Friday, August 30, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Directed by: Paul Mazursky.
Written by: Paul Mazursky.
Starring: Jill Clayburgh (Erica), Alan Bates (Saul), Michael Murphy (Martin), Cliff Gorman (Charlie), Patricia Quinn (Sue), Kelly Bishop (Elaine), Lisa Lucas (Patti), Linda Miller (Jeannette), Andrew Duncan (Bob), Daniel Seltzer (Dr. Jacobs), Matthew Arkin (Phil), Penelope Russianoff (Tanya).

We seem to get a few films like An Unmarried Woman every year now, but back in 1978, this film must have seemed daring and original. And what is remarkable about Paul Mazursky’s 1978 film is even though it has been copied many times since, and inspired some wonderful films, is that it still feels fresh and original more than 30 years later. I’m not sure I am fully convinced by the ending – but perhaps it’s not quite as happy as it at first seems. The more I think about the ending, the better it seems to me.

The film centers on Erica – played by Jill Clayburgh in arguably her best performance, and one of the best female performances of the 1970s – who believes she is happily married to Martin (Michael Murphy), a rich and successful man of Wall Street. They have an easy relationship with each other – even their fights seem breezy – and even after 17 years together, they are still attracted to each other, and enjoy an active sex life. They love their teenage daughter, and have an open, honest relationship with her. That’s why it comes as such a shock to her when Martin breaks down one day – overly theatrically – and tells her that he has fallen in love with another – younger – woman and wants a divorce.

The movie handles these early scenes – where we know something is wrong before Erica does – well, but handles what comes next even better. Erica is angry and confused, and starts to doubt herself. Why did Martin leave her? Wasn’t she good enough, sexy enough, supportive enough? How could he possibly do this to her. Many of the best scenes in the movie deal with Erica talking things out with her three best friends – some of whom have been through before her – as the talk openly and honestly about sex, their lives, their fears and everything else. She also talks to a therapist about some of the same issues – and gets honest helpful advice. And then there are the scenes between her and her daughter, who is also hurt and confused by her father’s abandonment – as the two take it out on each other. These are the strongest scenes in the movie, and perhaps it could well be said that Mazursky is a better writer than director, as his writing is  open, honest, sometimes brutally so, and yet often quite funny.

The third act of the film is about how Erica slowly comes out of her shell – as the wounds start to heal from her sudden abandonment by her husband. She makes a few tentative steps towards getting back out there into the dating world. But it isn’t until she meets Saul (Alan Bates), an artist, that she truly lets her guard down and allows herself to open up and perhaps be hurt again.

As I was watching An Unmarried Woman, I thought that perhaps this third act was a little too hopeful – that Bates’ Saul was a little too perfect to be believed. It doesn’t go as far as say a Tyler Perry movie where the spurned woman always seems to meet the perfect man, but it seemed to come close. And yet, the more I think about it, the more complex this relationship seems. Saul is seemingly too good to be true, and during the course of the movie, he proves that. His flaws slowly start coming up – and perhaps he isn’t the solution to Erica’s problems, but just the beginning of a whole new set of them. The movie ends on a seemingly happy note, but perhaps it’s not quite as happy as it seems.

The movie is mainly a triumph for Clayburgh, who was given the best role of her career, and quite simply delivers a magnificent performance. This is an open, honest performance, without an ounce or pretension or ego. Her Erica is a complete person – flawed, yet lovable, funny, angry, resentful all at the same time. It is a wonderful screenplay by Mazursky, expertly observed, but it required a great performance by Clayburgh to truly make the film work. He found the perfect actress for the role. An Unmarried Woman is an often imitated “woman’s movie”, but one whose honesty remains unmatched.

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