To get a sense of why essayist/novelist Tom Wolfe christened the ’70s “The Me Decade,” look no further than An Unmarried Woman, one of the deepest dives into feminine psychology any mainstream American filmmaker has ever attempted. Although the movie nominally tells the story of a woman trying to find love again after her husband leaves her, the real goal of the picture is to let one individual express her personal angst. And while the issues the heroine articulates are germane to an entire generation of females, since divorce rates skyrocketed in the ’70s, the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” dominate the dialogue. From quiet scenes of the lead character embracing the joys of being alone to leisurely sequences depicting talking-and-listening therapy sessions, this movie takes introspection to a new extreme. On many levels, this approach is rewarding, and it’s safe to assume that male viewers who caught the picture during its original release exited theaters with a deeper understanding of the ladies in their lives. However, it must be offered as a caveat that viewers who don’t groove on pictures in which characters discuss their feelings at copious length will find An Unmarried Woman about as pleasant as a visit to the dentist. Writer-director Paul Mazursky commits, big time.
Set in New York City, the picture follows the adventures of Erica (Jill Clayburgh), a with-it intellectual. When the story begins, she’s happily married to businessman Martin (Michael Murphy), with whom she’s raising their daughter, bright teenager Patti (Lisa Lucas). One day, Martin announces he’s met someone else, so Erica suddenly realizes how much of her personal identity was subsumed during nearly two decades of marriage. As the movie progresses, Erica commiserates with her girlfriends, re-enters the dating scene, and works through complicated feelings with her shrink, Tanya (played by real-life psychotherapist Penelope Russianoff). Eventually, a love story emerges between Erica and strong-willed abstract artist Saul (Alan Bates), but Erica’s reluctance to repeat the self-sacrificing mistakes of her marriage creates believable complications.
Virtually every scene in An Unmarried Woman is, to some degree or another, credible and meaningful. Mazursky shoots the picture with a naturalistic style that puts performances first, and one gets the strong sense he gave his actors ample license for improvisation. The major shortcoming of the picture, therefore, is an embarrassment of riches. Running a bloated 124 minutes, An Unmarried Woman contains many scenes that could (and should) have been cut or at least trimmed. A little navel-gazing goes a long way. Yet the strengths of the picture, particularly the key performances, easily outweigh the weaknesses. Clayburgh is wonderfully complicated in the picture, fragile and flawed and funny. Bates and Murphy are both good, too, with Bates offering a ’70s take on the hirsute he-man with an intellectual bent and Murphy effectively portraying a schmuck overwhelmed by the depth of his own feelings.
An Unmarried Woman: GROOVY