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An Unmarried Woman (1978) Review

After a brilliant portrait and examination of the golden years, dealing with loss and battling the feeling of obsolesce in Harry and Tonto, Mazursky wrote and directed yet another thorough simulation of an experience. While Blume in Love examined a decaying marriage from the male point of view, An Unmarried Woman explores the spectrum of women’s emotions after being dumped up.

Erica Benton lives her much-privileged life on the Upper East Side as a wife of a successful stockbroker, Martin. She works closely with artists in a Soho gallery and takes painting lessons on the side. The Bentons are raising a 15 years old daughter Patti who would make any parent proud. Everything seems to be working. The first scene shows them having morning sex and intimate conversations while they childishly roll in the bed before work. Soon enough the cracks begin to appear in this impeccable image of happy marriage. After one of the lunches they take during the work week, Martin breaks up with tears while admitting to having a love affair for more than a year. Erica turns around and walks away from her estranged husband. She begins her solitaire journey to the unknown.

An Unmarried Woman is a down to earth feminist journey to independence, inner worth and learning to be single after 16 years of marriage. The titular Erica is exploring more dramatic fish out of water premise. Being scared and angry at first, Erica evolves into new found confidence, acceptance and strength to lead a life on her own terms. The situation requires from her to take the driver’s seat. The road is rocky at first, but the confusion has its shelf life, as a therapist promises. An Unmarried Woman looks deeply into the woman’s state of mind after divorce, go through all stages of grief and sheds light onto the new found attraction and joy coming from not knowing what the future holds.

Jill Clayburgh playing Erica in An Unmarried Woman (1978) directed by Paul Mazursky

Jill Clayburgh is absolutely flawless as Erica. Portraying her seems effortless for Clayburgh, just a pure emotion flowing through the screen. “In her we see intelligence battling feeling — reason backed against the wall by pushy needs.” (Vincent Canby writing credits: Fox, Margalit, and Dennis Hevesi contributed reporting, “Jill Clayburgh Dies at 66; Starred in Feminist Roles”, The New York Times, November 5, 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-05).

Mazursky wrote the script for An Unmarried Woman in just 6 weeks (just like Harry and Tonto). Both movies were nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Mazursky thought that when the story is worth telling everything fits and the writing process goes smoothly. An Unmarried Woman was the first Mazursky’s screenplay however based on the series of interviews with 6-7 recently divorced or separated women. He admitted (DP/30) it was the first time he even dared to experiment with the writing method. The only improvised sequences were the ones during the psychiatrist’s sessions. He allowed the therapist to analyze Erica’s lines like it was a real therapeutical session. The director admitted that Jill Clayburgh’s awareness helped her respond adequately.

Even though Mazursky moved to Hollywood in previous years, he decided to set An Unmarried Woman back in New York due to the city’s energy and vibrancy. He was convinced that it would correspond better with the material to have it set in sharp, jaded microcosmos. 1978 is the same year Woody Allen shot his Interiors in Manhattan’s Swedish design inspired interiors. Mazursky went onto the streets with his leading lady puking on Upper East Side sidewalk. The music, the wardrobe (costumes by the great Albert Wolsky) and the bare streets of 70s New York (there is a recent nostalgia for Manhattan in late 70.) has an immense power to take you back or help you explore that unique atmosphere of New York City in its prime.

Mazursky knew from the start that the script he wrote was in fact very revolutionary and important to make. He felt eager to document the changes in ever-evolving society. The gender equality was starting to form. 1978 was a year of many powerful portraits of women in American cinema. The same year An Unmarried Woman was released Woody Allen gave us probably his best movie Interiors –  the exquisite cast consisted of stunning Geraldine Page, who was nominated for an Oscar alongside Jill Clayburgh.

Director Paul Mazursky working on the set with Jill Clayburgh

First Mazursky offered the titular role to Jane Fonda – already a feminist icon. She refused and later stated that she thought that the movie was not political enough. Next Mazursky sent the script to Barbra Streisand who probably never even read it. In the end, Jill Clayburgh took the part of Erica Benton and, as they say, the rest is history. It was a truly star-making role for Clayburgh. She was nominated for an Oscar and won the award for Best Actress during Cannes Film Festival. Afterwards, she became a new Hollywood heroine. Jane Fonda, on the other hand, took the role in Coming Home that same year for which she received her second Oscar beating Clayburgh, Geraldine Page (Interiors), Ellen Burstyn (Same Time, Next Year) and Ingrid Bergman (Autumn Sonata). Fonda received her first Academy Award in 1972 for Klute.

In total An Unmarried Woman earned 3 nominations: Best Picture for Paul Mazursky and Anthony Ray, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Jill Clayburgh and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Paul Mazursky.

 

 

©  2018 Anna Jozwiak

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