I may have played my hand a little early on this one, but my winner for Best Actress at the 1979 Academy Awards would not have been Jane Fonda. In other years where the competition wasn’t nearly as stiff, Fonda would be a totally worthy winner I’d be happy about. Given the fact that I am personally not burdened by whether or not somebody has won too many times, I considered giving it to Ingrid Bergman, but in the end, I couldn’t bypass the pure humanity in Jill Clayburgh’s marvelous turn in “An Unmarried Woman.”
From her dancing across her apartment in the film’s opening to the final moments of her traversing New York with a large painting by herself, Clayburgh gets to convey the full breadth of a human being without resorting to any typical dramatic clichés. Her big powerhouse scene, the one they’d show as the clip at the ceremony (well, if they showed clips this year, which they didn’t), would undoubtedly be the scene where she finds out her husband has been cheating on her, but it’s her scene partner that does all the weeping and monologuing. Clayburgh gives us a near silent reaction of confusion, heartbreak, anger, embarrassment, and so much more, and she owns the moment.
Her run as a movie star wasn’t terribly long. By the early to mid-1980s, her time as a leading lady in great films had come to a close. Part of that was due to the abandonment of the New Hollywood ethos, but I wonder if she did take home that Academy Award if her career could have sustained that high level for longer. Jill Clayburgh was the only one of these five women to never win, and historically, that was a mistake.