Fox // 1978 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 6th, 2006
She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is...an unmarried woman.
Writer-director Paul Mazursky's wildly successful tale of a newly divorced woman trying to find a new life in New York in the late 1970s finally makes its way to DVD in this pretty (if light on supplements) release from Fox.
Erica (Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over) and Martin (Michael Murphy, Tanner '88) are an affluent couple living in Manhattan with their 15-year-old daughter. Martin is a Wall Street broker, and Erica works in a Soho art gallery. Their marriage appears ideal to both Erica and the couple's friends until Martin announces, out of the blue, that he's been having an affair for a year, has fallen in love with the other woman, and wants a divorce.
Erica moves tentatively into New York's singles scene. She experiments with her new-found freedom until meeting Saul (Alan Bates, Women in Love), a respected artist who pursues her romantically. The question is, can she learn to trust a man again? More importantly, does she even want to try?
The greatest praise I can heap on An Unmarried Woman is that, despite its subject-matter, it doesn't play like a Lifetime channel movie of the week. It's also aged pretty well even though its clearly a product of the feminist zeitgeist of the seventies. At this stage of his career Paul Mazursky seems to have had a peculiar talent for rendering what ought to be two-dimensional characters in dazzling three dimensions. It's a talent born of intelligent writing and the sensitive direction of strong actors. Erica, for instance, has a trio of female friends with whom she regularly commiserates. Each of the women represents a different viewpoint along the feminist continuum. One longs desperately for old-fashioned romance, one views her own open marriage with a jaded resignation, and one revels in her predatory sexual prowess. Erica modulates between these extremes, experimenting with each but ultimately offering a more moderate feminist reality. Despite their extremes, each of the friends comes off as a real person, thanks to the excellent performances of Patricia Quinn (Alice's Restaurant), Kelly Bishop (The Gilmore Girls), and Linda Miller (Elvis and Me). Clayburgh, Quinn, Bishop, and Miller manage natural delivery of dialogue about orgasms, younger men, old time movie stars, depression, prescription drugs, and other topics that would sound academic and polemical coming from the mouths of lesser actors.
The film's male characters also benefit from Mazursky's nuanced writing and careful direction. A mediocre artist named Charlie (Cliff Gorman, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), with whom Erica has a one-night stand, is the only obvious lout in the picture. His smarmy antics are more a source of comic relief than offense, though. Michael Murphy turns in a masterfully understated performance as Martin. The character is one part loathsome jerk, one part misguided nice guy, and Murphy navigates the divide perfectly. His infidelity is reprehensible and pathetic, but, like Erica, we can't help but hate him, pity him, and kind of like him all at the same time. Alan Bates turns in a similarly impressive performance. Saul is the film's single strong male, portrayed by Bates with a remarkable mixture of self-assurance and sensitivity. Saul is a thoroughly likable man without being a pushover. Unwilling to put himself at the mercy of Erica's social and sexual experimentation, he proves a perfect match for her -- bourgeois in his desire for cohesion, but bohemian in his respect for her right to self-determination. The end of the film, then, rejects a radical feminist view of the sexes in favor of something approaching a traditional romance, though modified by the modern sensibilities of the 1970s and by a purposefully ambiguous ending that enables Erica to assert her autonomy without rejecting Saul's companionship.
Jill Clayburgh's performance is the bedrock of the film, of course. It's arguably the best of her career. Though a woman, Erica is a typical Mazurskian hero. She's smart, funny, and imaginative. There's even a charming scene in which she dances around in her underpants while pretending to be a famous ballerina (a full five years before Tom Cruise rocketed to fame with his "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" gyrations in Risky Business). It's reminiscent of Larry Lapinsky's train station thespian games in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Mazursky's semi-autobiography made two years before An Unmarried Woman. Erica's plight and pain are textured, complex, and real. She is self-aware without being self-pitying. It's just about impossible not to like her.
Arthur Ornitz's (Minnie and Moskowitz, Serpico) cinematography for An Unmarried Woman is all about naturalism. The look of the film is clean and absent ostentation. The DVD offers a fine digital reproduction of Ornitz's work on celluloid. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes from clean source elements. Whatever restoration the transfer underwent, digital tweakage was controlled enough to leave an attractive image that looks much like film.
The default audio setting is a two-channel presentation of the film's original mono track. A stereo remix is also provided, though it's not much more impressive than the mono. Both are clean and serviceable.
Supplements are skimpy considering this is one of Mazursky's most successful films. The director and Jill Clayburgh team for a commentary that is much livelier and more informative than the track by Mazursky and Ellen Greene on Next Stop, Greenwich Village (also released by Fox). Mazursky's memories regarding the production of An Unmarried Woman are sharp, and the track is loaded with interesting information.
The only other supplement is a theatrical trailer for the film.
Despite being firmly grounded in New York of the late 1970s, An Unmarried Woman remains a compelling and entertaining drama. Paul Mazursky's snappy writing, and crackling performances by Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, and the rest of the cast, lend the picture a timeless appeal.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh