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THE WOMAN WHO DID NOT WANT TO BE BARBARA WALTERS


A Brit with strong political views, Glenda Jackson quit movies and became a Labor Party member of Parliament in 1992. But when I interviewed her for Newsday in 1979, she was still very much a movie star, one who was visibly shook up by the ordeal of playing guest host on a New York TV talk-show earlier that day. Nevertheless, she managed to pull herself together and treat me to more than a touch of class. --GUY FLATLEY


“I’d like a glass of wine, and make it a very tall glass,” Glenda Jackson says, moaning and wearily running her fingers through her sleek boy’s bob as she sinks into a cushiony refuge at the Pierre in New York City. She’s just returned from the taping of “Midday,” a disorienting ordeal marking her first–and last–appearance as a television talk-show host.

“God! I smoked like a chimney and talked like an idiot. And, all the time, there was that taciturn little man giving me signals–which would have been fine, except I didn’t know what the damned signals meant!”

No doubt she’s selling her video savvy short and could send shivers of panic zipping down Barbara Walters’ spine if she put her scalpel-sharp mind to the task. For the moment, however, Glenda is content to reign on the big screen, and she’s passing through New York primarily to plug “Lost and Found,” a jolly June release that teams her again with George Segal, her lusty, woefully wedded lover in “A Touch of Class.”

“In the beginning, I’m just a rather silly divorced woman who’s crashed into George’s car,” says the thoroughly modern Glenda, whose own ex-husband, Roy Hodges, has just this second smilingly excused himself to join their 10-year-old son Daniel in the next room. “Later, I meet George on a ski slope where we promptly collide, break our legs, fall in love and get married. So we settle down in a little New England town that is foreign to me–in a house that’s full of George’s dead wife–and we must face the fact that neither one of us is the person the other met on holiday. I’m making this sound like a Chekhovian tragedy, but it’s actually a very funny film.”

Nor will her next venture meddle with the mournful. In Robert Altman’s “Health,” set for a Christmas opening, the versatile Briton will boldly pass herself off as a celebrated American statesman, a trick she pulled off with wicked aplomb a few seasons ago when she portrayed a slippery, tape-doctoring mother superior in “Nasty Habits,” the true-to-Watergate comedy that had her mouthing such pearls as “Well, you won’t have Sister Alexandra to kick around anymore.”

“My character in ‘Health’ is based on Adlai Stevenson,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “I’m running for president at a huge convention of nutritionists down in Florida, and Lauren Bacall is Eisenhower, an 83-year-old virgin whose campaign slogan is ‘A Pure Presidency.’ Paul Dooley is an independent candidate whose health product contains all the properties of sea water, minus the salt. Carol Burnett is a White House adviser, and Jim Garner is Betty Bacall’s campaign manager. I must say I love playing straight man to all those wonderful comic actors!”

Straight man is not the role one would have envisioned for a gloriously liberated woman in the cinema of the ‘70s. “I’m afraid it’s still true that women are generally cast as mothers or whores, the leading man’s appendage, someone to be used on the emotional level only. I’m astonished that writers have failed to pick up on the political aspects of the women’s movement–it’s always the man-woman situation, the battling.

“I know I’ve been encouraged and influenced by the movement–it gave a voice to what many of us had been feeling for a long time but were too isolated to do anything about. Suddenly I stopped thinking of myself as the only mutant in my gender group. We couldn’t all be crazy, so why not do something about our situation, why not bring about some form of pressure?

“I would still argue with some of the extreme tactics,” says Glenda, reaching for another cigarette. “I don’t hate men, and I see no virtue in exchanging one form of chauvinism for another. Men have been sinned against as much as they have sinned, and I think our target should be the people in this industrial, commercialized society who treat their fellow citizens like numbers, like nameless faces.”

In the late ‘60s, one of Glenda’s major targets was the Vietnam War, as evidenced by her fiery participation in Peter Brooks’ “Tell Us Lies,” and it is logical to conclude that she applauds “Coming Home,” Hollywood’s belated acknowledgment of that debilitating conflict.

“‘Coming Home’ has nothing to do with the Vietnam War,” she patiently points out. “The first 10 minutes in the veterans' hospital were extraordinarily powerful, but then things slid away into a soupy triangle I had seen before.”


N
ot that Glenda, who won Best Actress Oscars for "Women in Love" (at left) and "A Touch of Class," begrudges Jane Fonda and Jon Voight the shiny statuettes they carried home for “Coming Home,” any more than she pooh-poohs the tearfully acknowledged honorary award bestowed upon Laurence Olivier at this year’s Academy Awards ceremonies. “Olivier deserved the Oscar for that performance alone. I’ve always marveled at his consummate technical skill, and the reception for him the other night was tremendously moving…but he’s never moved me, if you know what I mean.”

Like Olivier, Glenda channels nearly every ounce of her energy and emotion and intelligence into her acting. “I’d like to think that my career isn’t the most important thing in my life, but I am a workaholic. Sometimes I get frightened that I won’t find the performance inside me when I need it, but it’s always okay once I’m working. I guess you have to be idiotic or arrogant to walk out there on stage and lay yourself bare in front of total strangers; I’ve never been able to decide which it is–an act of miraculous courage or inordinate stupidity. I do know, however, that it’s an incomparable thrill when the audience perceives what you want them to perceive, when they realize precisely what you are doing, and afterwards you can say, ‘It worked–by God, it worked!’ Whatever it is, I’ve never been able to define it.”

There are occasions when even the finest of actresses must walk out on a stage or before a camera and utter lines that are banal.

“There are several things that I look back on and say, ‘How could I possibly have made that choice?’ ” Glenda says. “Well, someone once said, ‘Hindsight is the only exact science,’ and that’s very true. It’ also true that if you wait until something wonderful comes along, you won’t work very often, and if you don’t work, you lose the ability to work. In truth, you only learn from your failures, and acting just isn’t something you can bank away for a sunny day.

“But I don’t know…I may give the whole thing up one day and get myself a proper education. I fear that my brain has gone soggy, and I’d like to see if it really has. They’ve got this wonderful scheme in England now, an open university plan where you can get a degree by taking courses on television, and I’ve made an application and hope to find an acceptance in the mail when I get home to Black Heath.

“I put myself down for a science course because I’ve got this fantasy, you see, that I’m going to come up with a theory that will discount Einstein’s,” Glenda says, grinning and pouring another glass of wine. “But there’s a chance that I might not make it.”