January 03, 2013

An Unmarried Woman

An Unmarried Woman (1978) is a portrait of middle-aged Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh), recently divorced from her husband of sixteen years (he fell in love with another woman), and discovering what it means to be single again after identifying herself by her marital status for so long. It's an interesting, in-depth movie, and a sort of serious, cinematic version of what was being done in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in that same decade.

There's a scene where Erica and her three girlfriends are talking about famous movie actresses, wondering what ever happened to Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and lamenting the loss of such great female stars, replaced--this is the late 70's--by such actresses as Jane Fonda and Barbra Streissand, both fine actresses, playing liberated women, but somehow not as memorable or as powerful as the role models these girls grew up with.

It's ironic that Bette Davis and company dominated the screen in the 1930s and 40s more so than their male counterparts, while the post-feminist 1970s witnessed a drying up of good roles for women. Clayburgh's performance in this film is a high point of the decade: she approaches her character with wit and charm and realism. The writer-director, Paul Mazursky, manages to be sympathetic to Erica without wallowing in her misery, and the film, which of course looks very 70s now, is still surprisingly relevant, and charming too. The second half loses a bit of the humorous bite of the first, but in the trade-off we get to see Erica develop a relationship with a gruff, passionate British artist, played by Alan Bates, in an attempt to restart her life.

Mazursky's direction mostly avoids the sentimental made-for-television-esque tropes that marked a lot of these 1970s dramas (although there's a scene where Erica is ice skating that feels a bit too A Woman Renewed: The Erica Benton Story). He's got a lot of clever ideas, but more importantly, he lets his characters develop in what seems a natural way. There's also an eye for visuals that makes the film interesting, even as simple as an angled shot of the four girlfriends sitting next to each other at a bar. They almost look like they're sitting together on stairsteps. For some reason, it works much better than if the camera had been staring at them directly, evenly.

With Michael Murphy (as Martin, Erica's husband), Cliff Gorman, Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Lisa Lucas (as Patti, Erica's daughter), Linda Miller, Penelope Russianoff, and Novella Nelson.

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