An Unmarried Woman

It’s Flashback Friday!

This Week’s Flashback Movie….

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Release Date: March 5, 1978
Runtime: 124 minutes
Rating: R
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Paul Mazursky
Cast: Jill Clayburgh; Alan Bates; Michael Murphy; Cliff Gorman; Lisa Lucas; Kelly Bishop

You know the expression “to feel like a fly on the wall?” That’s pretty much how I felt while watching “An Unmarried Woman,” Paul Mazursky’s 1978 drama about a woman finding herself after her husband dumps her.

The late Jill Clayburgh plays Erica, a seemingly happily married woman. Her husband works on Wall Street, she has a well-adjusted teenage daughter, she lives comfortably on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she has a group of girlfriends with whom she regularly meets for drinks…a pretty normal, stress-free life. Then her husband drops a bomb. He is leaving her for a younger woman. What does Erica do now? Who is she if not a wife and mother?

This film came out amidst the backdrop of the 70’s feminist movement, but is simply a story about a woman finding her inner strength. While the movie is very much a product of its time (the kind of character-based drama you don’t find much of today), the emotional arc Erica travels is transferrable to any age. She asks herself all of the questions any of us would ask in her situation, trying to find a concrete reason why her husband has decided to leave her after 16 years. She seeks consolation in her girlfriends, sees a therapist, and tries to adjust to a life that she isn’t quite sure how to lead. The frank sentiments in Paul Mazursky’s script compel us, through Erica, to consider the idea that who we are isn’t who we sometimes perceive ourselves to be.

Eventually, Erica meets a painter, Saul (Alan Bates), who is exhibiting some work at the gallery where she works, and they develop a nice relationship. This raises the question of how does Erica deal with the prospect of having to date after 16 years of marriage? How do you pick yourself up after such a critical blow and move on with your life? How do you force yourself out of the dependency on the concept of marriage and discover what it means to be independent? These are questions Erica is required to ask herself throughout the movie.

Jill Clayburgh is stunning in this role and the movie belongs to her. Her characterization of Erica is so natural and real that we forget she is an actress playing a role. I love it when actors don’t so much impersonate a character, but embody a life. Watch the scene where her husband tells her about the affair, then she turns from him and walks down the street. The look on her face tells of heartbreak, fear, confusion, exhaustion…all at once. Her scenes with her daughter (Lisa Lucas) are just as believable. Bates is very good as her suitor, a good man who clearly loves Erica, but is patient with her and respects her desire to move slowly in their relationship. All other actors are wonderful in roles that are not written as contrivances, but genuine people with whom we are likely to identify with.

I know this film was a sensation upon its release in 1978 for its depiction of an independent, strong woman. However, it’s the emotional truths that run throughout the film that remain as clear today as they were back then.

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