2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
An Unmarried Woman September 3, 2018
take a toll. Erica doesn’t really mind, though she wishes she knew exactly what was up.
Then, joltingly, Martin makes the sort of noise that bursts when you’ve been holding in a crying fit for a couple of minutes. Erica lovingly grabs his arm, concerned. Her eyes compassionately droop. Problem at work maybe? No, no. Nothing like that. Worse: “I’m in love with somebody else,” Martin gasps.
The other woman is a 26-year-old teacher named Marcia Brenner. They met almost by accident: She and Martin serendipitously became acquainted at a Bloomingdale’s, while waiting in line. She asked if he liked this shirt she was buying for her father, and he said "yes." They’ve been seeing each other for about a year, having little hotel-hosted rendezvouses here and there. Initially, Martin thought the affair was going to be ephemeral. In the last few months, though, it’s become clear to him that that can’t be the case anymore. He wants to live with Marcia, marry her.
Erica is expressionless, save for a crooked mouth about to metamorphose into a full-blown scowl. We imagine everything Martin’s just said has come across like gibberish. Once the “I’m in love with someone else” line sloshed out of his stupid mouth, nothing’s mattered. After her philandering husband wraps up his pathetic monologue, Erica deadpans: “She a good lay?”
Erica walks a few blocks alone, in shock. At some point, she bumps into a telephone booth, latches onto its exterior, and throws up her lunch: perhaps the only way to react when the world as you’ve come to know it is tornadoed in 30 seconds. Divorce, something that never ever seemed a possibility, is somehow imminent. Maybe this is a nightmare, or a fucked-up joke or something.
Sure enough, it’s neither, which sucks. A sick prank would be preferable to this. Because what exactly will Erica do with herself? She doesn’t have much of an identity outside of her domestic life: she’s a wife and mother first. She hasn’t thought about her pre-marriage days — when she was an aspiring artist — much. (Now she just works that thankless gallery job.) She can’t imagine dating again; she’s been with one man for 17 years, and he proved himself not worth the investment.
How should she go about recovering? The first step is kicking Martin out of their contemporary apartment, which he’s fine with. Still, that can’t stop the drinking, the crying, the fraught lunches with her supportive friends where no one says what she wants to hear. (She blows up when someone says something as innocuous as, “You have a reason to be sad.”) She sure as hell doesn’t quite know how to talk her sharp, precocious daughter (Lisa Lucas), at whom she sometimes blows up because she doesn’t know how to have a nuanced conversation these days.
That period, fortunately and inevitably, comes to an end after a handful of months. Erica starts seeing an almost unnervingly phlegmatic therapist, who, unlike her friends, consistently says the right things. Things get even better when Erica starts dating a hirsute splatter painter named Saul (Alan Bates), who maybe isn’t the best person for her but nonetheless embodies all the characteristics you might want in a partner, which is what she needs right now.
How perfectly ordinary An Unmarried Woman is. But how ebullient and smart it is, too. It was written and directed by the piercing filmmaker Paul Mazursky, in fine form; it showcases Clayburgh in one of the great screen performances of the 1970s.
The movie, from 1978, came at the tail end of a decade more attentive toward the stories of everyday women — like 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which lovingly, and comparatively, saw a single mother try to pick up her life after her suburban life dissolves; Coming Home (1978), a Vietnam-era melodrama about a woman who rediscovers herself after her husband goes to war; and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), about a perennially lonely 30-something whose attempts to find love don’t work out so well — and acted as a sort of approachable pinnacle.
Certainly, the approachability’s there because Erica has less to overcome than a majority of her feminine counterparts: She is afforded the sort of opportunities rarely offered to quotidian women as a result of her affluence. But Mazursky never tries to sell this story as if it were liquidy, one-size-fits-all. It is specific, but replete with certain universalities.
It follows the type of three-act structure we might expect in a movie like this. First comes the breakup, which is preceded by an abbreviated late-in-life honeymoon phase that is so exemplarily written and acted that we really believe that this marriage was great and that this affair is totally out of character. Then comes the mourning, which is ugly and disordered. Last comes the dating, which includes a couple false starts with a balding lout (Andrew Duncan) and a smooth-talker (Cliff Gorman), but then finally gets into all the exciting Saul business that gets you thinking about a new start. It is all capped off with an ending so satisfying and true, I wanted to cheer at how simple, but right, it was.
It contains myriad instant-classic scenes. There is, of course, the split, which hurts but is seamlessly staged. There are also the sequences wherein Erica goes on her first date since the split (shaky); has a one-night stand (beautifully awkward); has her friends over at her place and they read papers and magazines and wonder who the modern-day equivalents of the great female stars are, which leads to a confession (moving); has Saul over for dinner (delicate). And that ending.
Mazursky, here earning the clichéd compliment so often thrown at seemingly untouchable writer-directors, understands his heroine. Clayburgh gets her, too. The movie doesn’t condescend, romanticize. It might, facilely, be about an unmarried woman, as so many movies are. But this tale about uncoupling is so plausible, and so understanding, that it sometimes feels like more than that. A
t comes as a surprise. After spending their respective lunch breaks together at a diner on the corner, the upper-class, long-married couple Erica and Martin (Jill Clayburgh and Michael Murphy) traipse down the New York City avenue, heading back to their offices. Erica, an attendant at an art gallery, is prattling on about something forgettable; she gets loquacious when there’s silence to fill. Martin, in contrast, is stoic. He’s probably in one of his weird moods; he gets like that sometimes. He’s a stockbroker, and the responsibilities can