The love affair between Glenda Jackson, movie critics and the Academy is certainly one of the most interesting in Oscar’s history. Glenda Jackson basically appeared out of nowhere and won her first Oscar for her critically acclaimed performance in Ken Russell’s Women in Love. From this moment on, everything she did seemed to be impeccable. Not only was she constantly praised for everything she did, may it be in movies, on TV or on stage, but this level of appreciation seemed to go much higher than this – she was called ‘the intellectual’s Rachel Welch’ and therefore praising Glenda Jackson was not an option because not praising her would have disqualified you as ‘ignorant or simply stupid’. The first thing Art Carney did after Glenda Jackson presented him with his Oscar was to say ‘Thank you, Glenda’ as if singling her out would tell everyone that he, too, is among her loyal subjects. Glenda Jackson’s famous turn as Elizabeth I seems to be the perfect synopsis for her career – during her reign, she was basically unchallenged. Everything she did could not be praised high enough and every performance she gave seemed to top the previous ones. But just as quickly as her reign started, it was already over again. Her appeal and power over critics and Academy voters helped her to receive a second upset Oscar for her unlikely turn in the sex comedy A Touch of Class but her change of image again was welcomed by everyone who saw it. But after this win, things apparently began to change. Academy members apparently respected her enough to vote for her the second time in only four years but voting on a secret ballot and then see this vote actually turn into a win are two different things. Somehow, this second Oscar win was the turning point and the level of appreciation began to sink to a lower level and her reign ended – of course, she would later leave acting behind her and become a member of the British parliament but she did keep acting during the 70s, 80s and the beginning of the 90s without any more true further acclaim. A New York Film critics award was given to her in 1981 for her work in Stevie but the movie had already been in competition for an Oscar nomination in 1978 – without any success. Maybe Maggie Smith’s quote ‘Glenda Jackson never comes and she’s nominated every goddamn year’ in California Suite the same year was too true for Academy members. Glenda Jackson’s open dislike of the Oscars was probably another reason why she never returned as a true contender. And so she became a rather forgotten two-time Oscar winner who was not able to keep herself in the spotlight like other actresses from her era, like Jane Fonda or Ellen Burstyn.
Okay, all this talk may seem pretty meaningless – after all, Glenda Jackson did receive another Oscar nomination after her upset win. But the low level of enthusiasm after her nomination is announced at the 1976 Academy Awards surely speaks for itself and it’s doubtful if Glenda Jackson had been able to score a nomination for the small and largely ignored Hedda if 1975 had offered more female performances Academy members could have responded to. But does this mean that her nomination was undeserved? Let’s find out, shall we?
Like every fictional character, Hedda Gabbler is open to interpretation and different characterizations. Blanche DuBois can be played like a tragic victim of circumstances as Vivien Leigh did in 1951 or with more aggressive sexuality as Jessica Lange later did in a TV-version. Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Lion in Winter can be aggressive and unforgiving or desperate and helpless or maybe even both. And also Hedda Gabbler can either be a cruel and merciless manipulator of circumstances or a weak, helpless and mentally unstable creature who tries to gain some strength by using the little power she has. Considering that this characterization was given by Glenda Jackson it is no surprise that Hedda shows a strong, manipulating, domineering and almost obsessive title character. This is based on the fact that one thing becomes rather obvious while watching various performances by Glenda Jackson – her limitations. Of course, she is one of the most fascinating actresses that ever graced the screen – her strong, sharp voice, her overpowering screen-presence and that irresistible charisma that helps to make her characters so engaging even when they obviously should not be trusted helped her to become a truly unique and memorable character actress. But she used all these aspects of her own character for almost every character she played. Katharine Hepburn is often accused of having played every role in the same way but she always displayed an unforgettable range of emotions, making her characters strong and weak, common or exceptional. Glenda Jackson almost always focused on the strong and no-nonsense sides of the women she played – yes, she covered drama and comedy and excelled in both and she also gave performances that showed a softer, more delicate side in her acting and in her characters (mostly A Touch of Class and especially Sunday, Bloody Sunday) but she very seldom feels to truly disappear in her characters and leaving her own characteristics behind her. That is to say, Glenda Jackson never left her own comfort zone and instead of truly adjusting herself to the women she played used her strong screen presence to adjust the characters to her style of acting – but all the aforementioned qualities of Glenda Jackson helped her to excel in this comfort zone, never truly having to leave it because the sheer fascination and determination that she was able to display was reason enough to cherish her work. And what does all this mean for her work as Hedda Gabbler? Well, Hedda sometimes feels like Glenda Jackson on autopilot – she portrays Hedda with all her usual qualities and characteristics but even Glenda Jackson on autopilot is still a thrilling experience mostly because she, as mentioned before, knows so perfectly well how to adjust her characters to her own acting style.
Glenda Jackson also does some wonderful vocal work in this role. Her talent to use her voice almost like acid always come best when her characters are forced by convention to keep a proper façade and they consequently find delight in sarcastic or little, hidden insults – her delivery of a line about a hat looking as if it belongs to the maid when she actually knows it’s the hat of her aunt is just one such example.
Overall, Glenda Jackson’s performance is a great example of an actress using her own talents and abilities to create a character according to these abilities. Only sometimes, Glenda Jackson’s own screen presence also stands in the way of her performance – she enjoys to create Hedda as such a non-caring woman who never makes her dislike for everything and everyone a secret that it is hard to believe that she is able to find any human contact at all. Her husband may call their house ‘our dreamhouse’ but it’s clear very soon that Hedda does not think so and she also makes no secret of the fact that she does not share his fond memories of his slippers. Glenda Jackson shows how Hedda visibly absorbs every bit of information she can get to maybe use it later and sometimes misses a certain charm that a character like this could have needed to be completely believable. She’s fascinating, yes – but in a dangerous way that is too often too obvious.
Thankfully, Glenda Jacksons did not make Hedda too strong – she may be a force to be reckoned with but it is just as believable when she suddenly finds herself cornered and her fates suddenly lies in the hands of somebody else. This also helped her to succeed in the most difficult part of her performance – the ending. Even though her character leaves the movie off-screen, she still has to make the actions believable. And Glenda Jackson has created such a strong and dominant woman that it is completely believable when she decides to take her fate into her own hands again without thinking about it twice. She is determined to keep her freedom even if it means giving up everything. Her delivery of her last line in which she congratulates Judge Brack is particularly memorable simple because she almost spits it out, congratulating, mocking and planning to escape him at the same time. Even in these final moments Glenda Jackson kept Hedda strong and the judge of her own fate.
Overall, Glenda Jackson may never truly stretch herself in this role but she perfectly understood to move herself in her own comfort zone and displayed exactly all the reason why she is such a fascinating screen actress. She may be harmed both by the limits of her movie which is basically a disappointing TV-production and the limits of her acting which never explored the full character of Hedda but focused mainly on her sinister side but the results are still strangely satisfying, mainly because of Glenda Jackson’s own screen presence and impressive talents which allowed her to give an exciting and memorable performance for which she receives