By Gary M. Kramer.
The first reel of An Unmarried Woman practically eavesdrops on the lives of its characters, Erica (Jill Clayburgh) and Martin (Michael Murphy), who have been married for 16 years. They live comfortably in the Upper East Side of New York, and have a smart, 15 year-old daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), who has a good relationship with her parents – her mother especially.
Erica and Martin’s dynamic is clear from the onset. She is caring when he is needy or moody, but she has a backbone, too; she does not give in when he wants sex and she doesn’t. Martin is anxious and antagonizes Erica, and she senses something is going on with him. Before long, he drops a bombshell and confesses that he is in love with another, younger woman. At this unexpected news, Erica walks away, stunned, and then, after a few moments, vomits. It is a pivotal moment for both the film and the character. Suddenly, Erica, who viewers have come to know and appreciate, is at sea. Mazursky’s film, however, is absorbing and only gets stronger.
An Unmarried Woman, released in 1978, and available in a new 4k digitally remastered DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, offers a snapshot of a woman coping with divorce and finding self-worth. It resonated deeply at the time and holds up more than four decades later. Mazursky captured the zeitgeist of the tail end of the second wave of feminism. His film is buoyed by Clayburgh’s magnificent, Oscar-nominated performance. As Erica grieves her marriage, and feeling guilt and loneliness, she also gains more self-esteem. Watching her spend time with her girlfriends, talk with her therapist, Tanya (Penelope Russianoff), or bond (or fight) with her daughter, it is impossible not to root for her. She stands up for herself, makes her own decisions and sticks to them, even when she experiences self-doubt as she navigates the unease in her life.
Mazursky may be providing a character study of a very specific, wealthy (and white), liberated woman, but he and Clayburgh capture something real. Erica is rational, honest, and admittedly not good at hiding her feelings. She is justified calling out her doctor when he makes a pass at her or stops a cab when a man she just had lunch with moves closer to her hoping for intimacy. Even when Saul (Alan Bates), a painter who becomes her lover, uses the word “approval,” with regard to a decision she is making, she berates him for it, claiming she doesn’t need his approval for anything. These moments are gratifying and thoughtful and Erica, even at her worst, is always likeable.
Clayburgh provide depth to her character and shows the incremental changes Erica is experiencing as she adjusts to being “an unmarried woman.” When she decides to go to bed with Charlie (Cliff Gorman) – she has not slept with anyone other than her husband – Erica’s nervousness is ingratiating. As she pulls her top off over her head, she gets stuck, a terrific metaphor. Viewers will want Erica to relax and enjoy sex. When she later describes feeling empty when it comes to sex without love, it is clear she owns her emotions.
An Unmarried Woman also excels in its depiction of Erica’s relationship with her girlfriends, Elaine (Kelly Bishop), Sue (Pat Quinn), and Jeannette (Linda Miller). They support and defend each other. There is a naturalness when they get together to talk about men, or their emotions. But even when tears are shed, it never feels weeps or preachy. Mazursky’s ear for the way these women talk is adept.
That said, Erica’s daughter Patti, talks candidly with her mom about being a virgin, bisexuality, and even a classmate who got an abortion. If Patti’s dialogue feels a bit deliberate, it can be excused because she raises issues about female sexuality that deserve consideration. When Patti acts out a bit when Saul comes over for dinner, it is awkward, but it’s a nice complement to an earlier scene where Erica, enraged by a bad date, kicks Patti’s boyfriend, Phil (Matthew Arkin) out when she comes home and finds them canoodling. And there is a nice scene of mother and daughter singing at a piano, that shows that they have moments of happiness.
An Unmarried Woman may have an episodic feel to it as Erica regains control over her life, but every scene has power. The lengthy conversations Erica has with Tanya, such as one where she discusses getting her period, are poignant because Erica really reflects on her life. Watching her process what she thinks she wants is gratifying, because she is learning to love herself. In a later scene, at a party, when a fight breaks out after Erica throws a drink in Charlie’s face – her behavior is unapologetic and entirely appropriate.
And this may be why Mazursky’s film is so satisfying. Erica’s empowerment is fully realized by the film’s end. She refuses to take Martin back. She handles Saul on her own terms, careful not to let his desires define her. An Unmarried Woman ends with Erica fiercely independent, and viewers will no doubt applaud her.
The Criterion DVD includes audio commentary from 2005 featuring director Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh; New interviews with actors Michael Murphy and Lisa Lucas; A new interview with author Sam Wasson; Audio recording of Paul Mazursky speaking at the American Film Institute in 1980; the trailer; plus an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.