirely of her own making. Jackson tells me of how she had been advised at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that she was a character actress and that she shouldn’t expect to work before she was 40. In other eras this may well have been the case, but British cinema in the 1970s wasn’t in the mood for conforming to type. Peter Brook and Joseph Losey were smuggling a continental art house style through the backdoor of the British film industry. Ken Russell was reimagining the way cinema told stories. John Schlesinger was – for a moment – one of the most radical A-list directors in the world. Jackson worked with them all.
There is nothing mysterious in the way she talks about acting. For her performance in the six-part BBC television serial Elizabeth R (1971) Jackson did her due diligence by going through several biographies of the Queen. This research is on display in the final scene of the series: originally written with the dying Elizabeth clutching her sceptre, Jackson told the director “we can’t do this” and produced an account of the Queen sucking her thumb. In this moment of vulnerability, “the part came to together”. Elizabeth’s strength was a matter of survival. As someone who spent her twenties getting by on part-time work in shops, pubs and factories while managing to appear in over 200 productions, Jackson knew all about survival.2
“People say I frighten them,” says Jackson, “which is completely unintelligible to me”. Elizabeth R may have contributed to this perception, often at the expense of quieter roles such as the poet Stevie Smith in Robert Enders’s tender, wonderful 1978 film Stevie. Jackson is as direct as they come and doesn’t pander to her interlocutors with unearned chumminess. But – at barely 5’5” and wearing a Cafod jumper – she’s anything but frightening.
At 80, Jackson still resists being dependent. To offers of private transportation she insists on making her own way. The Old Vic must be perplexed at her choice to commute to rehearsals of King Lear on the sclerotic Southeastern train service.3 Keeping up with Jackson’s walking pace can be a breathless challenge (I am 27). She does not loiter.
Decades later it is possible to trace what it is about Jackson that fascinated filmmakers during the height of her film career. You can see it in controlled gestures. She can at times seem distant until a small shift – a half smile, a wink – greets you like an old friend. There is a moment in Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) where Jackson’s crazed Nina is crouched at her disturbed husband Tchaikovsky’s feet begging to be loved. Jackson scratches the carpet, a touch of bestial helplessness that makes Nina simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive.
Jackson recalls that this scene was the first shot of the day and Russell (unusually for him) didn’t know how to do it. “He listened to everyone’s idea – the cameraman, the clapper boy, sound people – and I said to him eventually ‘why don’t I just scratch the carpet?’” It is curious to hear of Russell being possessed by anything other than a singular vision. “The thing that gets forgotten about Ken,” Jackson continues “is that he brought things in on time and on budget. When he was working he was like a pressure cooker, there would always be five minutes of screaming. And then it was over.”
Listening to Jackson is to be enchanted by that voice, instantly recognisable yet hard to place geographically or socially, lilting seamlessly from growl to quiver. I often think of her in the final scene of Alan Bridges’ The Return of the Soldier (1982). Alan Bates plays a shell-shocked captain who has returned from the Great War with twenty years missing from his memory. Jackson, the teenage sweetheart with whom he is determined to reunite, is asked to help bring him out of his amnesia. Yet to do so would also be to remind him of the death of his infant son. She is initially reluctant: having lost her own child, it would be to “live the pain afresh”. But after visiting the son’s nursery she decides it must be done. Jackson has much to do in this short scene. “What a lot of toys” she says without a jot of bitterness. The theremin-like tremor in her voice tells us everything we need to know. “I used to think my baby left me because I had so little to give him. But if a baby could leave all this.” She breaks off. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s restrained camera, which does not labour the emotion of the scene, only closes in on Jackson’s grieved faced in these final moments. It is unquestionably her greatest screen performance.
Jackson may have left cinema behind but it is clear that she is proud and, on occasion, protective of her screen work, especially her collaborations with Ken Russell. It is when talking about this director (with whom she worked on five occasions4) that I got the greatest sense of what cinema meant to her.
For one, to be on a film set with a director like Russell was for Jackson an experience verging on sensual. “You are in this area that is lit and you are surrounded by people who are in one sense looking at you, but they are not looking at you. They’re looking at the lighting, at the costume, the different departments for the makeup, for hair, the props. They brought their abilities to bear on this lit area. All of this concentration gives off a potent and powerful energy that you can feel and use. That is one of the extraordinary things about film.”
From her earliest screen roles, you can really sense Jackson feeding off this creative energy. She has none of the stiffness of an actor trained for the stage, and she never does ‘hammy’. Yet the humanity of her acting is not always reciprocated by Russell’s filmmaking. I am one those people who is concerned about The Music Lovers. A particular scene stands out. Tchaikovsky and Nina are on a train back home after an uneventful honeymoon and getting mightily wasted in their compartment. Nina tears off her clothes and woozily tries to drag Tchaikovsky to bed. Tchaikovsky, appalled by the situation, leaves the naked Nina to roll around on the train floor. With music drowning out the diegetic soundtrack, Russell places his characters in a heightened state. The camera lunges urgently at Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky, implying a violence towards the composer that Jackson’s portrayal of Nina at no point conveys. The impression given is one of a fully clothed man being violated by a vulnerable naked woman.
Jackson, true to form, is sceptical. Women, she says, are still “deadly dull to dramatists”. I put it to her that it isn’t clear from the scene whether Russell is depicting Tchaikovsky being disgusted or is inviting the viewer to share Tchaikovsky’s disgust. “Ken questions the way we as recipients set creative people on some kind of pedestal. He was always interested in the viewer rather than the participant.” Jackson clarifies participants as the characters, but as she goes onto explain Russell “didn’t really understand actors either.”
“That sequence on the train, it was a very funny sequence really,” chips in Jackson, sensing that my ill-ease had not abated. “The cameramen were on the luggage rack and I’m there. First luggage fell on me and Ken said, ‘oh she’s fine, she fine.’ Then the Champagne bottle fell on me and he said ‘wipe the blood off her, she’s fine’. The next thing the cameraman is sitting in my lap muttering ‘I’mmmm married man, I’mmmm married man’.”
What kind of direction, if any, did Russell give to his actors? “He was a ballbreaker.” Jackson described how her friend Liv Ullman had a similar relationship with Bergman. “They always know what they don’t want, and never know what they do, until you show them. But they create an atmosphere, a climate, that can bring imagination.” Acknowledging that potential for the intuited unknown, “Ken would never say cut. I’d ask ‘why the fuck does he never say cut‘? It’s because he never knows what you’re going to do.”
Jackson famously doesn’t give a toss about her Oscars. I don’t mention them, although we do touch on Trevor Nunn’s 1975 film Hedda (an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler). “You were nominated for that, weren’t you?” “Was I?” she asked, wonderfully oblivious to something most actors would gladly sell limbs for. For the record, she was nominated: it was the last time the Academy would be bothering Ms Jackson.
Yet for all the nonchalance, Jackson enjoyed the opportunities that success afforded her. What I am keen to uncover is what the Hollywood acclaim meant – if anything – to Jackson. Her American films are few and incidental. A Touch of Class won Jackson her second leading actress award but has aged poorly. Stronger are her pictures with the great Walter Matthau, House Calls (Howard Zieff, 1978) and Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980). There is a touch of fin de siècle screwball to these enjoyable if forgettable films. Matthau does Cary Grant playboy minus aristocratic airs; Jackson, a feisty foil à la Katherine Hepburn, has the razor wit to reduce our dandy to a gibbering wreck.
The actors are more interesting than their scripted archetypes. Jackson’s comic strength is that she plays it straight. In House Calls there is something of Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971) to when Jackson is led to believe that Matthau has been seeing someone else. In retaliation she throws away his clothes when he’s in the shower. The comedy is made all the more credible by our belief in Jackson’s pain.
“It was very shocking to work in Hollywood,” Jackson revealed, yet she doesn’t have the snobbery about Los Angeles sometimes common to other British thespians. “It was astonishing how professionalised the place was at the time.” This fascination is evident in the breezy charm of Jackson’s performance. This lightness is enhanced by her evident rapport with Matthau. They remained great friends, she tells me. I imagine the pug-faced New Yorker popping by a constituency surgery in Hampstead: “Glenda how th’devil are ya?”
Robert Altman was in Jackson’s words another “marvellous man”. The American director famed for meandering and semi-improvised panoplies was, Jackson tells me, “a master of creating an atmosphere for actors”. Jackson featured in two Altman films in the 80s, Health (1980) and Beyond Therapy (1987). Neither is vintage Altman, but he is like a master collector who relishes the parts over the sum, and Jackson’s presence in them is another fascinating but unaccountable detail. Jackson admits she struggles to tell apart her memories of the two shoots. It was, she says, pure creative chaos.
I ask if he had been in touch when he was in the UK to make Gosford Park in 2001. “It’s funny you ask that. He gave a lecture at the BFI, either shortly after or it could have been before Gosford. I went along, and I said how lovely it was to see him. He was embarrassed I think that he hadn’t asked me to be in it. I’m sure I would have been offered a role had I been acting.”
Considering all that Jackson has given us in her twenty plus years of screen work it is perhaps greedy to ponder what could have been had she stuck with acting. But I ponder nonetheless. I’m tempted to think of the work of Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith, peers both in age and acclaim – Jackson’s retirement was surely their gain. A stint with Merchant Ivory would seem highly likely. It was the 90s when American studios seemed to fall back in love with the grand British thespian, and Jackson’s curiosity about Hollywood may have lured her over. Jackson surely would have been a regular fixture of the Best Supporting Actress category.
Would Judi Dench’s late career fame have been as a pronounced had Jackson been available to play those irascible matriarchs? In one important sense, no. Jackson, who is not overly forthcoming on the parts she turned down, let slip that she was offered the role of M in the James Bond franchise in the early 90s. Knowing that the pre-Brosnan producers were thinking of Jackson makes it tempting to see Elizabeth R in the female spymaster’s DNA. The denial of sexual favours that in turn generates its own intimidating sexuality is as fundamental to M as it is to the Virgin Queen. Dench, of course, would go onto to do her own Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) – more dear old Bess than fearsome Gloriana. Rather than taking on the sinister bald goons of Bond, Jackson devoted her efforts to pummelling the likes of Iain Duncan Smith.
Jackson’s return to the London stage has fuelled speculation that we may once again see her on the screen, but she is having none of it: “Highly unlikely,” she states. As far as Jackson is concerned there has been no marked change in writers finding women interesting. “In many ways I’m too old now (for cinema)”. But not too old for Lear? “I’m perfect for King Lear” she fires back. “As my ex-husband said to me, you won’t have to worry about the makeup now.” But perhaps there is hope. “The film scripts I have been sent are just crap,” she says, leading me to wonder if her doubts about cinema are more circumstantial than fundamental. After all, nothing can come of nothing.
- Henry Erlich, “They Hardly Ever Make Passes at Glenda Jackson”, Look Magazine, 29 December 1970. Republished online at: www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/look%20magazine/904R-000-005.html. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jackson performed in the title role of King Lear at the Old Vic from 25 October to 3 December 2016, her performance hailed as a phenomenal return to the London stage. ↩
- Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), The Boy Friend (1971), Salome’s Last Dance (1988) and The Rainbow (1989). ↩