An Unmarried Woman (1978) tells the story of Erica, woman living in New York who has to deal with an unexpected divorce.
This film, along with Jill Clayburgh’s performance, has a reputation for being the first of its kind, paving the way for future films and TV series of a similar genre such as Sex And The City. The idea of an independent, sexually liberated woman was probably a bit sensitive with Academy voters back then, and I guess this could have cost Claybourgh the best actress Oscar as well as the film’s best picture award.
That being said, I can safely declare that I respect the film more than I really loved it. I’m obviously not a Sex And The City fan (I don’t even watch it) so I can’t really relate to the film and its story. To start with the positive, the film is a very well-written one about the love lives and divorces of these New York women, and none of the dialogue ever comes off as plastic or fake. I mean, I couldn’t care less about the 4 women gathering together to complain about their love lives, but it at least comes off as…authentic, rather than blatantly trying to make a statement. Their problems might seem trivial, since these women are fairly well-to-do and healthy, and yet it’s not entirely unrealistic or fake because you can understand where they are coming from. Their problems pretty much highlight the superficiality of their lives and how they can’t find meaning in it, especially with their love lives. And this is all seen through Erica, a woman who was content (but not happy) over her marriage until it fell apart.
At the end of the day, I can say that the most impressive aspect of the film is Jill Clayburgh’s terrific performance, a strong addition to an already great Best Actress lineup. The movie actually deals with the aftermath of divorce very well, and I feel that it is largely because of Clayburgh’s subtle but powerful acting that delivers its impact. Right from the start, Clayburgh shows how content and satisfied she is with her life, but also hints that there is more she desires out of it (that imaginary ballet dancing scene spoke volumes about the character to me). However, this illusion crumbles when her husband wants a divorce. It never feels overly dramatic or tragic, and yet you can always sense the confusion, the hurt, the anger and sadness of the character. In fact, she only has one crying scene (well, crying scenes aren’t something that I care as excessively as some people do) and yet you can sense all these emotions burning out of her. The highlight of her performance would really be the famous scene where loser her husband confesses his affair to her. That scene would have been the perfect “Oscar Scene” for Clayburgh to show off her acting skills, to turn on the waterworks and act all hysterical. Instead, she internalizes everything and yet you can see it so clearly in her eyes; the initial shock, the disgust, the anger, the confusion and how it all culminated to, well, a vomiting scene. Clayburgh’s acting is so free of clichés, and somehow that makes it even more powerful. Her nervous, “on-the-edge” mannerisms, as well as when she starts to learn how to love again are all done extremely naturally. Most movies would have unrealistically depicted the way the divorced wife quickly loves her new partner, but this script and Clayburh showed that doing so is a lot harder than it seems because of the guilt, emotional baggage and the fear of loving and trusting another man. It’s a terrific, realistic performance that pretty much made the movie for me (she’s supposedly in every scene of the film).
At the end of the day, I’m a bit indifferent towards An Unmarried Woman as a whole (not to mention some scenes were a bit boring), but I can respect it and see why some go crazy over it. I know it’s a bit silly to judge a film just because the topic is simply not of any interest to me, but it really stood in the way of letting me fully embrace it. 3.5/5. Clayburgh’s performance is a 5/5 though.
p.s. Since, I’m discussing her performance too – Ranking of the best actress nominees (haven’t seen Burstyn)
1) Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata – 5/5 (enough said)
2) Jane Fonda in Coming Home – 5/5 (It’s a “hated” win, but I thought she was utterly terrific. Will discuss it more when I look at Coming Home)
3) Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman – 5/5
4) Geraldine Page in Interiors – 4.5/5 (More supporting, but great and haunting nonetheless)