“Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little” was a talent scout’s assessment of a young Fred Astaire.
“Big legs, flat chest, wants to act, argumentative” could have been the assessment of a young Glenda Jackson.
Like Astaire, she was a total original.
Peter Brook’s experimental season at LAMDA, in London, in 1964, was the first time I saw her. He had picked her to be part of a small group of actors who would do short plays or character studies and some improvisations—rescued her, really, from years of penury, odd jobs, and hunger.
She entered on a rostrum at the back, took off her black dress, her pumps, and her underwear, and stepped down, naked, into a worn tin tub at floor level. A woman, who in times past might have been called a drudge, using a cloth and a bucket of soapy water, washed Glenda under her arms and between the cheeks of her buttocks. Then she roughly dried her and handed her her new clothes: a dark prison dress, utilitarian underwear, and slippers. Over this a male newsreader’s voice talked about Christine Keeler, a prostitute involved in various activities with a Russian spy and a government minister.
Her nudity was shocking and the first allowed on a British stage by the Lord Chamberlain, the official theater censor. But there was a subtle tremor in her body, as though a bomb were ticking and, if it was not attended to, she’d detonate and send shards of Glenda through the small room.
Then Brook directed her in the 1967 film Marat/Sade, and Glenda, just into her 30s, was on her way to being a star. She would soon win two Oscars, for 1969’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class, and two Emmys, for 1971’s Elizabeth R. When she was 82, she won a Tony for Three Tall Women.
Force of Habits
I was on time but she was early. We met for dinner in 1976, at L’Étoile restaurant, in London’s Soho, to talk about a movie she wanted to do, a one-joke comedy which would be called Nasty Habits—Watergate in a nunnery, hidden mikes, duplicity, you get the idea.
She was slim, and wore a flowered blouse. Her hair had been recently washed and dried, and its texture was soft. Her eyes were assessing and held their gaze. Then there was her extraordinary mouth, sometimes a snarl, sometimes a smile, like she was giving up a secret.
“Do you think the script needs any work?,” I asked.
“Talk to Bob about that.” Robert Enders was her business partner and had written the script.
There were not a lot of movies going around in London then, and I wanted to move out of television drama shot on video. So I directed Nasty Habits, which premiered in 1977.
The script issues were never really addressed. Glenda would have had to be engaged for that to happen. What interested her most was the “character” and what she felt she could do with that. And we had an A-list of other wonderful actresses—Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Melina Mercouri.
All I can say about its quality is that Pauline Kael saw it and wrote a terrific piece in The New Yorker. But then, she’d seen “my” cut—the edit that I felt was closest to what I wanted, to show the picture at its best. My cut was not the one which played in theaters.
Like Fred Astaire, Glenda Jackson was a total original.
Near the end of shooting on Nasty Habits, Bob Enders asked me to come into his office and said, “What Glenda’s going to do next is The White Devil at the Old Vic. Have you heard of it?”
“Yes, and years ago I read it,” I said. “Jacobean revenge drama. The kind of thing I was reading when I stopped reading comics.”
“Well, maybe that’ll help.”
“Glenda wants you to direct it.”
Those who’ve had experience with one-joke comedies and Jacobean revenge plays will know they’re very different fish. Since The White Devil is chocked with metaphors, dark poetry, and beautiful if weird imagery, I thought it might be interesting to try to create a world where these forms of speech—odd, poetic, violent—seemed natural, the habitual style of utterance of corrupt players in a corrupt society. And costumes would not be defined by any particular time in the past, present, or future.
On the day the actors first tried on their costumes, Glenda was not happy with hers and spoke to the designer plainly: “You may call this a costume. I call it a frock. Get a couple of lengths of silk and make something out of it. And, remember, I’ve got a nice arse.”
After Peter Brook directed her in Marat/Sade, Glenda was on her way to being a star.
The play opened to somewhat mixed reviews, one of them calling the production “confusing,” except that the audience seemed to love it.
After a couple of weeks of watching it most nights and giving notes, I went off for the weekend to shoot a Rolling Stones concert at Knebworth, which didn’t get started until 11 P.M., mainly because the audience, having been in a field drinking and taking drugs for many hours, insisted on it by throwing beer bottles and knocking out a cameraman and attempting a riot, which is what the Rolling Stones had intended anyway.
Earlier that year, I’d brought Glenda and two of her sisters to a Rolling Stones concert in London. After, I’d introduced Mick to Glenda or vice versa. Both were duly impressed.
I went to the theater for the first performance I could when I got back. I was sitting in Glenda’s dressing room as she was making up.
“How did your rock and roll go?” she asked.
“Not bad. There almost was a riot.”
“Jolly good. People like that.”
There was a pause, and I said, “The play. I don’t feel we quite got there.”
“That’s a silly thing to say,” she responded. “You never get there till it’s over anyway.”
Then she was silent for a moment.
“Peter was in on the weekend.”
“Brook. He was sorry you weren’t here.”
“He wanted me to tell you how much he liked it and how original it was, the staging, the acting.”
“That’s … I’m glad he liked it.”
“More than liked it. And then you know what he did? He went to all the dressing rooms and spoke to the actors and said to them he hoped they knew what they were in—a very adventurous production in which they all shone.”
Peter Brook introduced Glenda Jackson to the world in 1964 and here, a dozen years later, he was bestowing a kindness on me. Thereafter, when I’d be in the actors’ dressing room or bumping into them in the corridor, they were more … I wouldn’t call it respectful, nor would I want to, but certainly friendlier.
Years later, Glenda saw my production of The Normal Heart, the 1985 AIDS grenade by Larry Kramer, who’d written the screenplay for Women in Love, for which she’d won an Oscar. She said my production was worthy of the play.
I last saw Glenda when I went backstage to say hello and to introduce her to my wife, Lisa, after her shattering performance in Three Tall Women. I was 78; she, 82.
I moved toward her to give her a kiss.
“Hold on,” she said. The familiar voice had become older.
“Stand over there.” She motioned me toward the middle of the small room. “Let me look at you. It’s been a while.”
I looked at her as she was examining me. The angles had all softened, nothing rebellious anymore, lines and underlines and lines crossing lines, soft lines.
Then she nodded. “Holding up pretty well.”
“You too,” I said.
“Oh, tosh. Give me a hug.”
I hugged her. Gently. More bones than flesh now.
Glenda Jackson was born in 1936 in Birkenhead, U.K. She was a member of the British Parliament for 25 years. She died on June 15, aged 87, at home in London
Michael Lindsay-Hogg is the director of several TV series, films, and plays, including Nasty Habits and The White Devil, both starring Jackson