An Unmarried Woman

Pardon me, could you point me toward the zeitgeist?
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Paul Mazursky
Starring: 
Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Micahel Murphy, Cliff Gorman
The Setup: 
Woman is dumped by her husband, becomes liberated.
Discussion: 

A reader wrote me with a bunch of suggestions, and couldn't quite believe I hadn't seen this one, as it is a real 70s time capsule and plays so much on social and sexual issues. And you know, I thought, that's a very good question, so to the top of my list it went. This was released in 1978, and I think was a fairly big deal, or at least raised a good amount of discussion of the many issues related to feminism it brings up. One other thing essential to know up front is that this is a feminist statement as written and directed by a man.

We open with a helipcopter shot flying over Roosevelt Island--wow, was it undeveloped then. We soon meet Jill Clayburgh as Erica and Michael Murphy as her husband Martin jogging along the East River. He steps in dog shit and apparently this is enough for him to feel he must throw his sneaker out. He irritatedly says she nags him like his mother, she is wounded, and it's clear that his feelings for her are cool. Then he indicates that he wants to have sex. We see them at home, having had sex, he leaves for work, and she dances around the apartment for quite a while, spending a long time in front of the large picture windows that display the East Side of Manhattan.

Erica goes to dinner with her friends, a proto-Sex and the City bunch of four, who meet, drink and talk about sex. One of them is having an affair with a 19-year-old boy. Another, Elaine, is divorced and feels that men are are shit and are motivated only by sex. At home, Martin is watching this Reuters news video readout, which Mazursky keeps in the center of the frame for some time. I think it is supposed to equal that Martin is a boring person. Martin is again feeling frisky, but Erica refuses. She says "Besides, we had sex this morning, what do you want?" He then gets upset, and tries to tell her that he hates his job, feels unfulfilled and wants to change his life. She asks if it's her, he says no, and then she tells him, in a manner I thought rather clipped and unsupportive, that he ought to see a psychologist. After a little horseplay, they end up fooling around anyway. What--even though they did it that morning?

You'll notice that there are a great many shots showing the view out the windows of Erica's high-rise apartment, which I read as a statement that this kind of thing is happening all throughout the city. In the morning they're walking to work and she is talking, and he is not paying attention, which she chastises him for. She starts going on and on about how much she loves seeing her friends, really loves her time with them, and really loves them each as people [i.e. she does not love HIM]. He is suddenly crying. He tells her that he is seeing someone, a woman of 26. Erica gives him this look like "I cannot believe this shit," and finally asks if the other woman is a good lay. Her husband makes a face, and we know that she is. Erica walks away, and in one of the key moments of the film, we have a lengthy shot that follows her as she walks to the end of the block, devastated expression on her face, until she throws up a little bit. And, as often happens in the movies, her mouth is perfectly clean just a second later.

That night she hangs with her friends, to which she says "I feel so alone," while they're right there. Elaine sees her own poor experience in Erica's, slams men in general, and tells Erica to embrace her depression, as she has. Later, at home, Erica catches herself in the mirror, makes faces at herself, then says "Balls, said the Queen. If I had them, I'd be King."

She goes to a doctor because she feels lousy, and he makes a veiled pass, which she calls him on bluntly. At home, she goes through her medicine chest and throws out most of her beauty products. Then she gathers up everything of her husband's and dumps it on the table, finally tossing her wedding ring onto the pile. By now we've had opportunity to notice that the film includes many long wordless sequences, accompanied by Bill Conti's sax-heavy and very noticable score. Many commenters on the IMDb find the score too intrusive, but it didn't bother me, and does seem delightfully 70s. I also always appreciate long, atmospheric musical sequences, which this film is awash in.

SPOILERS > > >
She does out on a double lunch date with a friend and a comically horrible guy with a combover. Finally just wanting to be alone, she gets in a cab, but the guy forces himself in with her. Again, he makes a pass and she calls him on it bluntly in a comic way ["Why did you move closer to me?"]. Then he tries to jump her, and she fights him off. One significant thing here is you can see that the cab driver finds this amusing, and ignores her pleas to stop the car. This seems to express the idea many men of the time might have that she'll just give in--because she REALLY wants it--and that a man physically forcing himself on a woman is just fine. She finally gets him to stop the cab and leaves the guy off on the side of the JFK highway. By now the movie has developed a slight comic undercurrent [that an entire other movie could have been spun out of] that Erica just IS NOT having it anymore, and is just SO OVER men and how everything with them seems to loop around to sex sooner rather than later.

Erica goes home to find her daughter making out with her boyfriend, and freaks out, kicking the boy out of the apartment. She then agrees that she's going a bit far, and the next thing we see, she's in therapy with this woman Tanya. Mazursky has obviously had therapy himself and does a decent job of showing a therapeutic session where Erica gives a fairly long monologue.

Now a significant scene in which Erica goes to see Martin at work. She says right up front that she hates him. He says he still loves her as a person. She says that they had sex twice a week, which would amount to over 2,000 times total, which should be enough for any man. What is not mentioned, and the point of view of the movie is a unclear on this, is that maybe what Martin finds lacking is not the amount, but that she apparently regards it as a chore that must be gone through, akin to taking out the garbage.

Erica has her friends over for a kind of slumber party, which Elaine, who is comically becoming somewhat of a Debbie Downer dealing non-sequiturs that bring the conversation back around to HER, steers to a sudden weepy topic change about how she has no self-esteem. Erica now has a conversation with her therapist in which she is advised that it's time to get out there again, have fun, and meet men.

We next see her in a singles bar, where she runs into Charlie, this artist who holds a rather crude view of women and sex. Erica works in a gallery and is always hobnobbing with artists. Erica decides to have some casual sex just to get it over with, and they do.

Seemingly the next day, she meets Alan Bates as Saul, a painter whose art is basically that of Morris Louis. They chat in the gallery, and the next thing we see they're finishing up having sex, a purposely abrupt transition to show us that Erica is now fully on the casual sex train. Saul wants to see her again, but Erica is all "Hey dude, it was just sex, let's not make it more than it was," and walks out without further commitment.

That night they meet at a party of artists, where they soon run into Charlie, who publicly boasts about how he screwed Erica, which causes Saul to beat him up. They go out to the street, where Saul steps in dog shit, but takes it in stride, in contrast to a certain someone we know. He's soon talking about how his parents once had a fight and his mother threw a pickled herring at the wall and it made a splat, "And that's when I decided to become an abstract expressionist." In this scene you might try distracting yourself from the simplistic artist cliches by wondering at the fact that Erica is wearing this beige... cape? What IS that thing?

So Erica gives in to Saul and experiences physical pleasure such as she has never known [by now the film is just a series of feminist bullet points], and next we have a long and ostentatious sequence of her ice skating and feeling FREE! And why not, it's only seven weeks since the end of her 15-year marriage and she's already totally through the depression and rejection and has hot artists falling at her feet! I can assure that if you live in New York, this is simply WHAT HAPPENS.

Saul comes over to meet Erica's daughter, causing a repeat of the old familiar "You can't replace my father!" scene. Then there's a sequence of Erica and daughter singing "Maybe I'm Amazed" that pointedly begins with both of them singing "Maybe I'm a man, maybe I'm a lonely man that's in the middle of something I don't really understand."

Then we have the scene--I'm sure if you thought about it you would know it was coming up--in which we find that the woman Martn left her for has left him, and he wants to get back together, and Erica refuses. Then we now notice that she's jogging without a bra and with her nipples poking out because why shouldn't she? Huh? Tell me? Tell me one reason why she shouldn't be allowed to do that!!

Saul invites her to spend the summer in Vermont with him as he paints. Please have a vomit bag handy when the world-weary and oh-so-troubled and ever-so-complicated artist says, with a straight face, "If I stop painting for a few days... I may stop painting altogether." Then Saul casually mentions that he approves of the course Erica is taking, which causes her to have a minor "What do you mean by that? Why should I care whether you approve?" in the old trope familiar to feminism of the era in which it is fun to parse every single word a man says and leap all over him in indignation for every potential implication of bias. Erica then tells him that she likes him now, but she may like someone else tomorrow, and she really can't say--as she ostentatiously and repeatedly sticks her TONGUE into the coconut ice she's eating. I think the film should have just gone for it at this point and have her deep-throating a popsicle. Why not? Don't be timid.

So there's a long sequence where we see Saul's painting process, and later we find out that depressed Elaine has gone on Lithium. Saul gets annoyed that Erica won't come to Vermont, and she asks "Am I just a sexual object to you?" He says she's a warm and wonderful and complicated woman, who is also a sexual object. Then they lower one of his paintings that looks to be about 8'x8' to the street. Saul says it's hers, and takes off in a cab, leaving her with it. She struggles with it back to her apartment, and the image freezes with Erica in the background amongst a crowded street, two women prominently in the foreground, as though to say that she's just another woman in the city, dealing with the problems that many share.
< < < SPOILERS END

The movie raises a bunch of issues, and now there's the additional perspective that time since its release has given us, but let's consider it just as a movie first. It's okay, it has a bunch of ideas, which is nice, although it's obviously constructed as a framework on which to hang such ideas, which starts to diminish one's ability to simply get into the story and engage with the character. I feel like there should be an on-screen discussion guide, or bullet points such as "Now Erica learns to be vocal about her own needs and wants." I enjoyed the movie more in its first half, when Erica was just pissed off and not having ANY of it from men, because then the movie had an enjoyable comic edge. The second half becomes much more schematic, as we move from Important Point to Important Point, and it begins to feel more like a message. This repeatedly takes us out of the story, as you as a viewer start engaging with the messages and pull back from simply being involved with Erica's journey. Still, a movie jam-packed with Important Messages is usually better than a movie with nothing on its mind at all.

The other thing is that unfortunately, Clayburgh is only adequate to the task. Many on the IMDb rave about her performance, but I think it's easy to confuse the fact that a person is on screen a lot with the feeling that she's GOOD while on screen. For me, she was just a little too self-conscious throughout, you can see the actress [I'm sorry: Actor!] thinking, rather than the character thinking, and she remains more of a construct than a living, feeling person. I spent most of the movie thinking about what another actor could do in this role. Toni Collette could knock this out of the park.

Okay, onto the ideas. First, it seems that this movie functions best as a time capsule of concerns of the time, and one can see how it exists as a reaction to the customs of the time. It expresses the time when feminism was coming out of academia and activists and trickling down to the general population, and women like Erica were awakening to the realization that some men, and society in general, don't regard them as full humans with complicated psychologies, and maybe they have learned not to regard themselves this way either. Erica's story expresses how everything comes into question at this time, and shows her learning to respect herself and give creedence to her own wants and desires.
Okay, now on to some of the issues, not all of which are IN the movie—some are merely brought up by the movie—and some of which are not the limitation of the movie, but only arise as we look back from 30 years later.

One thing that I had trouble with is pinning down the point of view of the movie. I was happy to see that Erica is not portrayed as a suffering saint in her marriage, she rebuffs her husband’s attempts to open up to her about his general life dissatisfaction [“Well, you should see a psychologist”] and obviously regards sex as a chore she must go through, which her husband ought to be fucking happy that she does at all [“We had sex this morning, what do you want?” and later assertion that she did it dutifully twice a week, so what is he unhappy about?]. So toward the beginning Erica isn’t presented as entirely in the right about everything, but this seems to fade out after her husband leaves her, at which point it seems that Erica IS right about everything, and we are supposed to be 100% behind her, which makes me wonder if that distancing stuff up front was intentional… or just carelessness. I will say that I was happy that Martin, her husband, wasn’t completely demonized and isn’t reduced to a moronic, sex-crazed dunderhead with no inner life.

One issue brought up by this movie that I’ve always been curious about is that you know, for the most part [mustn’t generalize, although discussing these issues requires that we generalize], men like sex, men seem to view and experience sex differently from women, and men often develop feelings and emotional connection through sex. What I’m curious about is why we seemingly universally agreed that THAT. IS. WRONG. Men’s liking for sex is something that must be subdued, tamed, and gotten over! Liking sex is seen as being in direct opposition to emotional and intellectual maturity, and cast as primitive. Unless you’re a woman like Erica toward the end of this movie, who can enjoy sex “like a man” without emotional connection, and that is portrayed as AWESOME for her. Although this has to be taken in the context of the time and as a reaction against earlier attitudes. Now, there’s no question that historically and traditionally sex has been used by men as a way of keeping control over women, but what I find curious is that separate from historical specifics, it just seems to be a widely accepted and unquestioned idea, even among intellectual and academic circles that should be able to get some distance on this, that liking sex primarily, instead of emotional attachment primarily, is unquestionably WRONG. If I had to speculate, I’d say it’s one of those mores that ensure the continuation of society as we know it, since emotional attachment leads to marriage and families and all those great status-quo-continuing things.

The other thing this movie brings up is how much popular feminism has changed in the decades since. I grew up around the time of this movie, with ideas like you don’t call any female over 15 a “girl,” women shouldn’t be viewed primarily as sex objects, advertising that uses sex to sell products is wrong and… I sort of had the impression that these ideas would just continue to settle in and be accepted. So who would have thought that women would be where they are today, where it’s awesome to dress hyper-sexually and to share pictures of yourself in various stages of undress through various methods, girls are encouraged to present themselves as sexual at a much earlier age, it’s perfectly fine to care about nothing but fashion and shoes and relationships, girls aspire to be models and pop stars who maintain outrageously sexualized images … I just don’t get it. Actually I do get it: it’s the result of marketing and the capitalistic need to head off the economy-adverse aspects of feminism [So you still DO need lipstick and lingerie… just to feel empowered!].

For this reason, I think this would be a great movie to watch with your kids [oh, except there IS explicit sex] and talk about after, in terms of the issues it brings up and what’s right and wrong and how society has changed in the meantime. Which I guess has been my point all though this review: This is a great study guide. As a movie that tells a story, less so.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, you should still probably see it, it’s well-made and interesting and brings up some intriguing issues.