“An Unmarried Woman”: Revisiting Paul Mazursky’s Best

This week the man who directed the highly acclaimed An Unmarried Woman (1978), Paul Mazursky, died at the age of 84.

At the time of its release critic Roger Ebert gave this film quite the distinction: “Mazursky has never before made a film as good as An Unmarried Woman…but then few American directors of recent years have.”

I was in my mid-20’s when An Unmarried Woman came out, yet I still remember it well as a landmark woman-focused film with great performances, especially by Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010). Indeed, in a tribute to Clayburgh upon her death Janet Maslin called her portrayal of Erica “her signature role.”

THE PLOT

Clayburgh’s Erica has been happily married to Martin (Michael Murphy) for 16 years when he announces he’s been having an affair—and now he’s in love. There will be a divorce. Erica is forced to reassess her life and try to move on.

Vincent Canby, New York Times: “It is high comedy of a sharp, bitter kind, and Michael Murphy is fine as the weasel husband named Martin, but 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.”

Regarding the follow-up to Martin’s shocking news, Canby further describes the evolving story:

In the succeeding weeks, Erica begins to cope. Daily routine helps. She has her job in a SoHo art gallery. She has her teen-age daughter and her women friends, some of whom are in worse shape than she is. One night she gets out of bed and systematically throws out Martin’s shaving gear, golf clubs and Adidas sneakers. For a while Erica also has a woman therapist who makes her feel better by appearing serenely understanding (and a tiny bit smug) as she repeats to Erica truisms that can be very comforting to the deeply distressed.

This may be a good place to insert the trailer, though relatively little is revealed in it. Whereas Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, points out, for example, how true to life the various scenes of Erica and her three female friends are, this isn’t seen here.

Ebert adds, by the way, “If the scenes involving the four women are the movie’s best, the interplay between Clayburgh and her daughter (Lisa Lucas) is also wonderfully well understood.”

See below for a taste:

THE THERAPY

Erica’s therapist Tanya was actually played by real-life shrink Penelope Russianoff, who died in 2000 at the age of 82. According to The New York Times:

Dr. Russianoff maintained that women must unlearn the helplessness they learned at an early age. Helplessness, she held, can lead to serious problems like depression, overeating, battering, alcoholism, drugs and sexual dysfunction.

Marriage and male companionship are fine, she asserted, but a woman must be able to do without them. It is good for a woman to have a man’s attention, she said, but self-esteem must not depend on it. She tried to show her clients how to communicate with themselves and others.

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, comments on aspects of the movie’s therapy:

The scenes with the woman psychiatrist…walk a thin line between the truth of transparent sincerity and Mazursky’s ability to be very shyly satirical. Who, having had anything to do with shrinks, can fail to smile at ‘I think for right now you should come twice a week, but then after a while once a week, because it’s what happens to you out there, not in here, that’s important’—while the General Electric clock measures out 55 minutes in the psychiatrist’s direct sight line?

THE UPSHOT

There’s eventually a new love interest (Alan Bates) for Erica, though of course her defenses are now up. You’ll have to see the movie to see how it all turns out.

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, sums up his glowing opinion of the film as a whole:

An Unmarried Woman is such a good picture not because it states vast truths about men and women but because it finds that there are none; its heroine and, maybe the rest of us, are in a muddle most of the time, and depend more than we’d want to admit on old friendships, white wine, and quiet desperation to get us through. Having established that point, Mazursky then goes on to provide hope—or Alan Bates, anyway…Bergman is the greatest maker of films about Woman; in this one, Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh discover beautiful and worthy things about women.

CONTEMPORARY COMPARISONS

In a more recent look at An Unmarried Woman, Coeli Carr, ABC News, quotes film studies expert Annette Insdorf: “An Unmarried Woman’ placed the female at the center of its universe, and included the theme of ageism, as opposed to merely sexism. Heroines ‘of a certain age’ are, nevertheless, more visible and desirable onscreen now than decades ago, whether it’s Meryl Streep in ‘It’s Complicated,’ Diane Keaton in ‘Something’s Gotta Give,’ or Helen Mirren in ‘Love Ranch.'”

Others who may remind us of Erica, it’s added by Carr, are Laura Linney in The Big C and Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife. As she states, “They’re worldly and successful but, despite their modernity, just as torn up about what it means to be married.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.