A couple walk down a cacophonous street in New York. They’re bundled in coats—wrapped up in their own worlds. She is incandescent with joy, talking about her cadre of close friends and their regular meetings. He wears a resigned face, brow furrowed, eyes trained on the concrete, until he is overcome with tears. “I’m in love with someone else,” he mumbles pathetically. In another film of the 1970s, maybe the camera would stay on him, and then go on to detail the high jinks and heartbreaks that ensue in the wake of his blowing up of his seemingly happy marriage. But this camera, and this film, are more interested in her.
Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) has just had her life upended. Her face, in tight close-up following this revelation, is at first confused, then slips into the murky morass of shock. But as her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), blathers on about the twenty-six-year-old woman whom he’s apparently in love with and has been seeing for over a year, her face changes entirely. Jaw tight. Eyes in a glare. Mouth slightly open, as if a bevy of four-letter words sits at the edge of her tongue. “She a good lay?” she spits out venomously, before turning and walking away. This isn’t a triumphant moment but a heartbreaking one. The camera follows her, first from the front, as she looks hollowed-out, mouth still agape. Then it careens to behind her, following her tense, lonely back. The scene ends with her vomiting at the side of the street, holding on to a pole as if her knees may buckle. Paul Mazursky directs the whole thing with uncommon sensitivity, using Clayburgh’s face as a canvas on which all the shifting moods can be read—as he will throughout the film.
An Unmarried Woman is a simple, affectionate story. Erica nervously dates, has casual sex, falls in love with a painter (Saul, played with gruff tenderness by Alan Bates), sees Martin try to crawl back, and decides on a course for her future. It’s a film of rough-hewn intimacy, keen social observation, and supreme wit, illuminating feminist politics of its time through Erica’s story of stumbling through divorce and navigating sexual and cultural mores that complicate her quest for independence. When it came out in 1978, Mazursky was already fairly deep into his career as a writer-director, having won acclaim starting with his first feature, 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a film that carefully, hilariously, and intimately charts the shifting tides of desire through two very different couples who decide to switch partners. He had started out as an actor, first appearing in Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953)—and, in fact, would continue acting into the early 2010s, with appearances on The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm—but he made his first move into feature directing by way of screenwriting (for television and then Hy Averback’s 1968 I Love You, Alice B. Toklas) and then went on to direct his own work, including Alex in Wonderland (1970), Blume in Love (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974), and Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). These films are marked by a steady handle on tone, crisp and bright humor, and touching yet revealing social observation blended with satire—qualities that all reach their peak in An Unmarried Woman.
The seventies in Hollywood are often represented as a groundbreaking time, when art flourished on the silver screen—indeed, when the medium started to be thought of as art in the first place. As Peter Biskind writes in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, “At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art. The filmmakers of the seventies hoped to overthrow the studio system, or at least render it irrelevant, by democratizing filmmaking, putting it into the hands of anyone with talent and determination.” But upon closer examination, the picture is far more complicated and disheartening. This was the decade that saw the visionary black director Bill Gunn struggle to get Ganja & Hess released, Elaine May essentially be blacklisted, and an artist with a vision as arresting as Barbara Loden’s able to make only a single film. Despite the Hollywood system’s being branded as new, crucial aspects of it proved not to have changed at all. In terms of who got training and whom the studios were willing to put money behind, the answer remained predominantly white men.
“The women in the film are yearning and enraged, lonely and tender. Mazursky revels in the full brunt of their humanity.”
Mazursky belonged to the seventies’ first wave of directors, born in the late twenties and the thirties, which also included John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, and Alan J. Pakula. The decade also brought to the field the first generation fresh out of film school—George Lucas and company. What makes Mazursky a fascinating figure in this landscape isn’t just his extraordinary humanity or his relatively rare interest in common people but his humane, tender treatment of women. This can be seen in nearly all his films—consider the dynamism and contradictions of Alice (Dyan Cannon) and Carol (Natalie Wood) in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. But it comes to the fore in An Unmarried Woman, which exists on a limited continuum of New Hollywood films directed by men with feminist concerns, also including Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977). An Unmarried Woman is especially intriguing, however, because it seems to hark back to an earlier era in Hollywood, working as a cultural linchpin—at once a bold descendant of women’s pictures from the past and a synthesizing of contemporary feminist concerns that even lightly points to attitudes in the decade to come.
One of the great tragedies of the fall of the old Hollywood studio system was that it marked the end of women’s pictures. The women’s picture was a (sub)genre of sorts that could be spliced with noir (as in William Wyler’s The Letter, 1940) or pure melodrama (King Vidor’s Stella Dallas, 1937) and spanned roughly the thirties, forties, and fifties, making stars of the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. The women’s picture has a contradiction at its heart, taking seriously the concerns of a woman’s life while also often bowing in the end to the sexist culture it was born into. But women’s pictures also offered freedom, as the genre questioned notions about motherhood, desire, and navigating being part of the workforce with a sometimes boldly feminist panache.
None of this is to say that there weren’t complex characters or situations for women on-screen in the seventies. There were the fractured femme fatale played by Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974); the complicated enclave of college-age girls in Black Christmas (1974); and the tough, levelheaded dynamo Lieutenant Ellen Ripley introduced to the world in Alien (1979), and played with undaunted verve by Sigourney Weaver. But while the male directors in films such as these empathized with women’s situations, they failed to ask the questions that might demonstrate an interest in women’s perspectives—questions like, What does it mean to be a woman? What does having autonomy look like? How do you craft an erotic life and sense of self without the institution of marriage as support? How do the strictures of motherhood shape and affect your psychological terrain? It was these very predicaments—funneled at times through wit or melodrama—that had powered women’s pictures. And it’s these very predicaments that power An Unmarried Woman.
Take, for example, a scene midway through the film in which Erica’s tried-and-true friends—Elaine (Kelly Bishop), Sue (Pat Quinn), and Jeannette (Linda Miller)—are lounging in the bedroom of her grand Upper East Side apartment. “Bette Davis always had self-esteem,” Sue says, poring over glamour shots in a book propped on her lap. “It’s strange, isn’t it? Where are all the women who were in the movies in the old days?” Erica’s teenage daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), slips in just before the mood of the scene shifts. While everyone is laughing and reading, Elaine has a faraway look. “How’d we get started on this?” Erica asks. “Self-esteem. I could write a book on self-esteem. Self-esteem and the American woman.” The camera stays tight on Elaine’s face as tears roll down it. Erica gently caresses Elaine’s face. “Don’t worry, honey, Auntie Elaine is just a manic-depressive,” Elaine says matter-of-factly to Patti. An Unmarried Woman is brimming with scenes like this, poignant evocations of what it means to be a woman, in which the mood of a single character disrupts and dominates the scene, spilling it in a new, unexpected, and emotionally revealing direction.
Mazursky weaves feminist concerns into the film with a light touch, while remaining refreshingly frank. Patti mentions a girl at school, only sixteen, who recently had an abortion. Erica contends with an aggressive man who refuses to take her no for an answer in the back of a cab. Elaine talks perceptively about being bipolar, missing her manic moods, and the way her darker ones rush over her like a tide. The women in the film are yearning and enraged, lonely and tender. Mazursky, basically, revels in the full brunt of their humanity.
My favorite swath of the film is its middle section, before Erica tentatively begins a relationship with the charming abstract-expressionist painter Saul, whom she meets through her part-time gallery job. Here, we get astute scenes of Erica opposite her therapist (played by feminist psychologist Penelope Russianoff). In one session, Erica talks about the nervous joy she felt getting her first period. In another, she gets teary-eyed about the deep well of loneliness she’s submerged in and her desire for sex as a newly single woman. Clayburgh imbues the scenes with a warm energy and an incisive understanding of a character who is defining what her independence will look like. It’s this terrain—desire, sex, romance, and autonomy—that dominates the film, offering a fascinating reflection of a particularly fraught time in feminist history.
“The film reflects the sex wars in documenting how Erica navigates single life, whether dealing with unwanted advances or deciding what pleasure looks like for her and freely having casual sex.”
Feminism in the seventies has come to be defined by the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment and represented by figures like Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller, or, in pop culture, by Mary Tyler Moore, throwing her hat triumphantly in the air, and Maude, wrestling with the decision of whether to get an abortion. So many of the conversations we’re having today crystallized in that decade—about sexuality, class, race, desire, and abortion. But the feminist movement wasn’t a wholly unified force even then. There were cultural feminists, who “treated gender differences as though they reflected deep truths about the intractability of maleness and femaleness,” to quote Alice Echols’s tremendous study Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975. Then there were radical feminists, who had a more burn-it-down approach to the strictures of patriarchal society. There is also a rich vein of black feminist history that runs through the seventies, including the Combahee River Collective, whose poignant manifesto is animated by concerns of intersectionality. The main goal in early-seventies feminism was to create a women’s utopia through communities and art free of patriarchal influence, this idea resting on the belief in a common sense of sisterhood. But, as Echols writes, the first half of the seventies saw many fractures in the movement, particularly as working-class and lesbian and black women challenged the assumption of a universal sisterhood. These fractures also resulted in the marginalization of feminism in the public imagination. By the time An Unmarried Woman was released, the sex wars were in full swing. Antipornography feminism—supported by Steinem, Catharine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, among others—argued not only that porn promotes violence against women but that heterosexual sex is another form of male domination. On the other side were feminists, like Ellen Willis, who found the hyperfocus on pornography to be a wrong step for the movement into puritanism. An Unmarried Woman reflects the sex wars in documenting how Erica navigates single life, whether dealing with unwanted advances or deciding what pleasure looks like for her and freely having casual sex. In this manner, it feels like a precursor to the sex-positive feminism that bloomed in the early eighties.
The sexual politics of the film is magnified in Erica’s relationship with Saul. The chemistry between Clayburgh and Bates is palpable and engrossing. But what interests me most about their dynamic is the way they’re at odds, and what that reveals about navigating life as a woman. He wants her to spend five months in Vermont with him. She’s adamant about staying in New York to work at the gallery and possibly return to school so she can get better work. He may have enough money for both of them, but she wants her own. “I know you want to get out on your own, and I approve,” Saul says during a casual afternoon stroll. “What do you mean you approve? . . .
I’m not doing this for your approval,” she responds pointedly. Her choice to stay in New York rather than run off for the fantasy is the kind of backbone feminist stories are built on: a woman’s self-determination.
That the film works so beautifully and trenchantly is in no small part due to Clayburgh’s extraordinarily emotionally honest performance. She was a tremendous, fine-tuned actor of wit and sincerity. She began acting after studying at Sarah Lawrence and found success on Broadway beginning in the early seventies in such works as the musicals The Rothschilds and Pippin. Around the same time, she began doing small bits in television and film, before her career on the big screen began to grow steadily. An Unmarried Woman was a turning point in her career, upping her profile by nabbing her her first Academy Award nomination (and also the award for best actress at Cannes, shared with Isabelle Huppert for Violette). She could play screwball heroines (Semi-Tough, 1977) and women falling apart at the seams (I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, 1982). In An Unmarried Woman, she’s simply luminous.
What attracts me to this performance is its deceptive ease. Clayburgh perfectly captures the roiling emotions of a woman having to define herself and her desires for the first time. She lets us into private moments without pretense or barriers, revealing the hidden hurts and textures of Erica’s psyche. There’s a brief moment after an emotional conversation with her daughter in which Erica quietly studies herself in the mirror. Her face is in the center of the frame. She glances over her reflection, first curiously, before a laugh bubbles from her throat. “‘Balls,’ said the queen. ‘If I had ’em, I’d be king,’” she says to no one in particular. It’s over in a flash, but the moment resonates, because Clayburgh’s face is a landscape on which desire and loss are reflected. It’s this face, with all its contradictions and yearnings, that remains fixed in your imagination long after the credits roll.