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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Glenda Jackson, an unnervingly energizing presence at every age

From left: Laurie Metcalf, Alison Pill and Glenda Jackson in the play “Three Tall Women” at the Golden Theater in New York, March 21, 2018.

By Ben Brantley

She didn’t so much enter the restaurant as erupt into it, a fast-burning blaze of psychic exasperation that seemed to set the silverware rattling. Glenda Jackson was five minutes late for our meeting, and she looked ferociously disgusted with herself, with the universe, with the “bloody” London transit system and, most likely, with the prospect of having to talk about herself.

Such was my first in-the-flesh encounter with Jackson, who died June 15 at the age of 87 and who had seared herself into my teenage consciousness decades earlier as an uncompromisingly modern, sui generis movie star. Waiting for her five years ago in the restaurant of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, I had been prepared to be awed, intimidated, even terrified. What I hadn’t anticipated was how unnervingly energizing the presence of this 81-year-old woman would be.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the kinetic force of Jackson, who was about to return to Broadway for the first time in three decades in a revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” She had, after all, made her international name in the 1960s and early ’70s — in films like Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” and John Schlesinger’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — as the combustible embodiment of a very contemporary dissatisfaction with the world as she found it.

Her most obvious antecedents were probably the nervy, forever restless Bette Davis and her Gallic descendant, Jeanne Moreau. But among her British peers, Jackson was the first to emerge as the female equivalent of a discomfiting archetype that had been haunting her country’s imagination since the 1950s, the Angry Young Man.

Angular of form and feature, with a voice so sharp you half-expected it to draw blood, Jackson arrived into reluctant celebrity full-blown as the new Angry Young Woman, disgustedly making her way through the debris of a decaying establishment. She was the latter-day answer to Henrik Ibsen’s majestically discontented, hyperintelligent Hedda Gabler, a part she played both onstage and onscreen.

That solar persona shone equally bright in period pieces (like the bohemian Gudrun in “Women in Love” and an extremely commanding Queen Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth R,” on television) and in 20th-century rom-coms (as the witheringly witty divorcée in “A Touch of Class,” her second Oscar-winning performance; “Women in Love” was her first).

The same enlivening rage would be evident when she took on what she probably regarded as her greatest role, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament, where she served for 23 years. (In 2013 she delivered, in wonderfully high dudgeon, an anti-elegy for the newly deceased former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.)

She was also a mythic creature of the stage, honing her scalpel-like style in the early 1960s in Peter Brook’s experimental company. It was for Brook that she portrayed, in London and on Broadway, the asylum inmate who becomes the murderous Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’ truly shocking “Marat/Sade.” It was one of those rare, raw performances whose impact was such in theater circles that even people who couldn’t possibly have seen it swear that they did.

When she returned to the theater at 80, years after retiring from Parliament, it was — but of course — in the most titanically angry role in the classic canon: King Lear, at London’s Old Vic. The dazzled reviews, along with a slew of awards, testified that age had not mellowed or muted her. When she came back to Broadway, two years later, she gave an eye-scalding fireworks display as the splenetic, dying mother in “Three Tall Women,” for which she won a Tony.

In 2019, she did do Lear on Broadway, in a reconceived production tricked out with an abundance of postmodern conceits that might have smothered a less assertive star. Jackson cut through the surrounding flash like a buzz saw, throwing herself against the wall of old age and mortality until it seemed to crumble into unanswerable darkness.

Jackson was not given to self-analysis, or at least not in any way that she was willing to share with the world. Nor was she fond of discussing the details of her craft. And her life outside her work, she said, was simple — that of a grandmother who did her own shopping and cleaning in a basement apartment. She eschewed the trappings of 21st-century technology (no cellphone) and of celebrity, the fact of which seemed only to embarrass her.

And while she mostly avoided anything like personal confessions, she did make one admission that startled me. When I asked if it felt different performing for a live audience again, she said it felt exactly the same, meaning that this most fearless of dramatic actresses was profoundly scared. “You can go onto that stage every night,” she said, “and it’s always the equivalent of going onto the topmost diving board, and you don’t know if there’s any water in the pool.

“Every time I say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ I think, ‘My God, I don’t know how to do it. I can’t do it.’ We are sadomasochists as well as being brave, actors, and we torment ourselves.”

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