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An Unmarried Woman: The Business of Being a Woman

<em>An Unmarried Woman:</em> The Business of Being a Woman

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.”

“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.”

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