william steig drawing

May 13, 2010
Kartina Richardson

An Unmarried Woman

(Ok the audio aint so hot. I SAID THIS WAS A WORK IN PROGRESS DIDN’T I?)

Hold on to your pants.
This is An Unmarried Woman directed by Paul Mazurksky in 1978.

(You might remember Paul from his fairly recent cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm where he played one of the anti Larry David producers of…The Producers)

Though it was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), An Unmarried Woman does not seem to get much attention. At least as far as I know.
I stumbled across the movie pretty much by accident. By that I mean I was not looking to expand my Mazursky knowledge, and the film did not star actors I was particularly excited about. Basically, there was no reason the film shouldn’t have continued to fly under my radar.
I’m grateful that it didn’t.

In the picture, Jill Clayburgh plays Erica, an upper east side New York woman whose husband, played by Michael Murphy, leaves her for another woman. Erica struggles through alllll sorts of post divorce emotions to discover a new and perhaps richer life that may or may not include Alan Bates.

I was surprised by this film. I love it. I apologize to P. Maz for approaching it with such low expectations.

(I think it was the title that turned me off).

(Or maybe it was the horrible movie poster).


There are a number of things about the film that distinguish it from other mediocre movies with similar plots. Jill Clayburgh is great. There is something extremely magnetic about her face in this film. I find myself really focusing intensely on it whenever she’s on screen. I can’t quite identify the reason, but it might have to do with age. To me her face appears simultaneously older and younger than she actually is (34 at the time of filming). It is at once vulnerable and childlike in its softness, and tired and wisened. Clayburgh is not breathtakingly beautiful, but she exudes a languid sensuality that I find much more intriguing. Maybe it is just the seeming malleability of her face (and hair as well). I also noticed the color of the film. A palette I can only inarticulately describe as “lovely”. I believe it consists of mainly bounced lighting, and in this way reminded me of much of Sven Nyquist’s work. The light is diffused and the colors are muted… As I think about it now I wonder if this partially explains my feelings on Clayburgh’s face.

But faces aside,

the most striking thing about the film to me is a surprising lyricism that reveals itself in two sequences (comprised of longish takes), the first of which is the most unexpected.

Perhaps these scenes are meant to illustrate Erica’s emotional state, specifically in regards to alone-ness (alone-ness is quite different from loneliness).
The beginning five minutes of the film establish Erica’s comfort and happiness and power. She leisurely jogs along the river with her husband and returns home to their beautiful apartment. We glimpse a tiny hint of marital troubles, but they are smoothed over with some quick morning sex. Her daughter leaves for school, her husband leaves for work, and Erica is left alone. This is where our first sequence begins. Mazursky seems to interrupt the narrative of the film for a brief moment to allow this piece of wonderfulness to occur. Erica dances around the apartment in her underwear relishing her space, her freedom, her body, her life. Her momentary solitude is delicious.

What? What’s that? You want to know what I think? Oh, ok. Well I believe this long take is meant to directly contrast with the next one: Erica’s husband breaks it to her. He’s leaving her for a younger woman. Once again, accompanied by music, the camera follows her weavingly down the street. Her life has been instantly disrupted. This time, her solitude is heartbreaking.

Dear Mazursky,

Thank you for giving a damn. These scenes make the difference between a bleh film and a good one, a good one and a great one. They inject the movie with a shot of visual dynamism that unfortunately is getting harder and harder to come by.

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One Comment

  1. I saw this movie randomly on TV a few years ago and was shocked I hadn’t heard of it before. It had a great, gritty 70s feel and was clearly an inspiration to (the earlier incarnations) of Sex and the City. I don’t remember the details but I remember really digging the film’s delivery of social commentary by the subtle illustration of open questions rather than building a fortress around a specific point of view… thanks for the review.


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