‘An Unmarried Woman,’ liberation in 1970s cinema

by Heather Gray
Posted 4/11/24

“An Unmarried Woman,” featuring Jill Clayburgh, stands among a select group of 1970s films crafted by male filmmakers that deftly address women's concerns.

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‘An Unmarried Woman,’ liberation in 1970s cinema


“An Unmarried Woman,” featuring Jill Clayburgh, stands among a select group of 1970s films crafted by male filmmakers that deftly address women's concerns. Released in 1978, amidst the backdrop of a shifting cultural landscape, director Paul Mazursky explores second-wave feminism, personal autonomy, and the reshaping of a life after marriage. 

Set in 1978 Manhattan, the story revolves around Erica Benton (played by Clayburgh), an affluent white woman residing on the Upper East Side. Her husband is a successful Wall Street executive, while Erica works part-time at an avant-garde art gallery. She has a great relationship with her precociously self-possessed teen daughter. And she has a great figure. 

But despite outward appearances, Erica at midlife, struggles to rechart the course of her life. It was scary, but also an opportunity for her to become more than she, or anyone else, thought she capable of being. 

Such was the new yet very real circumstance for a growing number of women in the 1970s. Mazursky has a keen eye for the candid details of women's lives. The film authentically portrays moments that will be familiar to many women: most notably Erica’s feelings, choices, and conversations with her group of four best friends. These scenes are some of the standout moments of the movie. Each woman is making a different choice in response to the changes in their lives and societal shifts. They are great characters, and people one would like to spend more time with. The realism and truthfulness of their jokes, their tears, and their choices show that the filmmaker is paying careful attention to the women that he knows. 

At the start of the film, Erica is the only one of her four best female friends who is in a (seemingly) happy marriage. Two are divorced and the other one’s marriage is far from ideal. Then Erica’s husband, Martin, abruptly leaves her for a younger woman. 

Martin is played by Michael Murphy, best known for playing Woody Allen’s cheating friend in the 1979 film Manhattan, and that association adds to his easy and ongoing dislikability. But the men in ‘An Unmarried Woman’ don’t make themselves easy to like. They demonstrate how challenging it can be to date again as a “middle-aged” woman. 

But thankfully, the film isn’t about Erica finding her way back to a romantic relationship. Martin's betrayal thrusts Erica into a journey of rediscovery and reclamation of her own identity. Along the way, she has casual sex, hangs with her ‘besties,’ sings Paul McCartney’s ‘Baby I’m Amazed’, badly, with her daughter, goes to therapy, and stands up for herself over and over and over again. 

Tanya, Erica’s therapist, played by the mesmerizing Penelope Russianoff, is not an actress but a real therapist in New York. Tanya is wonderful and cool and makes this very grounded film even more credible. Russianoff’s specialty in psychotherapy was to help women assert themselves and break free from traditional gender roles. 

With Russianoff's expertise informing the character, the film gains an additional layer of authenticity. It’s a testament to Mazursky's commitment to realism that such pivotal characters are imbued with the wisdom and gravitas of their real-life counterparts.

It's Tanya, during an emotional therapy session with Erica, who delivers one of the funniest, and most memorable lines from the film, “Men are people too.” 

In ‘An Unmarried Woman,’ men are struggling, discombobulated, and grasping for a lifeline as the women in their lives define their destinies. Erica is challenged to balance emotional vulnerability with relational autonomy. A challenge that all people are still attempting to navigate – with varying degrees of success. 

Erica takes the audience on a journey of both feeling your feelings and having great boundaries. Perhaps it takes the former to succeed at the latter. Or maybe vice versa. 

Even now, in 2024, many see women’s feelings and women’s boundaries as questions, or things to mistrust or ignore. But somehow, in 1978, Paul Mazursky, Penelope Russianoff, and Jill Clayburgh took them seriously. “An Unmarried Woman” takes women’s liberation seriously, and does it with humor, sexiness, empathy, and honesty. 

Other notable 1970s films by male directors that meaningfully address women's issues are “3 Women,” a 1977 film by Robert Altman; “A Woman Under the Influence,” a 1974 film by John Cassavetes; and “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” a 1974 film by Martin Scorsese.

Woodmere Art Museum will be screening An Unmarried Woman as part of its Tuesday Nights at the Movies program. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the film begins at 7. Light refreshments are served before the film and admission is free.