Glenda Jackson Is Back: Two-Time Oscar Winner Daunted and Excited to Return to Acting

Nearing her 80th birthday, the legendary thesp dishes on her acting career and Oscars, her 23 years in the British House of Commons and her return to showbiz in a BBC Radio 4 serialization of Emile Zola stories now airing in England.
Photofest; John Phillips/Getty Images for The Eve Appeal
Glenda Jackson, then and now

Of the 13 women who have won more than one best actress Oscar, almost all are household names — think Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep — but one, who won it twice and was nominated two other times in a span of just six years, is completely unknown to most people today. That’s because Glenda Jackson walked away from the acting profession in 1992, at the height of her powers, to run for a seat in the British House of Commons, won and spent the last 23 years tirelessly serving her constituents. During her time in Parliament, she never returned to acting and turned down interview requests about her prior career in order to fully focus on her second one.

But this past May, Jackson did not seek re-election and quietly returned to civilian life. Now, just months away from her 80th birthday, she is returning to acting — dipping her toe back into the water by voicing a centenarian and narrating a serialization of Emile Zola stories for BBC Radio 4, now airing in England. And she finally is ready to reflect on her unprecedented trajectory.

Speaking by phone from her home in Hampstead and Kilburn, the northwest London constituency she served, Jackson says, “I’m not big on looking back,” and insists she never “missed” acting: “Acting only exists only when you’re doing it, so if you’re not doing it, there’s nothing to miss.”

Her career began during the Swinging Sixties, when, while working as a shopgirl, she joined a friend at a meeting of an amateur acting group and enjoyed it and was encouraged to pursue it further — an idea to which she was receptive because, she recalls, “I felt there was more to life than I was experiencing, and there was more that I had to offer.” Jackson won a scholarship to RADA, graduated and then began working for Peter Brook in his groundbreaking Theatre of Cruelty, which was absorbed into the Royal Shakespeare Co. It was in Brook's Marat/Sade that her work first won widespread attention.

“It never, ever occurred to me that I would be in front of a camera,” says Jackson. “So it was very surprising when I was offered the chance and discovered that I liked it.” She appeared in several films, including an adaptation of Marat/Sade, before the one that really put her on the map: 1969’s Women in Love, a period piece about sexual politics directed by Ken Russell, “an extraordinary director for whom it was a privilege to work” (and with whom she would collaborate on three other films, including 1970's The Music Lovers). For her performance, she won the best actress Oscar.

With her pouty mouth, slanted eyes and pageboy haircut, Jackson reminded some of a dominatrix — and like one, she not infrequently appeared in the buff (“All you feel is cold most of the time” she says of her on-screen nudity) and suffered no fools (“warm” and “fuzzy” are adjectives that have never been used to describe her). But she didn't become an actress to make friends or fortune; for her, it was all about the work.

Jackson won two Emmys for her portrayal of Elizabeth I, from her teens to old age, in one of TV’s first miniseries, Elizabeth R (1971), just months before playing the same queen, opposite Vanessa Redgrave, in the film Mary, Queen of Scots. Then came 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (another Oscar nom); 1973 comedy A Touch of Class (another Oscar), which, to her relief, got her away from playing “neurotic sex-starved women”; and 1975’s Hedda (another Oscar nom).

It’s not coincidental that Jackson — who from 1958 to 1976 was married to fellow actor Roy Hodges, with whom she had a son, journalist Daniel Hodges — played a string of fiercely independent and accomplished women, including the actress Sarah Bernhardt in The Incredible Sarah (1976) and poet Steve Smith in Stevie (1978). She was appalled at the lack of opportunity for women in film and society overall, and passed on bigger paychecks to take on parts of substance.

Jackson is dismayed at how little has changed in the ensuing years. “It’s exactly the same now, and it’s deeply, deeply depressing,” she sighs. But she’s gratified by the rare exceptions to the rule, such as the new film Suffragette, which she hasn’t yet seen but which she observed being filmed at the House of Commons. (One wonders if that pic’s actresses realized that one of the best of their lot was in their midst.)

Ironically, it was a female Jackson reviled who motivated her to leave acting for politics: namely, Margaret Thatcher. “I could not stand what was happening in my country,” she says, recalling “the destruction of what I had regarded as the social basis of my country.” Jackson continues, “Anything I could have done that was legal that would have removed Thatcherism from governing my country I was prepared to do.” A member of the liberal Labour Party, she was recruited to take on a conservative incumbent, won and assumed the “extraordinary privilege” of representing tens of thousands of people on issues big (she says the Iraq War, which she railed against, was “the worst thing during my time there”) and small (like bus emissions).

Jackson's new job was, in some respects, not entirely unlike her old one, with “big kind of set pieces like Prime Minister’s Questions” — but, she hastens to add, “The House of Commons is remarkably under-rehearsed, the writing is awful and the acoustics are even worse!”

When she left Parliament, Jackson would have been entitled to some rest and relaxation. (“I never saw a play during the whole of those 23 years because we were always in the House of Commons and you can’t go to the theater late,” she notes. And she only kept up with movies that aired on television — recent favorites include The Motorcycle Diaries and The Lives of Others.) But instead she went right back to work, having been offered the Radio 4 project, which she found “daunting and exciting at the same time.”

When Jackson stepped into the recording booth two months ago — her first day as an actor in 23 years — there were butterflies. “If there hadn’t been,” she says, “I would’ve been seriously worried!” But she quickly acclimated and assumed the same sky-high standards she had in the old days. Asked if she would return to the big screen if, say, Steven Spielberg approached her with an offer, she replied without hesitation, “Well, I’d need to see the script first!”

Accolades and honors mean little to her — Jackson skipped the Oscars all four times she was nominated, sometimes because of work conflicts, other times because she didn’t want to go. And she cares little about her two statuettes: “One of my nephews asked if he could borrow one a few years ago because they were doing a project at school — I don’t think he’s ever given it back — and the other one is up in the attic,” she says matter-of-factly. “I just did the job I was asked to do.”

As for revisiting her past work, that was out of the question — until the last few weeks, when she decided to accept invitations from the British Film Institute to attend screenings of Women in Love and Sunday Bloody Sunday, which she hadn’t seen since their release decades ago. Ever the tough cookie, Jackson says, “My reaction was exactly the same: I look at myself and I say, ‘Why did you choose to do that?!’”

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