An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Director: Paul Mazursky
Screenwriter: Paul Mazursky
Cast: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Muphy, Lisa Lucas, Cliff Gorman, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Pat Quinn
Nominations: Picture, Actress – Jill Clayburgh, Original Screenplay

For anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship—especially, and maybe specifically, a marriage—it can be strange and difficult to separate yourself from being a part of a collective to being an individual person.  Yes, we each have our own identity and such, but a relationship requires building a shared identity: there’s a “we” included with the discrete “I.”  What’s worse is when you’re thrown into discovering/rediscovering who you are when you’re completely unprepared for it. 

After sixteen years of marriage, Erica Benton is left by her husband and forced to evaluate herself, both as a person and a woman.  What was heralded as a groundbreaking film in feminism and women’s liberation, An Unmarried Woman still stands has an impactful and powerful film that feels fresh and relevant (though for the latter that’s perhaps more of an unfortunate thing).  Jill Clayburgh’s performance is raw, honest, and intimate; it’s so full of emotional straightforwardness that it comes across as less a performance and more a peek into a real life.  She has a comfortability in her skin, from dancing through her apartment in her underwear to casually undressing while talking to her husband.  It’s “lived-in” performance which helps it resonate so much with you long after the film has ended.

Even though Erica is given agency and allowed to make decision about how she wants to live her life, it’s disappointing that almost everything she focuses on in the new phase of her life involves men.  She has fantastic and enviable relationships with her friends, yet she feels empty and alone because she doesn’t have a man in her life.  The only time I can recall her discussing her life without needing a man is when she mentions going back to school.  Other than that, her decisions revolve around getting laid, having a man around, how lonely she is without a man, etc.  She has agency to do, really, whatever she wants, but the constant of not being complete without a husband/boyfriend still drives her. 

That doesn’t lessen the importance of the film or Erica as a character, but it does show how even with female independence and liberation that men remained the centerpiece of women’s lives.  It’s like an updated version of The Women (George Cukor, 1939) that includes feminist ideas but fails to give its female characters their own purposes and reasons for enjoying and living life.  Again, the film doesn’t suffer for this, but it doesn’t age well into the 21st century when films like Grandma (Paul Weitz, 2015), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017) and The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2019) not only give its female characters individualism and agency, but they do so without having the characters constantly thinking and talking about men.  However, those films wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for An Unmarried Woman, which is no doubt a groundbreaking film in the genre.