Dr. Penelope Russianoff: The Secret Auteur of An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1978 divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is not at all an outlier in director Paul Mazursky’s career. With his signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Mazursky established himself as a filmmaker who discusses America’s sexual & romantic taboos in a more direct, honest way than they’re usually handled onscreen. It’s a style that carried through his career all the way until he was making outlandish studio comedies like the Bette Midler & Woody Allen two-fister Scenes from a Mall. An Unmarried Woman fits snugly in the tone of that oeuvre, frankly & assertively challenging the sexual autonomy & newfound independence of the Modern Woman in 1970s New York. In the film, Jill Claybugh plays a well-off Manhattanite who unexpectedly finds himself divorced & heartbroken at middle age, unsure what to do with her newfound singlehood & the scraps of her former life. Her lengthy, unflinchingly honest discussion of her fears & desires within this new paradigm shared with the other women in her life are very familiar to the typical Paul Mazursky narrative, but one of the women in her life in particular may have had an even bigger influence on the tone & messaging of the film than the director did: her therapist.

Tanya, the tall, physically imposing but soft-spoken therapist who helps the titular divorcee piece her life back together, is an incredible show-stealing presence within the film. In scenes where the protagonist shares confessions with friends over cocktails or sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, you can feel Mazursky reaching for a matter-of-fact authenticity to ground his tale of a woman undone by a romantic fallout. None of these moments, engaging as they are, can match the simple, confident authenticity of Tanya’s screen presence. She’s the real deal. Referred to Mazursky by director Claudia Weill, Tanya was played in the film by real life NYC psychotherapist Penelope Russianoff. The therapy sessions in the film were staged in Russianoff’s Manhattan penthouse, where she would regularly see patients in real life. At 6’2” and the only notable non-professional actor in the cast, Russianoff stands out as a striking screen presence, a face & demeanor we are not accustomed to seeing in Hollywood fare. Just her physical presence as the fictional therapist Tanya is enough to change the tone & authenticity of the movie entirely. More importantly, though, it was her life’s work & the specialization within her field that really made an impact on the film, one that nearly matches Mazursky’s own.

When asked about her experience working on An Unmarried Woman, Russianoff chipperly responded “it was great fun, because I could change the lines,” noting that the original script contained dialogue that was “not things a therapist would say.” For instance, “The script called for me to say, ‘If I were you, I’d go out and get laid,’ but I said to Paul, ‘I can’t say that. I’d never say that.’” The collaborators, director & therapist, settled on the compromise line “I’m me and you’re you. But if I were you, I’d go out with my friends a lot the way you’re doing,” a drastically different sentiment. Much of her dialogue was revised & improvised in this way, but her collaboration with Mazursky was earnest, not contentious. When asked what An Unmarried Woman is about, Russianoff explained “A woman doesn’t have to be married to have a life.” That’s as succinct & as accurate a summation of the film’s mission statement as you’ll find, but it also works just as well as a mission statement in Russianoff’s own career as a therapist. Russianoff’s specialty within psychotherapy was in advising women how to assert themselves & shed the helplessness taught to them at an early age, as early socialization makes women feel dependent on male companionship. When considered in that context, An Unmarried Woman feels almost like a feature-length adaptation of her lectures, not a movie she just happened to bolster with an improv-heavy cameo.

When asked whether the feminism inherent to her teachings that women should feel independent of men was an intentional choice, Russianoff explained “I’ve always, without thinking, been a feminist therapist. Both my mother and father were achievement-oriented and intellectually-oriented people, so I was never programmed to be a sex object.” Her goal was never to alienate women from men completely. She was simply alarmed that, “About 95% of my female patients think they are nothing without a man” and made it her life’s work “to get them unfixated on men . . to stop pivoting around men as the core of their security and to learn to pivot around the core of security they build up in themselves.” That’s the exact crisis at the center of An Unmarried Woman: the titular divorcee is panicked that she does not know how to live a life without a husband, that she was socially unprepared for independence. Russianoff herself was married to a respected clarinetist for a large portion of her life but had been socialized early on by her parents to have passions & concerns outside of that relationship. She was horrified by the growing number of divorcees in the 1970s who did not have the same confidence or independence, and she made a life out of helping them find it. Her presence in An Unmarried Woman is more than just as an authentic, real-world therapist then; she’s a ground-floor witness & frontlines fighter to the film’s core themes, an essential part of its DNA.

Although it’s her only onscreen role as an actor, An Unmarried Woman was huge boon for Russianoff’s career. She doesn’t have enough cultural clout to have earned her own Wikipedia page (most information available about her online is hiding in her obituaries from 2000), but she did say that working with Mazursky afforded her “instant celebrityhood.” Much to the annoyance of her colleagues, her appearance in An Unmarried Woman directly led to a book deal, resulting in bestselling titles like When Am I Going to Be Happy? & Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? She also made several in-demand appearances on talk shows & expanded her practice to help patients suffering from stage fright, thanks to her on-camera experience. I have a feeling that Penelope Russianoff would have been just fine without Paul Mazursky’s film, however, that she would have been perfectly successful treating patients in her Manhattan penthouse for her remaining decades of practice. The question, then, is whether the movie would have been just as well off without her or whether her presence & influence had a dramatic impact on the themes & tone of the film. To me, there’s no question at all. An Unmarried Woman is just as much her film as it is the director’s, a remarkable thing to be able to say about a non-professional actor whose screentime practically amounts to a cameo.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

2 thoughts on “Dr. Penelope Russianoff: The Secret Auteur of An Unmarried Woman (1978)

  1. Pingback: Paul & Jill & Therapy & Divorce | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Divorcing Paul Mazursky | Swampflix

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