AN UNMARRIED WOMAN B
USA (124 mi) 1978 d: Paul Mazursky
Something of a bridge from the radical 60’s women’s liberation movement to the mainstream, where much of the mood and cheesy music from Bill Conti are reminiscent of the Mary Tyler Moore TV Show (1970 – 1977), which features a single woman capable of solving her own problems and making her own way in the world, usually stopping to help out others along the way, yet feeling little satisfaction in her role. Jill Clayburgh as Erica is the focus of nearly every shot, where her seemingly secure upper class marriage of seventeen years hits the skids one day when her husband Martin, Michael Murphy, announces he’s fallen in love with a 19-year old woman he met while buying a shirt at Bloomingdales. What should feel ridiculous becomes the centerpoint of the film, as Erica’s world crumbles, where she’s all of a sudden alone in the world. It’s a stark and complicated revelation made even more intensely personal from Clayburgh’s iconic portrayal of loneliness and confusion along with deep seeded layers of contemptuous guilt, where she oozes anger and resentment at being betrayed. Their fifteen year old daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas) finds her dad immensely hateful afterwards and the two have similar abandonment and anger issues. While Erica has a part time job at an art gallery, she depends on continued financial support from her ex-husband, as she’s used to living in an upper echelon, choice corner high rise apartment with wall to wall window views on two sides offering a panoramic New York City landscape. As they sit and have cereal in the morning and attempt to lead a normal life, the audience can’t help but be mesmerized and a bit overwhelmed by the stunning view out the window, one of the best ever seen in the movies.
Listed as Ebert’s #1 film of the year Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969-1998), offering plenty of intelligence and humor with a few bits of social realism thrown in, it’s hard to feel sympathy for such outrageously fortunate people of wealth, who have been protected all their lives from the problems of the real world. Almost anyone would be perfectly willing to exchange places with her, man or no man. When the film was released, Erica and her life of privilege continues to represent the world of the establishment and hasn’t a clue what people were fighting for during the social movements of the 60’s, yet she reaps the benefits from the struggles of others as she’s fortunate enough to have options that weren’t available in previous decades. Despite railing against all men, Erica has a Sex and the City (1998 – 2004) support group of 3 other women her age that meet every week, usually over lunch and cocktails, where they commiserate over their middle age emptiness, lack of self-esteem, and especially their problematic sex lives. While they offer friendship, she’s obviously missing the central purpose of her life, which has been defined by taking care of her husband and daughter, never once thinking of herself. When it’s finally all about her, she hasn’t got a clue what to do, so she finds a female shrink, Penelope Russianoff, which was actually unusual for the times. People might question the advice given, as the therapist urges her to get back out there and re-establish contact with other men. Since her treatment was broadening her view of herself and redefining her own sense of independence, this might seem like a contradiction, but it’s based on the reality that women have sexual needs as well, so long as they establish them on their own terms. What’s unfortunate in this film is there are no likeable characters along with a clearly drawn line finding the husband completely at fault, which allows the wife to flaunt her superiority even as she flounders in misery and self disgust.
Centered so much on the streets of New York City, this bears some resemblance to Woody Allen films, made a year after ANNIE HALL (1977), especially since Michael Murphy was so prominent in MANHATTAN (1979), as this film similarly features the open expanse of street scenes, bridges, skylines and panoramic views of the city, where the cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz immerses the viewer into the vitality of the city. When Erica begins making the rounds on her own, it at first feels cheap and pathetic, right out of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), like meeting all the wrong people in the wrong places, where her fumbling awkwardness and sexual inhibitions reveal her repressive sense of confinement set against these spacious art studios which also offer spectacular views of the city. When she meets Alan Bates, a successful artist from London, this feels like an idyllic, happily ever after version of reality and a stark contrast from the more difficult idea of discovering her self worth and redefining her sense of independence on her own, as once more she’s defining her happiness through a relationship with another man. While Erica’s occasional grating on one’s nerves and somewhat berating sense of self justification makes it clear she’s made some progress, it’s not a radical shift to feminism, instead she simply takes what she likes from the movement, as her new agenda is once more structured upon the age old principles of wealth and monetary support to achieve happiness, and while she’s progressed to not jump head over heels into another dependent marriage where she’s just an extension of someone else’s personality, it’s also clear this is not the revelation it intended to be, as her happiness is defined by the prince in shining armor idealization, as someone else is coming to her rescue to make her happy and whole again. Unfortunately, if this man dropped her, as her husband did, she’d be right back at the same starting point and is relying heavily upon the hope that this new guy is somehow different. While the budding relationship is more ambiguous, where the lines are not so clearly drawn, it’s clear that she’s simply fallen for another guy, and where she may have more self respect and is not dropping everything to run away with him, she remains the picture of an overly self-centered rich bitch, a pampered New York City woman of privilege who is just as dependent upon his wealth and financial security to lead the kind of life to which she’s accustomed.