Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
>An Unmarried Woman was a big hit in 1978. It caught the wave of feminine empowerment that followed the chaotic early years of that decade when "women's lib" became the target of media distortion and scorn. Either Paul Mazursky had matured in the previous ten years or he was able to choose projects based on his interests instead of presold ideas -- there's a big difference between the wince-inducing trendiness of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and this much more insightful show. It represents the high point of the first part of his career, starting with 1973's Blume in Love. Mazursky's strong suit has always been sensitive drama, and he risked a lot by attempting to express a female point of view. I think he succeeded.
Manhattan stockbrokers' wife and part-time gallery employee Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is the one member of her group of girlfriends who appears to have a happy marriage based on mutual trust. She lives in a nice apartment and sends her pleasant fifteen year-old Patti (Lisa Lucas) to private school. So it comes as a shock when Erica's husband Martin (Michael Murphy) meets her for lunch one day and tearfully announces that he's been having an affair for over a year. He loves his new girlfriend and wants to live with her. Erica walks away in shock and anger. She isn't comforted by the advice of her friends, all of which seems based on their personal attitudes toward men. Jill goes through a period of depression but finds that she has no interest in forgiving Martin. Friends set her up with a date, who makes a clumsy pass at her, as does her own doctor. Furious, Erica seeks counsel from a friendly (and divorced) analyst, Tanya (Penelope Russianoff). To her surprise, Tanya recommends getting out and circulating a bit. Erica launches into a one-nighter with Charlie (Cliff Gorman), an artist who's been chasing her off and on. Then she tries out a more serious romance with another artist, the successful Saul (Alan Bates). He's a doll, but has an agenda of his own. Erica likes him. But how much of her independence is she willing to surrender this time?
I never saw a wholly successful women's lib picture. Diary of a Mad Housewife is a well-made nightmare that places its thesis ahead of its characters -- its conception of a horrible husband seemed rigged. More overtly "right on!" pix were pitiful failures; 1973's Stand Up and Be Counted introduced the song "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" but went nowhere.
By 1977-78 audiences were looking for something different, and Paul Mazursky followed his New York-based success Next Stop, Greenwich Village with this story that concentrated on one divorcée, or to be precise one separated female. Erica is living a fairly pleasant life when her marriage blows up in her face. She's gotten along well with her husband Martin but doesn't realize the shallowness of his commitment - when faced with an adult decision, he collapses like a blubbering baby. Martin's been bad and he wants forgiveness but the bottom line is he's running off to be with a younger woman. Erica stares blindly as her marriage dissolves under his betrayal and cowardice - she's too furious to have an immediate emotional reaction.
An Unmarried Woman is a character study, not a fantasy. Women identify with Erica when she dances around her apartment in her underwear, and they admire her emotional resources as she slowly reasserts control of her life. Writer-director Mazursky exhibits fine strengths in writing and directing and his cast shines in extended relationship scenes. Erica's girlfriends form a chorus of conflicting voices, depending on their own experiences. One is a bitter divorcée and another seems to accept her husband's philandering. Another is quite seriously carrying on an affair with a 19 year-old boy. Why not, reasons Erica: A man in his thirties would do the same thing with a 19 year-old girl.
Mazursky stages convincing scenes of Erica over-reacting when she catches her daughter smooching with her boyfriend. The director uses a real psychologist to play Erica's gentle therapist. It's Erica who interprets advice to "get out among the living" to mean, go have an affair. She tries the randy guy who's been chasing her and mostly laughs at the experience. And an impulse to sleep right off the bat with another more promising artist doesn't seem like a horrible misstep, as Erica initiates the move toward intimacy and uses it to get the sex issue out of the way. She's not a twenty-something bon-bon anymore.
Jill Clayburgh is luminous in this picture and does a great service for the image of upscale New York women. She has a great smile, a hearty laugh and an intelligent gaze. Arthur Ornitz' camera catches her full-face without makeup and we like what we see. An Unmarried Woman has several scenes with partial nudity, which never seemed less exploitative.
The only thesis in An Unmarried Woman is that a woman like Erica needs to assert her independence just enough to keep from being victimized in relationships. Self-esteem is the joy-killer among her friends. Her boyfriend Saul is definitely not perfect, and he works his charm on her to spend the summer with him in Vermont. As for her responsibilities in Manhattan, Saul is confident that she'll opt to toss them in favor of pleasing him. He subtly suggests that there are probably other women in Vermont, and ... you never know. But Erica is no longer interested in that kind of a deal. The finale has them parting for the summer, leaving us with the interesting image of her struggling on the sidewalk with an oversized painting. We know that Erica will manage.
In 1978 Savant was mostly uninterested in 'relationship' films but I do remember the reaction to the picture. Some complainants thought that Erica didn't have any problems, that she may have lost a husband but retained a great apartment, lifestyle and daughter. That's true perhaps, but Erica is no rich b____. The lack of other disasters in her life allows the film to concentrate on her specific emotional problems. A story about a woman without means abandoned by her husband wouldn't be able to address the politics of female liberation ... she'd be struggling to avoid homelessness.
The other complaints were at best reactionary. Because Erica asserts her independence and runs into several jerks harboring fantasies about the sexual needs of fresh divorcées, it's assumed that the film is about man-hating. The film's viewpoint does not endorse the one proponent of anti-male hostility in Erica's clique. Since Erica takes a matter-of-fact attitude about her sex life and gives religion no place in her decisions, I heard other complaints that the film is immoral. Perhaps those same people would approve of the warped vindictiveness of Richard Brooks' Looking for Mr. Goodbar? That film invents a gruesome Catholic punishment for a woman whose sin is encouraging one night stands in bars, as does Mazursky's Erica. That takes us back to G. W. Pabst and the prehistoric attitude of Pandora's Box, with its theme that female sexuality invites the cruel punishments of fate.
Mazursky plays a small role himself and is good. The happily married Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker play a happily married couple ... and the film accepts their success without comment.
Fox's DVD of An Unmarried Woman is a fine enhanced transfer that flatters the film's natural lighting. Jill Clayburgh's face seems only a few inches away. Audio is clear and the package lists an optional 2 channel stereo track. A trailer is included. The well written text copy ends on a real clunker that misses the point completely: "Erica makes desperate and often comic attempts to liberate herself sexually, until she meets the one man who can show her how to stand on her own." No, no, no, no.
Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh contribute a full-length commentary and regale us with interesting information. Mazursky's co-producer Tony Ray turns out to be the son of Nicholas Ray. Kelly Bishop was fresh from winning a Tony for A Chorus Line. Mazursky has a lot of insights to offer about the film and the difference between the 70s and now -- how studios would force a faster pace and less character buildup. Clayburgh calls the filming a 'serendipitous experience' and tells us that Mazursky was more mellow than mellow can be. She thinks the film is a precursor to Sex in the City. The film gallery scenes are jammed with fine art, all of it real. Director and star have interesting thoughts about the crying scene on the street -- many viewers and critics assumed that it was meant to be comedic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An Unmarried Woman rates:
Supplements: trailer, commentary with Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 15, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson