This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.
When I first looked at the list of Best Picture nominees of 1978, An Unmarried Woman was the only one that I did not recognize. Nestled in between movies about war, terrorism and the resurrection of Waren Beatty is this story about a woman named Erica and the emotional journey she takes after her husband leaves her for a much younger woman. Like Woody Allen’s Interiors, it mostly deals with the aftermath of her divorce, not necessarily the drama of the separation per se. Director Paul Mazursky succeeded in keeping the focus of the film on Erica’s rediscovery of singlehood and the possibility of finding happiness post-marriage.
I wonder why history has forgotten this movie, which featured a rich performance from the late Jill Clayburgh. I can say that in some ways, the movie did not age well. The blaring synth-infused soundtrack that accentuated the more dramatic moments made the movie feel like it came from a totally different era, a time when more was more and subtlety was traded for exaggeration. But the attention given to women — their private conversations and hushed insecurities — easily makes this a feminist classic.
The movie converted what should be a traumatizing experience into a period of personal enlightenment. She experiments, she sleeps around, she moves on. She doesn’t escape her old haunts and flee to a different city — instead, she reinfuses her old milieus with new memories. She stakes her claim on New York and negotiates her new life on her terms.
Well, her and her psychiatrist’s. It seems like it was impossible to make a movie set in New York City in the 70’s without featuring a shrink.
And then there’s her teenage daughter, who’s already starting to date as well. They come from different places in their lives, but there’s a parallelism in their experiences. Jill’s rebirth resets her dating life, even though she maintains a friendly relationship with her ex-husband. And just as her daughter slowly eases her mother into accepting the fact that she has a boyfriend, so too does Jill have to get her daughter used to meeting the new men she meets. It’s a tough balancing act, but nothing really comes too easy when it comes to dating. What’s important is that, well, she manages.
Movies about women and dating that are not romantic comedies are hard to come by nowadays. But one only has to look at the past, to movies such as An Unmarried Woman, to find these rare gems. Erica is a complex character and you can see the effort that Mazurky has spent in creating her. You can notice how he makes Erica swoon and fall for men but she never completely submits herself, never losing her dignity. She is always graceful and on her toes, just like the ballet dancer she dreamed she would be.
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