One of the most immediately apparent virtues of our current Movie of the Month, Paul Mazursky’s late-70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is its verisimilitude. The movie follows Jill Clayburgh as a well-to-do Manhattanite divorcee as she struggles to establish a new identity as an independent woman. Despite the scope of that lens, Mazursky continuously seeks for moments of small, intimate honesty rather than making grand, sweeping statements about Clayburgh’s gender or era. We watch with tender voyeurism as she dances to Swan Lake alone in her underwear, sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, and becomes dizzy to the point of puking when first hearing of her husband’s affair. It’s in this intimate naturalism where the movie finds its strongest voice, a virtue that comes through most clearly in the protagonist’s private therapy sessions with the real-life feminist psychotherapist Dr. Penelope Russianoff. There’s such a dedication to verisimilitude in those therapy sessions that they’re staged in Dr. Russianoff’s own Manhattan apartment where she actually practiced. This tactic of using therapy to tear down the comforting veil of cinematic artificiality to achieve something intimate & true to life was not new to Mazursky in An Unmarried Woman. In fact, it was also an integral part of his most iconic, breakthrough work.
Paul Mazursky first made a name for himself as one of the New Hollywood brats with his Free Love marital drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon as a pair of married couples struggling with monogamy in the swinging ’60s, all of the film’s promotional materials & cultural context promise a steamy, risqué drama about wife-swapping & group sex. I imagine it was something of a shock, then, when Mazurky instead delivered a drama mostly about intensive group therapy. The opening sequence of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is set at a group therapy retreat held at an isolated facility known simply as The Institute. A documentarian filmmaker and his free-spirit wife arrive at The Institute as smirking skeptics, only scoping out the place as a potential film subject. The intensive, performance art-reminiscent therapy session (recalling similarly discomforting methodology in Josephine Decker‘s work) breaks down the couple’s defensive barriers and leaves them dazed, vulnerably open-minded, and radically honest for the remainder of the picture. Dr. Russianoff’s therapy sessions in An Unmarried Woman are much more traditional & subdued, but they similarly challenge the societally-reinforced assumptions & barriers Jill Clayburgh is burdened with when she arrives. Although the style of therapy is wildly different in both films, their common goal is apparent: to challenge the shortcomings of traditional marital structure with a newfound, unflinching emotional honesty.
If there’s any major difference between these two films’ relationship with therapy & New Age Californian self-care, it’s in Mazursky’s deployment of humor & irony. An Unmarried Woman is far from humorless (it does open with a top-volume joke about dogshit, after all), but its therapy sessions with Dr. Russianoff are handled with a quiet, direct intimacy and are characterized as an unquestined good for Jill Clayburgh’s lost-soul divorcee. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is much cheekier in its own approach. The challenges to monogamy & traditional marriage’s pressures for partners to be all things to their husband or wife are treated with appropriate emotional heft. However, this earlier work finds Mazursky more willing to poke fun at his characters for their New Age navel-gazing. Middle age “free souls” dress up like Peter Fonda, smoke ditch weed, and grow their hair long as if they were young radicals. They shamelessly blurt inane dialogue like “That’s gorgeous, man; the truth is always beautiful,” and “The gaspacho was astonishing,” entirely unaware of how silly they sound to eavesdroppers. Yet, Mazursky takes their exploration of the difference between physical & emotional fidelity and the marital benefits of casual sex just as seriously as he takes Jill Clayburgh’s devastating unpreparedness for a husbandless life in An Unmarried Woman. The only difference is that Mazursky was initially more willing to poke fun at his characters for that self-exploration, whether that’s a sign of immaturity on his part or on the part of the more therapy-adverse audiences of the 1960s who would have appreciated the jabs.
In a way, it’s entirely appropriate that An Unmarried Woman is more sober in tone & sentiment than Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, given the varying severity of their subjects. Both films sincerely advocate for the emotional & romantic benefits of therapy, but their respective eras call for drastically different tones. The Free Love 60s vibes of Mazursky’s earlier work invites a more fun, freewheeling tone as the promise of wife-swapping & group therapy loosens up the traditional boundaries of marriage to something more honest & playful. An Unmarried Woman arrives in the grim fallout of Free Love nearly a decade later, even set in the grimy streets of NYC instead of the cheery LA sunshine. Once traditional marriage began to break down and divorce became less taboo, women were much worse off in their newfound freedom than men, as they were socially conditioned to define their personal worth as wives, not individuals. The intimate, naturalistic therapy sessions of An Unmarried Woman can only lead to the subtle, quiet payoff of self-realization, then, while Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice benefits from barreling towards the promise of an orgy. With both films, Mazursky appeared to be making a statement on the nature of romance & autonomy in their respective times. His frank, direct honesty in both films guides their opposing tones, but his seriousness about the benefits of therapy remains constant between them. It says a lot about both films that their respective topics are still relevant to modern marital romance and that (extreme outliers like Josephine Decker aside) the standard approach is still closer to the winking humor of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (which was practically remade recently in The Overnight) than the emotional vulnerability of An Unmarried Woman.
For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff.