Jill Clayburgh: Award-winning actress celebrated for her portrayal of vulnerable but tough women

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Jill Clayburgh first made an impact on the screen with her unsparingly realistic portrayal of a woman going through the rigours of a divorce and its aftermath as she rediscovers her sexuality in An Unmarried Woman (1977), a role that became so iconic that after being confronted by a weeping fan who told her, "My God, you've defined my whole life for me."

Clayburgh admitted that such an encounter was not unfamiliar to her.

The performance won her an Oscar nomination, and she was nominated again for Starting Over (1979), but her career was an erratic one, with only a limited number of film appearances. She was fiercely independent, with an affinity for playing strong, liberated women, and she liked to take risks. "If they don't give me good parts in movies," she said, "then I am just not going to do them." Her choice of roles, and her refusal to be typecast, made her less of a box-office attraction than she should have been, though critics admired her impressive range and were liberal with plaudits.

She was born in 1944 in New York to an affluent, prominent family – grandmother Alma Clayburgh was an opera singer and socialite, her father was president of a textile company and her mother a secretary for the Broadway producer David Merrick. She was educated at the exclusive Brearley School and Sarah Lawrence College.

While at college, she began to act in summer theatre, and after graduating she joined the Charles Street Repertory Theatre in Boston. She appeared in several off-Broadway plays before her Broadway debut in a five-performance flop, The Sudden and Accidental Re-education of Horse Johnson (1968). Two years later she had a leading role in the musical The Rothschilds (1970), based on the famous banking family, in which Clayburgh played an aristocrat devoted to charitable causes wooed by one of the Rothschild brothers. She then featured in another Broadway musical, Pippin (1972) and followed it with a role in the US premiere of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers (1976).

She made her screen debut in The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but only released in 1969. A boring curiosity, it is notable only as the first film of Brian De Palma, who co-directed, Clayburgh and Robert De Niro. After a thankless role in Portnoy's Complaint (1972) as an Israeli girl who gives the libidinous young hero a kick in the groin when he tries to seduce her, she made a small part count as Ryan O'Neal's wife in the computer caper, The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), after which she was a stripper murder victim in The Terminal Man (1974).

Many were surprised when she was chosen to star opposite James Brolin in Gable and Lombard (1976), which depicted the romance between the screen legends Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, but critics had occasionally compared her to the Thirties star. The banal film did nothing for her career, but she followed it with a delightful performance as the lady who while taking a train journey becomes involved in the zany adventures of Gene Wilder in the comedy-thriller Silver Streak (1976), and she obviously enjoyed playing the liberated woman who lives in a platonic threesome with footballers Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in Semi-Tough (1977).

Paul Mazursky then cast her in the film for which she is best remembered, An Unmarried Woman, which revealed her remarkable facility for conveying comedy and tragedy, strength and vulnerability, despair and re-sourcefulness. The scene in which her husband tells her he wants to leave, to which she reacts with confusion and wounded pride, was perhaps the highlight of a performance that was life-affirming for many women of her generation. The New York Times critic wrote, "Miss Clayburgh is nothing less than extra-ordinary... In her we see intelligence battling feeling, reason backed against the wall by pushy needs." As well as her Oscar nomination (she lost to Jane Fonda in Coming Home), she was named Best Actress at Cannes.

She was Oscar-nominated again (losing to Sally Field in Norma Rae) for playing a schoolmistress, once hurt, who shuts out any chance of romance in Alan J Pakula's Starting Over (1979), then went to Italy for Bernardo Bertolucci's La Luna (1979) as an opera star whose relationship with her teenage son borders on the incestuous. The film was a ponderous failure, and started a string of films that attracted small audiences, including It's My Turn (1980), as a maths professor who falls in love with a former baseball player (Michael Douglas), The First Monday in October (1981), as the first female judge appointed to the US Supreme Court, and I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982), the true story of a woman's fight to overcome valium addiction by going "cold-turkey". "I guess people look at me and think I'm a lady-like character," she said. "But it's not what I do best. I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams."

After the Costa-Gavras misfire Hanna K (1983) she retired for five years to raise her children and tend the seven-acre garden of her home in Mount Kisco, New York. She had married the playwright David Rabe in 1979 after ending a five-year live-in relationship with Al Pacino. She returned to Broadway in 1984 in a revival of Noel Coward's Design for Living with Raul Julia and Frank Langella, and reappeared on film as a journalist researching a branch of her family in the Louisiana bayou in Andrei Konchalovsky's Shy People (1987). She was part of an offbeat Southern family in Bruce Beresford's Rich in Love (1993), an attempt to capture the flavour of Driving Miss Daisy helped by a splendid cast headed by Albert Finney and Clayburgh.

Her last Broadway appearance was in a revival of Neil Simon's comedy, Barefoot in the Park (2006), but she continued to appear on television, having a recurring role in Ally McBeal as Ally's mother, Jeannie, and winning two Emmy nominations, for the TV movie Hustling (1975) and a guest performance in Nip/Tuck (2005). Her final film, Love and Other Drugs, a romantic comedy in which she plays the mother of a Viagra salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal), opens in the US later this month.

Gyllenhaal said that no one on the film knew of her illness. He added that his mother was one of many women on whom Clayburgh's performance in An Unmarried Woman had a profound effect. "It helped her through that time in a way that no other movie or anybody else had," he said.

She is survived by her husband, son Michael, stepson Jason, and daughter Lily Rabe, an actress currently on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice. She and her mother roomed together in a small apartment in 2005 when both were preparing for Broadway roles. Clayburgh observed at the time, "One of the funny things about actors is that people look at their careers in retrospect as if they have a plan. Mostly you just get a call. You're just sitting there going, 'Oh, my God, I'm never going to work again. Oh, God, I'm too old'... And then it changes."

Jill Clayburgh, actress: born, Manhattan 30 April 1944; married 1979 David Rabe (one son, one daughter, one stepson); died Lakeville, Connecticut 5 November 2010.