Glenda Jackson: The Best Actress Who Walked Away
The Oscar-winner turned politician, 79, sits down for a fiery chat about sexism, Donald Trump, R2-D2, and why the Academy Awards don't matter.
On a cool January morning, she arrives, via subway, for a photo shoot at a home near Abbey Road in London. She’s wearing a white Tintin sweatshirt and zero pretense. Over a cafetière of coffee in the art-dappled kitchen, she’d rather chat about the pictures on the wall than her two Best Actress Oscars, the first of which she won 45 years ago. But if pressed, she does offer a rare insight into what it’s really like to own those statuettes. “My mother polished them assiduously,” she says, “and it doesn’t take long for the gold to come off. Nothing but base metal underneath.”
That’s classic Glenda Jackson. Still sharp as a spike at age 79, she’s a woman who says what she thinks. It’s a trait that has defined her performances as well as her great second act, which began when she abandoned acting 24 years ago and was elected to British Parliament. Imagine Julianne Moore stepping away from movies right now to become a congresswoman, and you get a taste for the unexpected flair of Jackson’s life. When she graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1957, the school’s director told her that she was a character actress and as such, shouldn’t expect to work much before she was 40. In fact, before she was 40, she’d won both of her Oscars.
In movie after movie, as her star rose in the 1970s, her raw talent and total disregard for showbiz grooming earned her widespread adoration. Along with contemporaries such as Jane Fonda and Ellen Burstyn, she led a new wave of female characters who were not defined by men. On screen and off, Jackson rebelled against male dominance. She gave rise to a quality of performance — edgy, spontaneous, erotic, castrating, naked — that hadn’t been seen before, but exists today in the DNA of Jennifer Lawrence or Cate Blanchett. When asked by an interviewer in 1976 if she was “waving the flag for women’s lib,” she replied, “Waving it? I’ll poke it in your eye if I have to.”
Indeed, Jackson never had a reputation as the easiest interview subject. Brusque is an adjective often used to describe her. When she played the Virgin Queen in the landmark 1971 miniseries, Elizabeth R, the monarch’s imperious hauteur was reportedly on display during Jackson’s lunch breaks with the cast. But on this morning, her charm is incandescent. Granted, she is not one of those demure English ladies. When the photographer offers her cheese from Paris and coffee from Mexico, Jackson playfully yelps, “You have nothing in your kitchen from Tesco,” a reference to a British grocery store chain. If you need to contact her, the only means is via her landline phone. She still smokes her Dunhills like a hipster, though she only enjoys a few puffs before stubbing the cigarette in the gravel.
In a room with Jackson, you instantly sense her presence. Her strong baritone voice can rise in volume like a megaphone, and she’s always listening and responding. Though she retired her Parliamentary seat last year, a few of the people this morning for the photo shoot are former constituents and she is eager to chat with them. “Thank you for making me look human again,” she jokes to the hair and makeup professionals. “Thank you so much for all of those lovely things,” she says to the wardrobe expert, “and for alerting me where I can get them.”
When a digital technician reveals that he is the son of Kenny Baker, the actor who played R2-D2 in Star Wars, she is overcome with excitement. “Oh, no! How marvelous,” she bullhorns. “You’re the envy of every child in the world. And you know, we can be funny about it, but bless him. What your dad did was an extremely difficult thing to do, especially to be so convincing.” An hour later, the Force is still with her. “I just keep remembering the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo and Chewbacca. How could I forget?”
Born into a working-class family in northwest England, Jackson entered drama school out of youthful boredom. Eight years of unnoticed roles on stage and service jobs in London shops and cafes went by before she joined director Peter Brook’s 1966 “Theater of Cruelty” season at the Royal Shakespeare Company and caused a sensation as an asylum inmate in the stage production of Marat/Sade. The 1967 film version of the play triggered an outpouring of movie scripts. The first filmmaker to take a bite was Ken Russell, who ignored the objections of United Artists and cast Jackson in his 1970 amatory drama, Women in Love, as a spirited 1920s artist who falls for a brutish industrialist (Oliver Reed). The movie’s signature scene, after its infamous nude wresting bout between Reed and costar Alan Bates, features Jackson herding cattle via erogenous song and dance.
Like Brook, Russell provided Jackson with a vessel to pour her energy. Both men were transformative pillars in her career. “Their views gave me faith in my opinions,” she says. “Great directors all share a basic thing, which is that they all know what they don’t want. They listen to anybody and take ideas about what could happen. But they also know what they want when you show it to them. They can always stop you going down a non-productive road, but then you do something and it sparks something. It’s very important for actors’ confidence, to try that thing that alters a reading into a performance.”
Woman in Love scored Jackson her first Oscar. That was in early 1971, and the Academy Awards voting period was simultaneous with the airing of Elizabeth R, the game-changing 10-hour TV event, which gave birth to the miniseries format. “That’s an exaggeration,” she says, “But there was an audience, yes, especially since it had to do with dead long-gone royals. And certainly, because it was television, more people saw me than had ever seen me in everything I’d done up to that point combined.”
Jackson’s assertion about the power of TV is underlined by her healthy palate for the small screen. She hasn’t seen a play in two decades and doesn’t go out to watch movies, but is astonished by the breadth of current television. The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and The West Wing are among her favorites, especially for the performances. “I see people on television and I don’t know their names and, certainly if it’s made in America, they race through the credits,” she says. “But I’m absolutely stunned when I see some of the programs that come out of America, and I say, ‘Who the f— are these staggering actors? Why have I never seen them before? Where the f— have they come from?”
Jackson’s vocabulary, as you can tell, turns bluer with her enthusiasm. That verbal indecency no doubt endeared her to unconventional artists like Russell as her career was ascending. In 1971, she reteamed with him for The Music Lovers. The movie is quintessential Ken Russell, a florid, demented biopic of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky (Jackson plays his lust-starved wife Antonina), featuring one of cinema’s craziest sex scenes, set inside a shuddering train car. But when the director asked her to be a repressed nun his next movie, The Devils, she told him that she was fed up with playing neurotics and nymphomaniacs. (Vanessa Redgrave took that role, and Jackson collaborated with Russell again, including for one of her final films, a 1989 prequel to Woman in Love called The Rainbow.)
Instead, she worked with director John Schlesinger, fresh off his Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, on the miraculous bisexual love story, Sunday Bloody Sunday. Jackson played a businesswoman in love with an artist (Murray Head), who loves a doctor (Peter Finch). The movie, even today, is revelatory for its emotional nuances and non-sensational approach. “Best film script I’d ever read,” she says. “It was about relationships between people who wanted more than they could furnish. And, of course, United Artists was scared to death of it and didn’t know how to sell it. Apologies to Uncle Sam, but in America, they think homosexual affairs are about sex. But they are about love.”
On the set, Schlesinger exhibited idiosyncrasies and insecurities that Jackson immediately warmed to. “We’d get to work in the morning and he’d be talking to the script continuity girl, saying, ‘Oh, this film is a piece of s—, it’s just ghastly, what the f— are we doing.’ She’d say, ‘Well, I think it’s actually good.’ And he’d loosen up. This was his routine for getting into the working day. And to see it from a director was heartening for me and quite a relief. His perspective came completely from what we all are really like as human beings. Flawed, complex, unsure of ourselves.”
She won her second Oscar for 1973’s A Touch of Class, a minor comedy which gains significant pathos from Jackson’s nervy performance as the mistress of George Segal, who feels the hurt of being his second choice. For the next 15 years, she continued to work endlessly. Her later period as an actress was marked by two movies opposite the perfect sparring partner to her own inexplicable brand of romantic charisma, Walter Matthau (1978’s House Calls and 1980’s Hopscotch), and two outré titles directed by Robert Altman (1980’s HealtH and 1987’s Beyond Therapy). “Ebullient, larger than life, funny, sensitive men,” she says.
Some of her movies are out of print, but over the years she’s always known when one became newly available to DVD because she would receive a flurry of fan mail. “In the main, from Germany and Austria,” she says with a shrug. Speaking about the many touchstones in her career, Jackson is aware that some people nowadays shoehorn her whole body of work into the two Oscars she won. “But I jib at the idea I won them,” she insists. “I did nothing but the job I was given. They weren’t earned like a gold medal or something.” (She was nominated a total of four times but never attended the ceremony on those occasions; in 1975 she agreed to open the envelope for Best Actor, “since I happened to be in Los Angeles anyway,” she says.)
As for her trophies, one resides with a nephew who borrowed it for a school project. The other “is up in the attic along with the rest of the stuff.” But even if she’s blasé about the actual hardware, will she at least agree about their cultural significance? Or that a film like 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture can affect social change? “Prove it,” she cracks. “How can you say that 12 Years a Slave or Selma has caused a fundamental cultural shift? And then you have all these black guys being shot by policemen. It doesn’t work like that. Would that the Oscars could change the world but, I’m sorry, it just ain’t true.”
That conviction is at the bedrock of why she quit Hollywood for social work. Her political identity had been honed as a teenager by lefty American heroes like Upton Sinclair and Harry Truman, and her belief that “we are stronger when we acknowledge our responsibilities to each other” spurred her successful run for a seat in Parliament in 1992. As a member of the liberal Labour Party, she was elected to serve a section of North and Central London. In 1997, she was appointed to the position of transportation minister by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, her party’s leader. When Blair supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, she was verbal in her criticism of him.
Jackson explicitly desired to level the playing field for women in politics. “Listen, the playing field is absolutely not level,” she says. “Women are underrepresented in the arts, too. And under acknowledged, be it painting or music or performing arts. That’s been the situation for my entire life. And I’ve seen little change in that. I find it staggering that creative writers still find half of the human race so uninteresting. Men are always invariably the driving energy of stories and women are merely adjuncts.”
In 2000, she threw her name into contention for London’s mayor. But her own party rejected her – in favor of a man. She was urged by the party to put her name forward because there wasn’t another woman in the race and was hardly reluctant to do so. “But it became clear that even the Labour party weren’t prepared to ultimately give that to a woman. It was a very interesting process to go through. The argument is always that the culture has to change. But what about politicians? Let’s ask them why is there is still this gender block?” She pauses, almost as if she would rather cease with this maddening topic, but then she starts up again: “There are still two women murdered every week in this country by a former partner or husband. So we ain’t by any means on that comfortable mountain of equality.”
But paradoxically, Jackson was energized into seeking office by her hatred of a woman she believed had a cold heart for the disenfranchised. “Anything legal I could’ve done to get the stink of Margaret Thatcher out of government,” she says, “I’d gladly have a go at.”
Jackson halfheartedly insists that she did not despise the Iron Lady on an individual level but instead the movement of “Thatcherism.” That’s a matter of semantics. “I’m of the generation that knew what it was like before we had a functioning welfare state,” she says. “Certainly before the NHS [National Heath Service] had been introduced. Medical help was for you only if you had the money to pay for it. Equality as far as education. Some of the building blocks of creating a civilized modern society came as the result of that social dream.”
Thatcherism, to Jackson, represented the crushing of that dream. “I had seen the damage that she’d done. I heard her discount society. The terrible, terrible seams that one saw. The homeless and mentally ill in our streets. Reagan, her great buddy, did the same in America… Certainly the women who raised me were the antitheses of her philosophies. Those women did not believe that you should walk by on the other side of the street.”
Contempt for Thatcher still stirs within her. While running her fingers over a photograph of Nelson Mandela, she recalls a visit that the South African president made to Parliament in 1996. And she suddenly slams her coffee mug on the table. “I stood to watch Mandela and there was bloody Margaret Thatcher, the woman who had called him a terrorist, sitting in the front row in this big f—ing hat, obstructing the view. Acting like she was doing everybody a f—ing favor by coming there.”
In 2013, two days after Thatcher’s death, Jackson made headlines (and went on to rack up 1.6 million YouTube views) with an impromptu speech at the House of Commons, decrying the “greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker” and “extraordinary human damage” of Thatcherism. To close her seething six-minute address, she declared, “To pay tribute to the first prime minister deputed by female gender, okay, but a woman – not on my terms!” Members on the other side of Parliament (Thatcherites and virtually all men) howled “Shame on you” and “Sit down.” Of their reaction, she quips, “It was very predictable. And thus very easy to ignore.”
Jackson’s decision not to seek reelection in 2015 was based on a number (“We are talking about when I will be nearly 80,” she told her local newspaper), but she remains a keen observer of the political zoo and still loves the scrimmage of debate. She refers to Donald Trump as “that nutcase with the worst hair in the world.” Of taxes, she says, “Everybody bitches but nonetheless, we are looking at big issues that are facing this country and they’ll only be solved in one sense by finding more money for them.”
Her gender bias informs her wish that Hillary Clinton, if nominated, will be elected president, though she’s cynical about the campaign that will be waged against her. “Whoever the Republican candidate is, they’re going to dig up all of her baggage. Every email, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, of course. They’re gonna beat her with Bill. And that’s because the Republicans don’t have anybody who can take her on politically.”
But Jackson can be sentimental, too. When she first won her seat in Parliament, her acting icon Marlon Brando sent her a fan letter, which she cherished. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, she stayed up late and “started crying when I saw all those marvelous American flags in Chicago.”
She sometimes bumps into old friends from the movie world. “Amazes me,” she says. “I may not see a former costar for donkey’s years but we always pick up where we left off. That’s one of the plusses. As actors, you do have to work on a level that’s much deeper than the usual social parade you go through before calling someone a friend.” She clicked instantly with Carol Burnett while working on Altman’s HealtH, and smiles while recalling that Burnett needed to change her residence while filming in Florida due to fans knocking on her door in the middle of the night. “She affectionately called them the between-your-feet generation,” Jackson says. “Fans who had seen her on the television from their bed and felt so comfortable approaching her. What everyone really loved about her – and I know I felt the same way – was that she was this fantastic working girl.”
The same could be said for Jackson. For the first time in 65 years, she is out of work. She lives with her son and his family in London. (She divorced in 1976 and never remarried.) Last year she accepted the lead role in a BBC Radio drama of Emile Zola novels, her first acting gig in a quarter century. (In an ironic bookend to her breakthrough role in Marat/Sade, her matriarch character is also partly confined to an asylum.) Performing again made her nervous but the format suits her. “You don’t have to learn your words or put on makeup or worry about bumping into furniture,” she says. “It’s such a unique form of communication. The best pictures are on radio. I can still vividly remember hearing The Go-Between in the late ’60s. You could feel the heat coming out of the radio.”
All through her tenure in Parliament she was offered parts, but she says, “Nine out of ten were rubbish.” Still, it’s fun to speculate on which roles she might have played over the years. In an alternate universe, Judi Dench’s first Oscar, for playing Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, would have been Jackson’s third. Asked if she’d consider returning to film or TV, she says she doesn’t rule it out: “If something were to press my button.”
Her stage presence hasn’t diminished. If anything, after decades in office, she can probably deliver a monologue stronger than ever. And her sarcasm could cut cold steel. “Don’t you dare send this viral!” she mock-shouts when someone snaps a picture of her smoking a cigarette, then laughs about politicians who hide their vices. “No member of Parliament can be seen drinking anything besides water,” she says. “I suppose they’re allowed to eat fruit. But surely you would want a human being to represent you. Or would you prefer them flown in by extraterrestrials from another planet?”
Whatever comes next for the retired actress-politician, as she enters her 80s with a birthday this May, history would suggest that it’ll be unorthodox – even if that means comfortable repose with her friends and babysitting of her 9-year-old grandson. But as the sun sets behind the clouds in London, Jackson heads for the subway and speaks three words that she’s no doubt uttered many times in her remarkable eight decades of defying expectations.
“Bye,” she says with a wink. “For now.” ◆