Program Notes: An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Few films have a firmer grasp on a time or location than Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), a movie that captures not only the look of New York City in the late ‘70s, but the intellectual/emotional feel of the place.
The zeitgeist, if you will.
Mazursky recalled that he wrote about an upper middle class woman whose husband leaves her because he knew so many women in precisely that situation.
At the time Mazursky and his wife, Betsy, had been married for 24 years (they still are, by the way), but virtually every couple they had befriended had divorced.
“The usual way these things work out is that, after the divorce, you find yourself either seeing more of the woman, or more of the man. It's hard to stay neutral,” Mazursky said.
“I don't know why it was, but in divorce situations we always seemed to see more of the women. One day we had some friends over and one of the divorced women had just bought a house. Something she said suddenly struck me as very strange: On the deed to the house, she said, right after her name, she was described as ‘an unmarried woman.’”
Researching what would become An Unmarried Woman, Mazursky and his wife began asking their newly-single woman friends to come to their home for some probing conversations.
They talked about divorce, being single, getting used to be being alone, coping.
“Maybe Betsy and I seemed like good people to talk to, because we really do have a wonderful marriage, which is a small miracle,” Mazursky recalled. “But now I really began to listen to what our friends were saying.”
His screenplay follows its protagonist, Erica (Jill Clayburgh), from stunned disbelief (she is blindsided by the revelation that her husband is in love with another woman) to mourning, anger, and finally a sort of acceptance, coupled with a determination to live her life as fully as possible.
At the time of its release, An Unmarried Woman was hailed as one of the first feminist movies – a story of female empowerment, self sufficiency, and fortitude. It made an overnight star of Clayburgh, who received an Oscar nomination (but lost to Jane Fonda in Coming Home).
But unlike other films that carry the “feminist” label, this one has legs. Yes, many of the details with which Mazursky packs his screenplay and visuals now seem quaintly dated (poofy hairstyles, '70s pop psychology, a carefree attitude toward sex that seems hopelessly naïve in the AIDS era ... not to mention a shrilly intrusive jazz saxophone score).
But the film resonates because Mazursky filled it with characters and details drawn from his own life.
For example, Erica learns from her husband (Michael Murphy) that he is leaving her while they’re out jogging. In 1978, jogging was a relatively new phenomenon among NYC’s middle-aged well-to-dos. It was what all the beautiful people were enthusiastically doing at the time.
The movie unfolds in a world of posh galleries, bars, therapists (Erica’s analyst is played by real life Upper West Side shrink Penelope Russianoff), narcissistic artists, and newly divorced women who get together to share their stories (and, frequently, rage).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about An Unmarried Women is its consistent tone. The film hovers effortlessly between melodrama and gentle comedy. In less understanding hands it could have been viciously satirical, but Mazurky genuinely likes these characters (and why not...they’re his friends and neighbors).
This remains the finest screen performance by Clayburgh (1944-2011), who gives us an Erica who isn’t looking to fall in love so much as trying to love herself.
Of course, you know what they say about love showing up only when you’ve stopped looking for it. Sure enough, once she’s more or less at peace, Erica lands a man: an astonishingly sexy, funny, thoughtful, and considerate painter (Alan Bates).
Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Miss Clayburgh is nothing less than extraordinary in what is the performance of the year to date. In her we see intelligence battling feeling—reason backed against the wall by pushy needs.”
Unlike recent titles like Under the Tuscan Sun or Eat Pray Love, An Unmarried Woman isn’t about a woman escaping to a more exotic, romantic environment. And it doesn’t dabble in the female revenge fantasy of movies like The First Wives’ Club.
Instead it gives us a humorous but realistic look at “a woman struggling to take the high road and maintain a sense of dignity and grace while she grapples with a redefinition of self.”
That’s a story that never grows old.
Other films in the series “Paul Mazursky: Love and Laughter”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 7: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) Rated R
- April 14: An Unmarried Woman (1978) Rated R
- April 21: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) Rated R
- April 28: Scenes from a Mall (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.