Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch An Unmarried Woman (1978).
Boomer: Back in August I surrendered to the heat and, instead of walking down to Guadalupe Street to catch the Number 3 Cap Metro bus to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I took an Uber. My driver was an older man named Buzz, who asked what I was going to see, and I told him that they were doing a special showcase called “Women Under the Influence,” and that I was going to see An Unmarried Woman. “AH!” he said. “Jill Clayburgh. I remember going to see that one back in ’78 or ’79. What a performance.”
Buzz had a bunch of other stories, too, which he shared while we took a circuitous route to the theatre (he overshot by a mile or so and we had to turn back around): he had spent lots of time growing up in New Orleans and known the family that oversaw Galatoires; he had served overseas and seen a lot of native tattoo art, and regaled me with the way that American cultural attitudes about tattoos had grown and changed; when he lived in Hawaii, he used to play tennis Lolo Soetoro (aka former President Obama’s stepfather). With a life so full, one wouldn’t think that he would have space to remember going to see a movie forty years ago, but not only did he remember the movie, he remembered Clayburgh’s performance, which was my first clue that I was in for something really special.
Inspired by one of his wife’s recently divorced friends’ identification on a mortgage application as “an unmarried woman,” Paul Mazursky penned and directed a film with that appellation as the title. Erica Benton (Clayburgh) is a modern woman who seems to have it all: a loving husband with whom she’s casual but not caustic, intimate but independent; a smart, capable, socially aware teenage daughter; a great group of friends; a huge apartment with a lovely view of New York. This all comes crashing down around her when her husband admits that he’s fallen for a younger woman that he met while running a routine errand, and he intends to leave Erica for her. Suddenly single after seventeen years, Erica emerges into the newly sexually free world of the late seventies, only to find it as confusing as it is liberating, populated by gatekeepers and horndogs, friends and lovers, creeps and honest men alike, and none of them any less complex than she is.
This is a beautiful movie, from the sweeping shots of Erica dancing around her apartment, to her poignantly singing “Baby I’m Amazed” at the piano with her daughter, to the understated elegance of a dialogue-free skate around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. I would almost call it a perfect movie, save for one thing: I’m still a little disappointed that the film ends with Erica deciding to pursue a relationship with a man, albeit a decent and mostly likable one. In my vision of this as a perfect movie, the ending is more ambiguous about whether or not Erica will commit to a new partnership or continue to live as a single, not just unmarried, woman for a time before giving it another go, long term. Brandon, what do you think? Was this ending satisfactory for you, or would you have preferred a slightly tweaked one? How much, if any, do you think the era of this film’s production affected that ending?
Brandon: I would be in total agreement if the film ended with Erica following her new painter boyfriend to his yearly retreat into Nature with his family. She’s tempted by his offer to spend her days lounging around reading books, watching him paint, and forming a new idyllic family in the woods, but she ultimately rejects it in favor of staying behind in New York City to continue her personal work at the art gallery. That decision is a major personal crossroads for Erica, because the painter is essentially asking her to become a married woman again, to define her life by the needs & accomplishments of a husband, and she refuses. Even if she does remain romantically attached to the painter for the rest of their lives, she appears to be much more independently minded than she was when we first meet her as the dutiful wife of a business prick.
Instead of Erica caving to the painter’s relentless, childish insistence that she tag along, the ending we do get is something a little more lyrical. The boyfriend unloads a massive painting of his onto her as “a gift” and leaves her to carry it across the city to her new apartment all by herself. It starts out as a childish prank on the painter’s part, as he’s frustrated that he can’t control Erica’s behavior and finds a cheeky way to punish her for it. As the image of Erica dragging the painting through crowds & against gusts of winds develops, though, it stops being about the painter at all and starts reflecting more on Erica’s determination & resilience. Life is just as absurd & unmanageable of an obstacle as that painting, yet she carries on anyway.
That ending plays ambiguously enough for me as is. I’m not sure whether Erica’s new relationship with the painter will work out long-term, but I also don’t think it matters. Although the men in her life are certainly significant as a source of conflict, this is ostensibly a film about women. My frustration with watching Erica’s romance develop with the artist wasn’t in where they settle by the end credits, but rather in how much screen time the new boyfriend was siphoning away from the women in Erica’s life. I was fascinated by Erica’s headstrong daughter, her proto-Sex and the City gal pals, and her spellbinding therapist (played by Dr. Penelope Russianoff, a real-life NYC psychotherapist who specialized in helping women feel independent & self-sufficient outside male companionship). Any minute spent away from them in favor of profiling Erica’s relationship with a man felt a little like time wasted.
Paul Mazursky’s signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was iconic for capturing the American sexual zeitgeist at the height of Free Love politics in the late 1960s. Nearly a decade later, An Unmarried Woman finds him attempting to do the same for the psychology of women’s liberation and its social fallout as traditional marital norms faded away. A major difference in his approaches to these works seems to be a choice of POV. While Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice spreads its POV across two couples, An Unmarried Woman is largely about Erica’s inner psyche, to the point where we’re invited to sit in on her most intimate therapy sessions & look in on her dancing alone in her underwear to Swan Lake as if no one is watching.
Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman benefited from focusing on Erica as our centering protagonist? Do you think Mazurksy could have said more about the state of The Woman in the late 1970s by spreading its POV around to include her daughter, her therapist, and her proto-Sex and the City crew, or were we better off anchored to a fixed, deeply personal portrait of one woman in crisis?
Britnee: Erica is such a likeable character, so I think the heavy focus on her experience as a single woman was what made this film so wonderful. However, my favorite parts of the film involved Erica’s interactions with her amazing group of friends and her fabulous therapist, Tanya. Experiencing the POV of all the wonderful women in this film sounds great, but there’s no way it would’ve turned out as cohesive as it did if the screen time was shared. I would have loved to see more focus on Erica’s relationships with the women in her life from her own POV. There was a little too much time spent focusing on her budding relationship with her boring artist lover. I wanted more fun nights out on the town with the girls and more sessions with Tanya. Having an such a prominent real-life therapist playing the role of Tanya is such a treat, and it’s a shame that we only got a few minutes worth of her advice and guidance.
I truly loved how An Unmarried Woman didn’t follow the same route as most other films that focus on women dealing with a cheating husband and failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress. Erica had such an admirable attitude through it all. She invested her time and energy in herself and created a new chapter in her life.
As much as I like Erica’s character, she is a privileged white woman living in a high-end apartment in New York City, which means she has access to more resources to help her through her divorce (therapy, income, housing, etc.). In reality, most women going through a divorce don’t have it so easy, and this is especially true for the time period of this film. I think An Unmarried Woman could have benefited from incorporating some real-life struggles that newly divorced single mothers had to deal with in the late 1970s.
CC, do you think Erica’s character could have been more relatable?
CC: I thought this film was . . . fine. I loved the scene where Erica & her daughter belted “Baby I’m Amazed” together at their piano and I thought the scenes with her girlfriends and therapist were generally amusing, but overall I was just kinda . . . eh on the film as a whole. I do think that’s largely because I don’t relate to Erica or her struggles. The idea that she could go to a therapist and fully expect her ex-husband to fund her appointments is mind boggling. I’m sure we could all take the time to become happier, more independent people if we had the means, but many of us are too dependent on constant, never ceasing employment to ever take a moment just to figure out who we are and who we’d like to become.
As unrealistic as her financial situation may be, there were still several naturalistic scenes that resonated with me. The reason I loved the “Baby, I’m Amazed” scene in particular is because it felt like a genuine moment shared between real people. I found it both comical and fascinating that the two actors can’t sing especially well, but belt the entire song out with all their heart anyway. This sweet, joyous scene is as understandable as Erica’s wealth and privilege are incomprehensible.
Boomer, you also pointed out the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene as a highlight. Were there any other moments that stuck out to you as humorously or peculiarly naturalistic in the same way? Also, I assume Erica’s wealthy New Yorker life is no more relatable to yours than it is to mine, yet you seem to appreciate the film way more than I do. Was it the naturalism that stuck out to you as well or something else entirely?
Boomer: While I certainly find that Erica lived a more privilege life than most (I already mentioned the spectacular cityscape that can be seen from her apartment), I suppose that I was also primed to accept that Erica’s husband was indebted to her via their matrimonial arrangements even after their split by several seasons of Mad Men which showed Don Draper’s ex-wives receiving pretty hefty alimony payments while not working: Betty got to keep their house following their divorce and received consistent money from Don, and Megan got enough money to buy her own place in the LA hills despite not being able to make it financially as an actress. Those divorces (and the resultant alimony settlements) came in the sixties, but the seventies setting of An Unmarried Woman is closer in time to that period, when divorced women largely found themselves without any means of support post-separation due to the way society frowned on women having occupations outside of the home, and thus having huge gaps in their resumes if they were suddenly in need of employment. It’s a reflection on a particular time in American society from which we are removed by forty years of social and economic change, various movements for (and unfortunately against) wider roles for women in the workplace and in the upper echelons of management, and wider employment for women, despite continued income inequality for women and other sex- and gender-based biases that create unjust stratification in the workplace.
This was something that I found annoying when watching Mad Men as well–that Don, as much as I detested him, was so financially responsible for his former spouses despite no longer being legally joined to them–but like many things in that program, it exists as a reminder of that show’s thesis, that no matter how much we may feel the need to romanticize the past, the rampant injustices and social evils of that era (homophobia, sexism, systemic and individual racism, sexual abuse of spousal privilege, disrespect for natural resources, child abuse) must always be remembered and used to temper any nostalgic reminisces as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. That we are so far removed from the expectation that ex-husbands should prop up their ex-wives’ finances can lend itself to us being more unkind to women like Erica (and Betty, although not really Megan) than is strictly fair. The difference is that Mad Men was an intentional demonstration of this, while An Unmarried Woman is more of an unintentional period piece in this way, capturing a snapshot of American society at the time and the expectations that would have been normal when looking at Erica’s role (or lack thereof) in society, the economy, and her own family.
That’s not to say that Erica’s privilege isn’t something that can make the audience feel removed from (and thus somewhat unsympathetic toward) her trials and tribulations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking that this New Hollywood/New Wave film chose to put the focus of this narrative solely on Erica and her friends. Compared to other female-led films that came out that same year, it’s not surprising that the film was so different from the status quo that it stood out enough to garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress: we have two “women in peril” horror/thriller films in the form of the original Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars; the abysmal sports/romance flick Ice Castles; the extremely controversial Louis Malle film Pretty Baby; and two disco queen vehicles, Diana Ross’s The Wiz and Donna Summer’s Thank God It’s Friday. An Unmarried Woman was genuinely something unseen before as it focused so completely on Erica’s journey, even if the changes in her life are made more manageable and navigable by her relative financial freedom, opening doors for other films to explore more down-to-earth scenarios about women who are not positioned as well as Erica was to explore her post-marriage life and psyche. That having been said, you’re not alone in your dismissal of the film’s messages on the basis of Erica’s privilege: Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman wrote in the Autumn 1978 publication of Film Quarterly (unfortunately, only the first few paragraphs can be read without going over to JSTOR, which I can no longer access) that An Unmarried Woman “wants to capitalize on feminism” but “is more a cartoon about the condition of life among the Manhattan chic,” and that Mazursky’s films are “something of a melange of New Yorker stories and New Yorker ads” with this one in particular having “the familiarity of a string of cliches” (ouch). And this is coming from a contemporary criticism, not one that looks back at the film after decades. I certainly can’t dismiss your criticism (and I agree with you about much of it), but that didn’t stymie my appreciation.
As far as the scenes that struck me as particularly naturalistic, we’ve already noted the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene and the final scene in which Erica is forced to carry the large painting across New York, but the one that was most noted by the friend who saw the film with me last summer was the skating scene at Rockefeller center, a lovely bit of dialogue-free exploration of Erica’s newfound freedom. On a darker note, the scene in which Erica’s (much older) physician immediately attempts to flirt with her so soon after her divorce reflects an ugly truth about men in general and especially about men in a position of authority and who approach women at their most vulnerable (in this case, as both a recent divorcee and as his patient), and the scene in which Erica fends off the advances of one of her first dates in the back of a cab. There’s a naturalness to both these scenes that reveal something ugly about human nature, in contrast to the veritable incandescence of Erica in the scenes in which she is flying free, as when she dances or skates. The best, however, is in the moment she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place, seeing for the first time how little he has truly left behind while also observing how dense his presence is: there’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.
Brandon, even in a film with such an intense focus on a singular character, it’s unusual for a movie to have its protagonist present in every single scene, as is the case here with Clayburgh. Can you think of any other films that are so tightly focused on a single character? Do they work as well as this one does, or not? Would this film have been any stronger if, for instance, there were scenes in which she was absent, or would that have weakened the overall movie?
Brandon: Because I very recently watched all of her feature films, Josephine Decker’s work is what most immediately comes to mind. In Madeline’s Madeline, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Butter on the Latch, Decker also sinks her audience into the life & psyche of a single protagonist (typically a young woman on the verge of mental collapse), and wastes very little energy on the concerns of the world at large. The difference there is that Decker’s aggressively immersive filmmaking style is an overwhelming sensory experience where we filter the world outside the protagonist’s head through their own warped, disjointed interpretation of reality. Mazurksy’s approach here is more detached & academic. We exclusively follow Erica around New York City as she navigates her new post-divorce reality, but when her own inner thoughts & emotions are reluctantly dragged out of her by her therapist they’re less distinctively warped or personal. They’re more indicative of societal pressures on women in general than they are specific to one woman’s mind. I don’t think that difference in approaches indicates that either Decker or Mazursky are superior or inferior to each other as filmmakers. I think they’re just working at different goals (and in different eras). Decker’s arthouse sensory immersion style allows the audience to peer in on the very peculiar, singular POV of a character on the fringe, while Mazursky uses Erica as an indicative archetype of where The Modern Woman at large was in the late 1970s.
To that end, if Mazursky were to open this movie up to include other characters’ inner lives, the choice of where to expand is obvious. The other women in Erica’s life are all rich, nuanced characters despite their presence depending on her own narrative. Her daughter’s declaration that she will never marry because it’s a bum deal; her therapist’s quietly perceptive challenges to her self-policed desires; her friends’ own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and casual sex (especially in the arc involving Gilmore Girls‘s Kelly Bishop): all the women in Erica’s life have scene-stealing moments that suggest the film could’ve been more of an ensemble-cast narrative while having just as much to say about the state of The Woman in late-70s NYC. That’s a massive topic to cover in under two hours, though, so the film was probably better off as a concise, cohesive product by sticking to just one character’s POV and allowing the other women to develop sharply in the periphery. Expanding on their personae without losing sight of Erica’s journey would require seasons-long efforts of TV-style writing, as in the aforementioned Manhattanite programs Mad Men & Sex in the City that this movie occasionally recalls.
Part of the reason it’s so frustrating that An Unmarried Woman wastes time detailing Erica’s relationships with the men in her life is because they aren’t nearly as richly fleshed out as the women around her, who all could have used more screentime. From her skirt-chasing husband to the taxi cab groper to the numskull artists who hit on her at the gallery, the men in Erica’s life are cartoonishly simple buffoons. The most buffoonish of them all, a knuckle-dragging sculptor named Charlie, even boils down his life philosophy to the simple explanation, “There’s work, there’s food, and there’s sex. Nothing more.” Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman was purposefully trying to say something about the animalistic simplicity of men versus the emotional nuance of women in these characterizations or was that an accidental result of this being a film primarily about women? Were the men in Erica’s life ever as interesting to you as the women or were they just wasting valuable space?
Britnee: The women in Erica’s life were much more interesting than the men, but I think the men in the film were purposefully meant to be terrible. Mazursky was trying to show that it’s not so easy for newly single, straight women to jump into a new relationship with a decent man. Even in this day and age, I all too often hear people give the same advice to female divorcees: “You’ll find someone before you know it!” The truth is that not every man is a gem, and women have to deal with sleazy douchebags far too often. I can’t help but think of Charlie when I say “sleazy douchebag.” At the beginning, he seems to be a harmless pain in the ass that likes to eat sandwiches in art galleries. After Erica has a one night stand with him, he insults her in front of a huge group of people at a party because he’s jealous of her more serious relationship with Saul. Charlie obviously sucked, but his character was necessary to show the ugly side of being “single and ready to mingle.”
Speaking of men in Erica’s life, I didn’t really like Saul. He wasn’t a monster or anything like that, but he was so dull (and his paintings were terrible). I wish Erica’s first boyfriend post-divorce would have had more personality. CC, how did you feel about Saul? Would this movie have been better if his character was a little more interesting?
CC: Ugh, better not call Saul, am I right? But no, seriously, Saul was terrible. The bar of human decently was set so low for the men of this film and he barely squeaked by. All he had to do was not dump her for a younger woman & immediately crawl back (check), not call her a whore in a room full of people including her new boyfriend (check), and not attempt to assault her in a cab (check). He still manages to throw a temper tantrum, smashes a mug on purpose, and passive aggressively gifts Erica an unwieldy painting he assumes she will not be able to transport on her own as punishment. His art was as mediocre as his personality. I hope Erica dumps him the following winter, outside in front of her brownstone, and after she’s left to go back into the cozy refuge she’s created for herself a cab drives by and splashes frigid, NY garbage water on Saul.
Do I want Saul to be better? Do I wish Erica had met someone else that was more charming, kind, interesting, and talented? Honestly, not really. This film is about Erica’s transformation into an independent being and putting her back into a “perfect” relationship at the end would have shifted the message of the film: from, “Women should be happy, self-sufficient people who don’t need another person to give them meaning” to “If you work hard and become a better version of yourself, you’ll find your Mr. Right in no time.” A film that’s attempting to portray the realities faced by divorcees of a specific demographic in a specific time period should not try to shift style and end as a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies aren’t realistic, and by the end of this film Erica no longer needed that type of happy ending.
Boomer: I’ll also chime in here to note that my dissatisfaction with Erica ending up in a relationship may have more to do with my dislike for Saul than my disinterest in her having a relationship at all.
Brandon: I absolutely love the opening scene to this movie. We enter Manhattan through a sweeping, saxophone-heavy 70s schmaltz style that promises a very calm, adult picture about serious, mature topics. Then, on a couple’s morning jog, Erica’s husband steps in a pile of dogshit and starts raving like a lunatic, recalling Mink Stole’s hateful rants at the top of Desperate Living. He exclaims, “This city’s turning into one big pile of dogshit!,” a hilarious opening note of seething anger that completely (and intentionally) undercuts the measured, mature credits sequence that precedes it. It’s a choice that smartly assures the audience the following film will not be humorless, despite the seriousness of its subject.
Britnee: I cannot shake the scene of Erica throwing up after finding out her husband is having an affair. I didn’t expect her to spew out vomit on screen. It was just so brutal.
CC: I really liked the metallic silver wallpaper in the bathroom of Erica’s home with her husband and I accidentally stumbled across a really similar print the other day:
Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: CC presents Love Me If You Dare (2003)
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2012)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
-The Swampflix Crew