For our series “From the Vault”, which looks back on old movies worth revisiting, Laura Anne Harris reviews Paul Mazursky’s impressively forward-thinking 1970s film An Unmarried Woman.
When writer-director Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman opened in 1978, it had the slogan, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is… an unmarried woman.” This makes the film sound hokey, but it’s actually an unpretentious look at a woman’s life turned upside down.
Despite being made in 1978, it’s still one of the more authentic female experiences I’ve seen explored in film. In An Unmarried Woman, thirtysomething recent divorcée Erica (Jill Clayburgh) dives back into the world of dating while continuing a complicated relationship with her ex-husband Martin. The optimistic journey of life after divorce is why the film is heralded as one of the most commercially successful feminist or ‘woman pictures’ that came out of the post-60s feminism.
The success of An Unmarried Woman rests heavily on the shoulders of its female protagonist and lead actor, Jill Clayburgh. Erica is silly and joyful, then cold and biting — all the while showing great emotional range and vulnerability thanks to Clayburgh’s excellent delivery. The supporting cast is strong, especially Erica’s ex-husband, played by the waspish Michael Murphy, and her new Brit lover, Saul, played by Alan Bates. Bates and Clayburgh have excellent chemistry on screen and their affair is honest, tender, and sexy! Mazursky’s direction sets up the romantic atmosphere particularly well when Saul slowly dances with Erica under soft blue light to Billie Holiday, and when he has Saul kiss Erica’s neck and shoulders softly on the streets of New York City.
The balanced portrayals of both men and women in the storytelling make An Unmarried Woman a truly feminist film. The men are not simply womanizing sexual deviants, but lonely and somewhat pathetic human beings. Martin should be a character that I totally despise, but I just couldn’t! He felt badly for what he had put Erica through, and he’s just as much of a mess as she is. Though Saul may act rough and boisterous, he’s also tender and fragile, and has his own trouble with heartbreak and divorce. He even admits that he wasn’t a very attentive husband. “Men are humans, too,” notes Erica’s therapist. Mazursky wants us to feel conflicted about the characters, because that’s what makes them realistic.
The costumes are essential to the creation of the film’s iconic female heroine. The attire is quintessential 70s but maintains classic modern style we’d see today. Jill Clayburgh’s classic sophisticated tan wool trench coat with the popped collar is a staple for every hard working women in a modern city. I dare any woman not to want to buy one after viewing the film. Erica’s whimsical tan cape coat/jacket she wears at a gallery party is a staple item in a hipster’s closet. The costumes reflect the whimsy and strength of Erica. And the film’s color palette of pastel and earthy tones reflect the earning for the characters to reclaim their youth.
If some people are turned off by seeing an old film, I do understand. The pacing tends to be slower, and the costumes, music, and styling tend to be outdated, which can sometimes be disjointing. Yet the only part of the film that felt dated was the score by composer Bill Conti. The swelling saxophones and horn sections felt very forced and sometimes distracted me from the performances.
Erica’s struggles with grief and her awkward sexual journey are artistically managed in this film. The film celebrates her journey, and we laugh with her as an audience. It’s a striking contrast to many modern directors and screenwriters, who want us to laugh at women by portraying them as two-dimensional and overly emotional. For example, in Nancy Meyer’s 2003 film, Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton’s character cries uncontrollably under a sea of tissues after getting dumped – and it’s played for laughs. Making fun of women for being overtly emotional is old, rather pathetic, and not funny.
In An Unmarried Woman, the situations characters find themselves in are grounded and honest, thus more relatable today. The plot and the language do not feel dated at all. When Erica has her first one night stand after her divorce, she’s nervous about the guy seeing her naked body because she’s only had sex with her husband. Women still struggle with feeling both vulnerable, unwanted, and ugly after experiencing a painful break. If you are lusting for a complex female role, look no further than An Unmarried Woman.