An Unmarried Woman came out at the tail end of the 1970s, a decade that saw the divorce rate in America explode as one out of two unions of wedded bliss never made it to the finish line, making the movie’s topic—marriage and divorce—extremely timely. When the movie opens, Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) is married to stockbroker husband Martin (Michael Murphy) and living the life of a well-off Manhattan matron while raising smart, sassy teenage daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas). Erica floats through her days, dancing around the couple’s gorgeous apartment in her underwear, having Ladies’ Nights Out with her close girlfriends and working part-time in an art gallery at a job that seems far more glamorous than, oh, say, working in a cafeteria. In short, Erica has a lovely life. There are hints that hubby isn’t quite as content as Erica, but until he abruptly announces that he’s fallen in love with a younger woman and wants a divorce, Erica is in the dark that happily-ever-after isn’t going to happen for her.
After Martin moves out, Erica does what any self-respecting rich housewife would do: she finds herself a good therapist. The therapist tells her that she’s doing everything right and that it’s now up to Erica to create a new life for herself instead of thinking that she’s still part of Martin-and-Erica.
Erica takes her therapist’s advice and starts seeing (and sleeping with) other men. The movie gives what feels like an accurate portrayal of singles’ bars in the ’70s and effectively shows Erica’s dismay when men she had previously trusted (such as her physician) suddenly begin hitting on her. Luckily for Erica, she meets an attractive, successful, kind, talented artist (Alan Bates) who promptly falls in love with her, thus effectively ending her nights on the town.
The artist, Saul, wants a future with Erica, but she isn’t sure what she wants. As an unmarried woman, she has discovered that being single isn’t nearly as frightening or as unpleasant as she’d thought it would be. The perks of being no longer part of a couple outweigh all that Saul is offering her, and the movie concludes with Saul heading to the country for the summer and Erica maneuvering her way through the streets of Manhattan on her own, in charge of her own life and clearly able to take care of herself.
I love the scenery in An Unmarried Woman. Manhattan is dirty, crowded and loud, but while watching the movie, I find myself wanting to live there. Erica’s first apartment is sumptuous but her second apartment has so much potential—much like Erica.
Director Paul Mazursky did an amazing job making Erica both sympathetic and likeable. I have to think that it would be easy for an audience that more than likely isn’t made up of well-to-do housewives envying Erica or not being able to identify with what it would be like to be young, beautiful and suddenly husbandless. Jill Clayburgh, who made several movies during that time, played Erica as vulnerable but not so vulnerable as to be annoying or stupid. There is a scene in An Unmarried Woman where Clayburgh and her friends are talking about movie stars of yesteryear—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo. The lament the fact that there are no movies stars like that any longer. Every time I watch that scene, I wonder what Jill Clayburgh was thinking because she was the Greta Garbo of the late ’70s. Post-Hepburn, pre-Streep, Clayburgh perfectly represented a time in history when women were tasting a freedom that had never been available to them, or as widely accepted, before. As An Unmarried Woman, Clayburgh makes being unmarried a not-so-bad thing to be.
Nell Musolf is a freelance writer from Minnesota. She has written for such publications as Family Fun, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and has a monthly humor column in the Mankato Magazine. She blogs at http://schuylersquaredailydrama.blogspot.com/ where she writes an (almost) daily “blog opera.”
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