For months it’s been hard to avoid trying to think about new beginnings. Or maybe what I’m dwelling on are just the endings. Right now it’s tough to tell which is which. I’m trying to believe that somewhere in all this will be a new start for everything but, well, things happen. Of course, nothing has happened this past year, nothing except for a lot of stuff we’d rather forget. And the more time goes by, the greater is the awareness of how hard it can be to really know a person through all that, even when you think you do, even when you think you’ve been allowed to. Even when you want to hold onto that connection you thought was there only to realize it was just a mirage. Where do those people go? Somewhere in all this is an answer, we just have to figure out what it is for ourselves.
But what is the past? The past is something we have to force ourselves to move on from, as much as we find ourselves stuck there. It always seemed like Paul Mazursky made films about what was going on around him but all that is the past now too. He’s been gone for over seven years by this point and there’s no one around making films like Paul Mazursky. Which is a damn shame, even if I don’t know who would go see those films if we had him. Times have changed. His BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was about what was going on between people when it was made in the late 60s, even if the confusion felt by the characters still feels relatable, reminding me of all the bad decisions you can’t avoid. And AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, which he wrote and directed, feels like it was about the specific point in time when it was released in 1978. Starring the unforgettable Jill Clayburgh, this particular film is maybe not as breezily entertaining as BOB & CAROL but it feels more insightful, more open to the pain caused between men and women and, yes, it even feels like it has something more to do with right now and all that pain even if there isn’t a chance in hell of something like this being made these days. The fact that he was a man making this film about such a woman might also send up a red flag, even making me seriously think about how valid it is for me to be writing about it, and while it’s definitely a good thing there are more female directors working now it’s as if the distance he felt from the subject was part of what made him want to explore it. He wanted to understand the source of all that hurt and how to move past it, to understand what all these women are going through as they try to live in the world around them. This is what gets explored in the movie just as much as the idea of starting over (not to be confused with a certain other Jill Clayburgh film
, of course) which feels like it means even more now that we’re all sort of trying to start over, trying to remember where those people went and why we’re doing any of this in the first place.
Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) appears to live a charmed life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband Martin (Michael Murphy) and daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas) when one day on the street he announces between sobs that he is in love with another woman. Just like that Erica is unmarried, forced to accept what has happened with little idea of where her life will go next. Through dealing with friends and going into therapy her new life begins to take hold but she then meets famous painter Saul Kaplan (Alan Bates) and it takes no time for them to be drawn to each other. But this new romance means that Erica has to decide how much the new independence she has achieved really means to her and how much of her life she will decide to devote to this new man.
At their very best, the films of Paul Mazursky display a desire to understand people, to show the way they change in the worlds they find themselves in and how their surroundings affect those choices. His success as a filmmaker went beyond the ‘70s—his two biggest box office hits came at the end of the ‘60s and later on in the ‘80s, after all—but his style fits perfectly with that decade, a period of time when a film was allowed to simply explore character, to understand what they do in the frame and how their own imperfections affect the choices they make more than any sort of plot designed to drive those actions. This approach is ideal for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, a film which plays like the most confident of Mazursky’s career in how it’s willing to take time in exploring its main character, to fully delve into each moment so it always feels totally genuine, totally real. It’s never in a rush to get to a specific place, more interested in showing us who these characters are and not only how much what happens to Erica seemed inevitable but how she really does have the strength to move beyond it. The unhurried pace of a scene whether it’s Erica out at drinks with friends having drinks or having breakfast with her family gives us time to to know each of them, helping it all seem lived in and natural. Even that incessant sobbing as her husband finally makes his confession feels totally real in its own bullshit way and her own reaction she has to all this adds to it.
Jill Clayburgh’s Erica is living a privileged life that seems full if not quite extraordinary, casually envied by her friends for having a husband who’s “the second best man in the five boroughs” before he breaks the news and later on someone even expresses surprise at her divorce by observing that she always seemed like “a normal person”. But she’s as special in her way as any of them are and in her private moments shows us this, the way she dances alone in her apartment as if to fantasize about the glorious life she only pretends to have. It’s a perfect role for this actress who had a magnetic screen presence which brought an intelligence and vibrancy as well as an earthbound realism to everything she does, one which demands that you never take what she has to offer for granted which is maybe one reason why Clayburgh is remembered for something like this and not a secondary role in SILVER STREAK since she’s clearly a woman with too much going on to simply be ‘the girl’ in an action-comedy. Just watching her face says everything as if Mazursky is continually realizing there wouldn’t be a movie if we didn’t have those moments to understand her more, the late night sequence where she cleans out evidence of her husband from the apartment they once shared particularly memorable just by the look on her face, her daughter emerging to study her and silently offer support. Each of the friends she has those periodic meetings to discuss all their problems seem just as complex as she is, particularly Kelly Bishop as one who pops her pills and talks about how set things are with her man friend but deeps down dreams of how pretty Rita Hayworth was, as if wishing it could really be as simple on the surface as she paints it. Even the people who quickly drift in and out of scenes make an impression like the brief appearance by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker as a happily married couple looking at Erica offering sympathetic expressions to what goes unspoken. But Clayburgh remains at the center of every scene and it becomes clear that not only does Paul Mazursky like his main character, he’s also hoping that she makes the right decisions for herself.
Spending too much time focusing on how dated a film may be inevitable but still only interests me so much, as if an excuse to refuse to engage with what a film is trying to do. But considering this is a film where Jill Clayburgh walks into a bar where Leo Sayer is heard on the jukebox it’s going to automatically be somewhat locked into a certain era so it’s unavoidable. The moments that touch on things that were in the air in the late ‘70s like a brief discussion about teen abortion as well as topical snatches of dialogue throughout (even STAR WARS, less than a year old at this point, is name dropped) that include a brief exchange about a new Lina Wertmuller film which says as much about the characters and the dynamic between men and women in this particular world as the famous Eric Rohmer joke in NIGHT MOVES. The upbeat score by Bill Conti is one other aspect which particularly locks the film into a specific point in time but I still find it infectious, showing off the New York skyline perfectly at the start while also adding momentum as Erica claws towards improving her life. The New York of AN UNMARRIED WOMAN takes place largely within either the Upper East Side apartment where Erica lives or the downtown art world she spends so much time in so it’s one that allows for all sorts of asides, particularly the dim sum sequence with Mazursky himself briefly taking center stage to order as much food as possible (memories of my own dim sum experiences in New York as a child are too dim but I wish they were like this). The scene is followed by a cab ride where Erica basically gets assaulted by her date played by Andrew Duncan, also in other films from the period like LOVING and SLAP SHOT, here looking like every inch the visual epitome of the slightly too desperate-midlife-bad combover single guy in the late ‘70s. The film’s view of this city that existed then bounces back and forth between the dirt of the decade and the good vibes, is dirty and romantic, dangerous and hopeful, whether it’s the upscale East Side or those empty streets down in Soho late at night which feel so evocative that there are all sorts of possibilities out there.
Clayburgh still has to deal with all those men in every scene, Michael Murphy as her husband looking for approval while making his confession as if he’s a little boy desperately trying to weasel his way out of this without getting in trouble. He’s not so much a prick as just a putz who expects a pat on the back for actually speaking up, behavior that feels just as believable as Cliff Gorman’s Charlie, the artist acquaintance who drops the wisdom that “Food, work and sex” is all there is to life, coming off as kind of a jerk except for a few specific moments when only she’s around. The artist who she falls for played by Alan Bates is the one person who seems willing to look at her as an equal with a chemistry between the two that causes both of them to up their game. All this plays as more analytical in its view of the world than the broadly satirical vibe it feels like Mazursky is associated with a little too often, an approach that sometimes tilts towards comedy but is unable to stray too far from the harsh truth of it all and it’s possible this film successfully locates the balance between the two better than any other film he made. It’s easy to look for symbolism in things like that sneaker Martin tosses into the East River after stepping in dog shit as easily as he tosses away his wife but it feels like deep analysis isn’t what AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is about. Instead it’s just the writer-director telling this story, watching the characters as they vacillate between honesty and the lies, trying to somehow understand everything they do and why.
Up against all that, the therapy sessions attended by Erica feel presented mostly at face value in their progressive ‘70s way, offering an intimate casualness that plays as an advancement from the vague hostility in how the process is presented in BOB & CAROL and the less comical approach with the very same therapist played by Donald F. Muhich in BLUME IN LOVE which feels even more desperately unsure about what the point of it all is (appropriately, Muhich also later played the dog psychiatrist in Mazursky’s DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS). But even in those cases the view of therapy isn’t just about going for the jokes and the way Clayburgh plays these scenes with Penelope Rusianoff, an actual therapist who got some notoriety out of the role, it seems like a valuable part of the path, indulgent and wandering in the way such a session would be, not the answer to everything but serving as one step in the process pointing towards what might help this intelligent person who has become unmoored. It gets Erica out there, leading to an encounter which for once in a movie is a woman engaging in totally healthy sex, looking to fuck with no reprisals for that behavior. A simple fade to black would make it seem more like a love scene, it’s also essential for us to see enough of the moment to understand how much this is about the sheer physicality between the two people to show exactly what Erica needs, just as important as the therapy and the movie is about her finding the way to do that.
Always comfortable with its own pace, the film manages to avoid many of the expected clichés so there are no awkward moments where Erica runs into Martin and his new girlfriend, no montages of comically awkward blind dates. Even the mechanics of lawyers and divorces are ignored, as if Mazursky doesn’t have the patience for such things that for all we know are happening offscreen regardless. His direction always feels carefully considered, going for the awkward emotion of the moment, those little bits of business between the things that actually get spoken. Even individual shots never get as insistently elegant as the look at Clayburgh as Michael Murphy confesses which on the one hand feels like a relatively simple close-up but the choice to do it this way makes the moment transcendent, seeming like she goes through five or six full emotional journeys in the space of a minute. All throughout the camerawork is more about catching the right character beats than the elegance of the shot and more than ever being either an angry or hopeful film it tries to be an understanding one, simply observing them as if just doing that will help make it happen. It’s about the gradual progress, even down to how the confidence Erica begins to display while dealing with certain people late in the film which may not always be something certain people deserve but it feels healthy for her that she’s reached this point. How many moments the movie pauses for and within all that is the humanity.
It feels downright daring how Alan Bates, basically the second lead of the film, doesn’t even turn up until two-thirds in which is another sign of how willing it is to take time before that happens, the initial glimpse of him seen against a white wall in a gallery as if he’s a work of art himself that Erica has manifested now that she’s ready for him. Bates is appropriately magnetic, excellent casting as someone coming in so late and seems fully fleshed out right away leading Erica into this relationship that feels mature in all the best ways, willing to engage with her and what she wants, revealing himself as someone who has likely slept around in the past but is willing to seriously think about making a total commitment. It’s also a performance where you can tell the actor knows full well the movie isn’t about him and he displays enough confidence to not be concerned about this. Even the big meeting between him and Erica’s daughter—a dynamic between all of them which offers an intriguing mirror to the relationships in THE GOODBYE GIRL, also set in New York and released in late ’77—defaults to him being willing to fade into the background as the tensions between the other two rise and he doesn’t even stick around for the key scene that follows, mother and daughter singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano, not caring if they’re slightly off key, the camera pulling back to reveal that Saul isn’t actually sitting in the chair nearby. The story isn’t about him, a reminder that sometimes people just drift through your life. Sometimes they stick around in that chair.
Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, from nine years earlier, still has a sense of youthful naïve hope but AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is more about adult pragmatism, accepting what you’ve become and what has to be while still leaving the door open for certain possibilities. Erica asks Martin if he fell out of love with “my body, my flesh,” as she puts it, “or me, Erica,” a sentence which has a surprisingly Cronenbergian flavor to it in this context but it also feels very much what Mazursky spends much of his time exploring thematically, the question of what makes a person a person, of trying to understand just how to live your life while barely understanding how you ever did it in the first place, how far does a relationship go beyond simple attraction and how much does any of this mean to the one who ends up hurt.
But more than finding the right man, it’s a film also about the realization that trying to understand someone else, all those people who leave, isn’t as important in the end as trying to understand ourselves. Erica spends time talking with both the men in her life about how they’re going to spend the summer but the way things go it’s as if on a very basic level the film is about how the very mature decision to stay in Manhattan by yourself during those months, not looking for excuses to flee the life you’ve made, is maybe not so bad. A jar of pickled herring as a parting gift feels just as much a symbol as that giant painting Erica is given before she even realizes it, a gesture which causes the final moments to feel unresolved but also correct in that sense since to have her simply go off with a man would go against what the film is about, to have her confidentially stroll down the street after letting him go would be too easy. Instead she’s stuck with that enormous piece of art, trying to figure out how to get down the street with it, how to get through the next day. It still feels uplifting and that rousing Bill Conti music helps but she’s still one lone person in the crowd with just as many questions as she always will. She’s spent so much of her life afraid, which she even talks about with the therapist, but the end, at least, she’s no longer afraid. She’s the person she wants to be and, for now, has to be.
Jill Clayburgh deserved more leading roles than she got but even if that had happened she still might not have gotten another one this good. Her entire performance is so raw and fearless, tracking her anger towards finding some sort of acceptance through her bravery, remarkable in each moment that gives the film its life making every second count. The big personality of Alan Bates is a match for that, displaying his magnetism even during those brief flickers where you know he had some major fights with the ex-wife he speaks of but also feeling like he’s really trying. Everyone in the cast brings layers to what at times are just a few scenes with Michael Murphy finding the hollow center in his character’s behavior to make him unable to see any other viewpoint while Cliff Gorman taps into the guy on the make that seems like most of what he is along with just enough intelligence to make the two sides to him totally believable. Lisa Lucas is quietly remarkable as Erica’s daughter along with strong work from Pat Quinn, Linda Miller and especially Kelly Bishop as her friends. Novella Nelson and Raymond J. Barry as the pair of artists who are a ‘definite item’ that Erica runs into at a bar are just two among so many vivid faces who make an impression in small roles throughout along with an uncredited David Rasche in what looks to be his first film appearance playing two short bits opposite Clayburgh at a singles bar.
AN UNMARRIED WOMAN was a sizable hit upon being released in March 1978 plus it went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay. But as many pieces of that decade eventually did, the film drifted away from pop culture but at least the Blu-ray is now available from Criterion. It deserves such recognition, a reminder of this great performance by Jill Clayburgh, a reminder of what Manhattan once looked like and a reminder of Paul Mazursky at his very best. His films aren’t all great, at the very least revisiting THE PICKLE recently was a reminder of that. But the best of them, like this one, still make me wish we had a few more. All this gets me back to thinking about the past year and what it has been, filled with thoughts of being alone, of understanding what it really means to be by yourself and wondering about how many others out there might be feeling this way. There is always the hope that this won’t last forever, but these days I’m not even sure what forever means anymore. Maybe, instead of beginnings or endings, what we’re looking forward to is simply life as it goes on, with nothing to do but search for that answer. And some sort of answer is going to come eventually, whether we like it or not.