I'd like to spank the Academy

An Unmarried Woman (1978)

unmarried_womanAn Unmarried Woman
Directed by Paul Mazursky

Before I watched An Unmarried Woman, I knew two things about it: that it was about a woman going through a divorce, and that it hadn’t been released on DVD. These two little pieces of information made me assume that it wasn’t going to be very good. There are lots of mediocre movies about divorced women, and if it had never been released on DVD, how good could it be, really? And then I actually watched it, and I was blown away.

So what’s the story? Erica loves her life. She loves her husband, he loves her, and they have an amazing sex life. She has wonderful friends, a great relationship with her teenaged daughter, and the financial freedom to work a part-time job at an art gallery. When her husband tells her he’s leaving her for a younger woman, Erica’s life is turned upside down. She’s been with him for most of her adult life and doesn’t know who she is without him. With the support of her daughter, friends, therapist, and new men in her life, Erica learns for the first time in her life how to be herself.

The Good: The screenplay is amazing. It is so completely real, both emotionally and conversationally. It’s not dated at all; only three things would have to be changed to make it completely up to date: Erica’s friend refers to herself as “manic depressive,” where today we would use “bipolar;” the same friend uses lithium to deal with her mental illness, which is not commonly used today; and Erica’s daughter Patti tells her mother that her friend got an abortion for $200, but (based on an internet search), abortions are more expensive than that now. Setting those tiny details aside, Paul Mazursky’s screenplay could have been written today. It captures exactly what it feels like to be a woman in transition. As a woman whose life has not turned out how she planned it, I could completely relate.

The cast was wonderful. Jill Clayburgh was utterly fantastic as Erica, showing the range of emotions that a woman goes through when the life that she knew was gone. Erica’s husband, Martin, is played by Michael Murphy, who shows the nuances of emotion that people feel when they are trying to make themselves happy, even when it ends up hurting others. Lisa Lucas, who plays Patti, Erica and Martin’s daughter, is equally good at portraying the emotions of a teenager who is dealing not only with her parents’ breakup, but with the minefield of teenage life. Cliff Gorman plays the role of the sleazy artist perfectly. Kelly Bishop gives a wonderful performance as Erica’s supportive, feminist, manic depressive friend Elaine. Another thing I really love about the cast is that besides being incredibly talented, they are all normal-looking. They look like people you could run into on the street in any city in America. I find it much easier to believe a story about normal (albeit fairly wealthy) people when they look like normal people than when they look like models.

The music in An Unmarried Woman reflected the story in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. There is really only one melody (I would call it Erica’s leitmotif), but the instrumentation and key are changed based on the situation. Sometimes it is happy, sometimes it is angry, sometimes sad. It reflects Erica’s mood and emotions throughout the movie.

Because this is a character-driven movie as opposed to a plot-driven one, some of the scenes don’t seem to advance the plot. They are basically little vignettes of moments in Erica’s life. But because of the placement of these little scenes throughout the movie, these moments are able to subtly show Erica’s growth and development as she accepts her new life. That is one of the wonders of editing.

The Bad: Although I loved what the music did, I didn’t always love the music itself. While I loved having the emotions portrayed through one melody, the saxophone-heavy instrumentation was one of the few things that made me remember that this movie came out almost forty years ago. It’s very dated and sometimes distracting.

I had a problem with some of the things that Erica’s daughter Patti said. Some of her lines were flat-out perfect, but I have a hard time believing that Patti, a fifteen-year-old girl, would tell her mother’s boyfriend, whom Patti has just met, that she (Patti) is still a virgin. I was never in the situation of meeting a parent’s new love interest, so maybe some people would do it, but it didn’t feel natural to me. There were a couple of interactions like that throughout the movie that made me feel that although Mazursky apparently understands women incredibly well, he doesn’t know that much about teenaged girls.

The Ugly: Beyond some of the clothes, there is nothing that can be called ugly in this movie. (And the clothes are really more dated than ugly. I think there is a difference.)

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jill Clayburgh); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Justification: Yes, I fully realize that An Unmarried Woman only comes first in alphabetical order if we throw out one of the rules of alphabetization and don’t ignore the “an”. But it gets to come first because it was the first best picture nominee that I had watched in a long time. So I will stifle my librarian instincts and acknowledge the “an”.

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