1978 / Best Actress / Best Picture

Film #306: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Throughout the 1970s we’ve seen several genres covered from colourful musicals through disaster films by way of thoughtful dramas. But alongside these movies were comedy dramas that were being made about love and sex in modern times. We’ve previously seen one example in the form of A Touch of Class and our next film; An Unmarried Woman explores similar themes.

An Unmarried Woman, stars Jill Clayburgh as Erica Benton, a wealthy woman living in New York with a successful husband and a loving teenage daughter. Erica spends a lot of her time at the art gallery where she works or having in-depth discussions with her three rowdy friends. However, life changes dramatically for Erica when her husband Martin announces that he’s been having an affair for the last year with a younger woman. He now realises he’s love with his bit on the side and wants to move in with her and divorce Erica, news that sends her into meltdown. Erica initially struggles to cope with this news and sinks into a minor depression, even snapping at her daughter Patti. As Martin was her only relationship, Erica doesn’t know how to cope on the dating scene and has several unsuccessful encounters. She finally begins a proper relationship with eccentric British artist Saul with the pair sharing several meaningful exchanges. As she begins to feel liberated, she wonders if she actually needs a man in her life at all and if her relationship with Saul is what she really wants.

Paul Mazursky, who wrote and directed An Unmarried Woman, had already carved out quite a successful career making adult relationship comedies. His debut film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, won several plaudits and introduced him as an exciting new voice. But it wasn’t until An Unmarried Woman that he finally became a massive name in the industry partly due to his Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. The script itself felt incredibly different from any film I’ve watched before on this list, with the possible exception of A Touch of Class. Mazursky’s characters felt real and the discussions they were having were particularly explicit but rung true nonetheless. This particularly applies to Erica’s frank discussions about sex with her three girlfriends and I felt these scenes were a big influence on the creators of Sex and The City. Erica herself is an interesting character as she’s a woman who’s been defined by a man all of her life and suddenly finds she’s without one. I believe that we sympathise with Erica so much because of the brilliant Oscar-nominated performance from Jill Clayburgh. Clayburgh is fantastic throughout the film and provides in an incredibly raw depiction of a woman experiencing a massive upheaval in her life. Of the supporting cast, I felt that Kelly Bishop was great as Erica’s friend Elaine who experienced bouts of depression throughout the film. Alan Bates was similarly well-utilised as the passionate artist Saul who captures Erica’s heart while Michael Murphy was suitably sleazy as her husband Martin. I have to say I do enjoy watching an offbeat film like An Unmarried Woman once in a while and I found it incredibly easy to get through. It’s a shame that more films like this aren’t nominated for Oscars today but it once again showcases how diverse the range of Oscar-nominated movies were during the 1970s.


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