Glenda Jackson won the first of two Oscars for her performance in the 1969 film "Women in Love." Now she's back in the limelight on Broadway. Mark Phillips has a Sunday Profile:
"I'm ninety-one …"
She's eighty-one years old, actually, Glenda Jackson is … not the character she's been rehearsing in the Broadway production of Edward Albee's classic, "Three Tall Women." A two-time Oscar-winner, with a reputation for strongly-held views, Jackson plays a difficult-to-deal-with matron.
"So here, you have a play which is entirely dependent upon three females," she said. "And that, in and of itself, is fascinating."
It's a perfect part for her to return to a world where she has long and famously complained about the lack of good parts for women. "I mean, I can remember when I was still doing films -- and I'm going back a long way now -- it was not infrequent to have a woman in a film to prove that the hero wasn't gay," Jackson said. "I mean, you saw that was the kind of reason for being. We've still got a long, long way to go."
Glenda Jackson has already come a long, long way. Her American audience can be forgiven for having lost track of her from the days when she was one of the dominant faces of British acting on American TV.
Her 1970s role as Queen Elizabeth I, in "Elizabeth R," was one of the series that defined "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS.
Her forays into the movies not only proved she was a bankable star who could do anything, but won her those two Oscars -- one for 1973's "A Touch of Class," and another before that, for "Women in Love."
But her route back to Broadway has followed some unprecedented twists and turns that had taken her far from the bright lights of the Great White Way to which she has now returned.
"It's a process of constantly relearning, rediscovering," she said. "You can't really bring the past with you in that sense."
For more than two decades, her life had nothing to do with this world. Some might say she spent those years on that other kind of stage ... the political one.
She was a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party for 23 years, drawn into that world, she says, by what she considered to be the socially-destructive policies of the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Jackson said, "For me, the final straw was when she said there's no such thing as a society. And I was so enraged by that I walked into my closed French windows and almost broke my nose, which I didn't, I'm happy to say, do. But I've always been a supporter of the Labour Party."
Born into a working class family (her father a construction worker, her mother a cleaner), Jackson came by her socialism naturally. And her principles were never compromised by the niceties of Parliamentary tradition.
In 2013 when Margaret Thatcher died and other MPs paid tribute, she didn't:
"Everything I had been taught to regard as a vice -- and I still regard them as vices -- under Thatcherism was in fact a virtue: Greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees," she said.
She recalled, "I think they were surprised, because up until that point practically everything had been praise. I mean, talk about rewriting history. I mean, it was astonishing! But then they calmed down actually, and no, it was OK."
"Just let Glenda have her say and move on?" Phillips asked.
"She wasn't going to stop, so there we are!" she laughed.
Jackson decided to draw a line under her political career three years ago, and it wasn't long before her old life came calling.
If you were to choose a gentle re-entry into theater in your 81st year, you wouldn't choose to play one of the most artistic and physically-demanding roles ever written -- Shakespeare's King Lear. But that's what she did.
"I was blessed by my parents and my antecedents by a very strong work ethic," she said. "I mean, being a Member of Parliament is 24/7, just as much as when you're actually doing a play. It's not quite 24/7, but it's the work that counts."
The production was a triumph. Jackson won the prestigious London Evening Standard Prize for Best Actress -- an award she received in typically barbed style.
"When I was feeding myself by being a professional actress, I never got a good notice in the Evening Standard. And when I changed direction and became a Labour MP, I was the wrong political party for the Evening Standard. So it has come something of a surprise! So I'm left wondering, what did I do wrong?"
Phillips said, "You just say what you think, and say what you feel. They've given you this great award. It's not like gratitude is your first reaction?"
"Oh, no, I think that's a little harsh. I mean, I think, obviously, one is, in that sense, grateful, because you're being given a gift. But it doesn't make you any better. I mean, no award can make you more talented."
At least Jackson showed up for this one; she didn't bother turning up for either of her Oscar wins. She told the BBC in 1974, "I'd completely forgotten they were last night. It came as a total surprise. It never occurred to me that I'd actually get it. Truly! I had forgotten."
Jackson told Phillips, "I was very fortunate; I was filming, so I couldn't go. Perfect excuse!"
For the two other actors in "Three Tall Women" -- Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill -- working with Jackson was a main attraction.
Metcalf recalled being asked, "'Do you want to work with Glenda Jackson?' Yes, that's how I heard about it, and that's the reason that I'm sitting in this room right now."
To which Jackson said, "OK, blame me for everything."
Phillips said, "I hesitate to ask you what you've learned -- you can tell me if you would like."
"Terrible language," said Pill.
"Bad acting habits," added Metcalf.
Or as Jackson said, "How you can get away with bad acting in two easy lessons."
As it happens, Metcalf has herself been nominated for an Oscar this year for her role in "Lady Bird." Has she learned anything from the master?
Phillips asked Metcalf, "You're aware of Glenda's history with the Oscars. Are you considering emulating her graciousness in accepting?"
"Yes, I think I won't go!" Metcalf smiled.
To which Jackson interjected, "What do you mean, 'emulating her'? I had absolutely nothing to do with that. Nothing!"
One of the things you learn quickly in an encounter with Glenda Jackson is that you'd better be able to back up what you say. If a question gets a little fuzzy… ("Is it the very fact that this play is about three women … "), this kind of thing happens:
"I don't know what you are talking about," Jackson pronounced.
"Me, neither," admitted Phillips.
"I mean, what are you talking about?"
"Three Tall Women" is currently scheduled to run into June. After that, Jackson said, "It would be lovely if there were things that came along that I wanted to do, yes."
"But, just in terms of your own career and what have you ..." Phillips said.
"Can we stop talking about my career in that sense? Can we talk about my life? I'm extremely, extremely fortunate that, at my age, I have these opportunities. And I'm extremely grateful for that."
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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano.