Glenda Jackson: A Tribute in Two Oscars

The late Glenda Jackson, who passed away last month at eighty-seven, didn’t attend the two ceremonies at which she won her Oscars. She had often voiced her disdain for such pageantry in the press; when asked about where she kept her awards, Jackson quipped, “My mother polishes them to within an inch of their lives until the metal shows. That sums up the Academy Awards – all glitter on the outside and base metal coming through. Nice presents for a day. But they don’t make you any better.” For Jackson, it was the challenge of performing itself that brought its own rewards, and in that sense she succeeded wildly, both in her life and her art.

Whether she intended it or not, Jackson’s mother was setting her eldest daughter up for fame from birth, naming her after Hollywood star Glenda Farrell. But Jackson’s upbringing was about as far from the silver screen as one could get. The family was poor, living in the seaside town of Hoylake, England in a house with an outdoor toilet. Her father made his living as a builder while her mother worked alternately as a shopgirl, pub waitress, and domestic cleaner. Jackson was employed at Boots the Chemists for a time before winning a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

When director Ken Russell cast her as one of the leads in his 1969 film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Jackson was mostly known for her stage work. She plays Gudrun Brangwen, one of a pair of sisters eking out their days in the dreary Midlands town of Beldover. It’s two years out from the devastations of the first World War, and as Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) declares, class distinctions are beginning to break down. Russell is an ideal director to capture these jittery times, infusing them with his own outré sensibilities, and he found an ideal actress to embody their contradictions in Jackson. 

Gudrun starts out as something of an enigma, or at least she wears her emotions less on her sleeve than her sister Ursula (Jennie Linden). She has an analytical bent, pondering whether she should get married for “the experience,” rather than for love itself. But she also dreams of being an artist, recoiling from the crudity of the coal-choked miners who surround her. She is a woman interested in testing her limits – in a scene as remarkable for its untamed physicality as the film’s notorious nude wrestling match, Gudrun dances before a herd of wild cattle, practically daring them to gore her – and she finds both her perfect match and greatest foe in the much wealthier Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), who possesses a rugged brutality that Gudrun takes a startling pleasure in knocking herself against. 

Critics rightly singled out Jackson’s shrewd performance; as Brian McFarlane wrote, “Her blazing intelligence, sexual challenge and abrasiveness were… rare in the annals of British cinema.” That a role as nakedly risky as this won an Academy Award feels like an anomaly in an age when many of our Best Actresses are stuck under layers of prosthetics. Gudrun doesn’t say much, but when she does she can be cutting, even sadistic. “You break me and you waste me, and it is horrible to me,” she says to Gerald at one point, driving him, possibly intentionally, to assault her. By the time their entanglement reaches its inevitable end, it’s as much a relief as a tragedy. 

A Touch of Class, which won Jackson her second Oscar a mere three years after Women in Love, seems like shallow fluff in comparison. Opening with a bird’s-eye view of 1970’s London, it immediately establishes itself as cosmopolitan and fizzy where Women was earthy and philosophical. A romantic comedy in the Nancy Meyers vein of conspicuous wealth and picturesque getaways, it wastes no time in setting up a “meet-cute” for our protagonists – the acerbic divorcée Vicki (Jackson) and the harried (and married) American expat Steve (George Segal) – as they both go for the same taxi in the rain. It’s actually the second time they’ve met cute, but this one sticks.

Steve has his seduction routine down pat, and it’s not long before he’s convinced Vicki first to meet at a “discreet” hotel for a rendez-vous and then to jet off on a weeklong trip to Malaga. Much of the comedy in this early stretch is logistical: the buying of plane tickets, the renting of cars, even the changing of hotel rooms are complicated by the very nature of their relationship. Yet there’s a remarkable lack of judgment of either Steve for conducting this affair or Vicki for partaking in it; instead the film becomes a sort of “will-they-or-won’t-they” for a couple who have already slept together. The pair engage in a fighting-to-fucking dynamic that bears a passing resemblance to the one between Gudrun and Gerald. “My one chance to get raped, and you can’t get your bloody trousers off,” Vicki cracks at one point.

Jackson has no trouble channeling her inner Hepburn (fitting, since the role of Steve was originally offered to Cary Grant), but her performance, and the film, is at its most interesting when it punctures holes in Vicki’s liberated woman armor. Once the twosome have returned to London, and procured a seedy flat for their assignations, Vicki seems surprised by how tightly she’s allowed herself to be tied to a supposedly no-strings-attached arrangement, balancing a genuine affection for Steve with disappointment in herself. “I’m beginning to feel like a wife,” she says when he has to run off yet again. 

Jackson’s confidence with the material is able to fill in some of the more egregious gaps in the script – while an abundance of screen time is given to Steve’s domestic life, little more than lip service is paid to how Vicki makes this situation work, despite the fact that she’s a single mother of two with a full-time job. Still, if either of the characters change from the experience it’s her, emerging from their eventual split wounded but wiser. 

True romantic comedy roles rarely get nominated for Oscars, let alone win. A Touch of Class was somewhat unusual in that it had quite a lot of Academy support – in addition to Jackson’s Best Actress, it had four other nominations including Best Picture. Watching it back to back with Women in Love, it’s striking to see not just what Variety called Jackson’s “full-spectrum talent” but her dedication to representing the full spectrum of female experience as well. Yet she was always conscious of acting’s limits: “It’s a very overcrowded profession, and particularly overcrowded if you’re a woman,” she once lamented. “Authors don’t find women that interesting.” 

This might in part explain why she pivoted to politics later in her career, serving in Parliament for thirteen years as a member of the Labour Party (a deep loathing of Thatcher was another reason). She returned to acting eventually, mostly onstage, but no matter where Jackson could be found or what she might be doing, there was always the sense that it was in service of a higher ideal rather than just herself. She was a rare talent, but perhaps an even rarer person.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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