Jan. 23, 2009

An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Paul Mazursky
Stars: Jill Clayburgh, Michael Murphy, Alan Bates

What it's about. Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is a hottie thirty-something woman who works at an art gallery. She is married to successful but whiny stockbroker Martin (Michael Murphy). They have an outspoken 15-year-old daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas). Erica has three close female friends, all somewhat older, who share their intimate secrets. They are Sue (Patricia Quinn), Elaine (Kelly Bishop), and Jeannette (Linda Miller).

Erica's comfortable life is devastated when Martin leaves her for a younger woman. At first, Erica has great hostility toward all men, particularly Martin. With the help of lesbian psychiatrist Tanya (Penelope Russianoff), Erica begins seeing men again.

Her first date is with clueless, infatuated Bob (Andrew Duncan). Her first tryst is with obnoxious womanizer Charlie (Cliff Gorman). She steps up in class with Saul (Alan Bates), an Englishman and a painter whose artistic method is to pour buckets of paint on canvas. Don't expect to find your work in the Louvre, Saul.

How others will see it. An Unmarried Woman was well received. It was nominated for three major Oscars. Jill Clayburgh became a breakout star of 1978. Some viewers will wonder why Erica gives a jerk like Charlie as much as the time of day. Judging from message board comments at imdb.com, some will wonder why Erica spends so much time at home lounging in her underwear. I think I know the answer. Director Mazursky wanted to show off her legs.

How I felt about it. Erica is better off than most women abandoned by their husbands: she's still young and attractive, she has only one nearly-grown child to raise, and because her estranged husband is generous with his money, she doesn't have to worry about finances. She can visit the doctor, visit a psychiatrist twice weekly, dine out regularly, and attend swank parties. She also has a strong support network: friends, co-workers, and her daughter.

But she has a problem. She's used to a steady diet of sex and intimate male companionship. She misses the diet, but she can't have it while she abhors men. See sees in all men the same thing she now detests in Martin, a hunger for sex from women. This anger requires rejecting her own desire for sex.

As in Ordinary People (1980), the hero is a psychiatrist. From the beginning, Tanya probably knows the answer to Erica's problems. But she must first patiently walk Erica through her feelings, before they can arrive at a point where Tanya can instruct Erica on what to do: date men.

But it will never be the same as before. Erica married Martin when they were both barely adults. Now there is a measure of independence that wasn't there before. Erica won't leave her comfortable home to stay at Saul's summer residence. That is, she won't relinquish her own life and identity to become Saul's mistress. If she wanted that, she could have it. Instead, she recognizes Saul as a link in a chain, rather than the chain itself. Especially since his paintings aren't all that noteworthy anyway.