By John H. Foote
29. AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978)
An Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, this superb Paul Mazursky film gave Jill Clayburgh the role of her career as Erica, a beautiful near fortysomething who goes through a startling transformation.
Seeming to be the perfect couple, they have it all. A daughter, beautiful apartment, good jobs and most of all a deep love for each other. Who could have more, or want more??
After a morning making love with her husband, he meets her for lunch later in the day and falls apart on the street, confessing to an affair with a younger woman, whom he professes to love. Reeling in shock, Erica is left alone for the first time in her life with just her caustic teenage daughter to deal with at home and her job at an art gallery. She goes through the famous Kubler-Ross stages of death, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance over the end of her marriage, though not necessarily in that order.
The film was among the first and most honest to tackle the question of divorce, and the evolution of a woman who finds personal freedom liberating, discovering, slowly that she does need a man to define her. In many ways, her husband did her a great favour in leaving her, though he does at one point attempt to reconcile, his affair gone terribly wrong, but Erica is too far into her freedom to go back. She is simply not that woman anymore.
Clayburgh is a revelation as Erica, and many believe she was unjustly robbed of the Academy Award for Best Actress, which went instead to Jane Fonda for her comeback in Coming Home (1978). She did win the best actress award from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, but famously lost the Oscar. Years later I believe Clayburgh was indeed cheated of the Oscar that she should have won.
Opening the film with a lovemaking session with her husband, after he leaves for work, she dances a ballet through their New York apartment, a metaphor for the fantasy she has been living as a happily married woman. The actress gives herself over to the pain Erica endures, as her entire existence is shattered, and she is left to pick up the pieces. How many women in the 1960’s and years beyond were forced to do this after a failed marriage? Worse, how many women trapped in dysfunctional marriages before the 1960’s remained with their husbands because they felt they had too? It takes Erica quite some time to get past her anger at men, a vicious bout of aggressive sex with a lout who has hit on her for years proving cathartic and exactly what she did not need. It is finally a gentle artist who lets her be herself that earns her heart and trust, realizing to cage her is to lose her.
Directed and written by Mazursky, the director wisely allowed the film to be a showcase for Clayburgh who took the role after Jane Fonda turned it down. She was very good before, never better in the film, but never found a role like this again. She never turned away from the anger the character had with men but did not blame the make race for her troubles either. She simply finds herself to be OK without a guy, she learns to love herself, and exists doing so.
The seventies were a time of discovery on film, and directors such as Mazursky found small stories with the humanity all around them. An Unmarried Woman focuses brilliantly on one woman finding herself in the wreckage of her failed marriage, and is strong enough within to have survived, and found a second act. Without the breathtaking work of Clayburgh the film would not have been the same, with strong support from Alan Bates as her artist lover, Lisa Lucas as her daughter, and Michael Murphy as her cheating first husband.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.