Husband packed off to work and teenage daughter en route to school, Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) finds herself home alone. Doing as any person in the same predicament would, she dances ecstatically around her fabulous Manhattan apartment in her underwear. The heroine of Paul Mazursky’s 1978 romantic comedy An Unmarried Woman is “Upper East Side by way of Vassar” – a 30-something gallery assistant who is, by her own admission, wealthy, highly educated, a bit posh. Appropriately, she pirouettes across the living room to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in prim white knickers.
Erica’s life is soon disrupted when her Wall Street executive husband Martin (Michael Murphy) reveals he has been cheating on her with a younger woman. “Is she a good lay?” she sneers, before turning on her heel and promptly vomiting.
I describe the film as a romantic comedy, but it’s less a love story than a tale of reinvention. The thrill is in watching the vulnerable Erica build herself back up. She starts going to therapy (she feels guilty for feeling guilty) and tentatively begins to date, experimenting, for the first time, with casual sex. She spends much of the film swaddled in a wool trench coat with an enormous popped collar, swishing around New York’s parks and downtown art galleries. Her confidence begins to bloom. She sleeps with a painter, and afterwards they eat scrambled eggs with hot sauce and grated cheese directly from the pan. Never has one woman’s tragedy looked so much like another’s extravagant fantasy.
An Unmarried Woman could be seen as the blueprint for another fantasy of New York City singledom – Sex and the City. Flanked by her three girlfriends Elaine (Kelly Bishop), Sue (Pat Quinn) and Jeannette (Linda Miller), and discussing age-gap relationships over Bloody Marys, the newly single Erica might be a proto-Carrie Bradshaw. Writer-director Mazursky showcases an unusually sharp ear for dialogue in scenes in which the women are simply talking. A frank conversation about “self-esteem” begins with the quartet lamenting the disappearance of formidable women in the movies; Golden Age movie stars such as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford are compared with Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand (“It’s not the same thing!” Jeanette protests). Firecracker Elaine starts to cry, admitting she lacks confidence. “Self-esteem and the American woman,” she sighs. “Once divorced, sleeping around, drinking too much, pretending to have a lot of self-you-know-what but really having next to none.” The girls get her a glass of water. The film is set against the backdrop of second-wave feminism, and suggests that the era’s new sexual permissiveness might not have felt liberating for all women who sampled it.
The film’s attitude towards sex and relationships is not conservative but rather ambivalent. Erica tells her therapist that her sex life with her ex-husband was satisfying, even if the relationship itself wasn’t. Marriage is not necessarily a sexless prison of domesticity. Nor is the right man a golden ticket to self-knowledge or even happiness. When Erica’s lover, a sensual painter named Saul (Alan Bates), invites her to spend the summer with him in Vermont at the end of the film, she passes, preferring her independence. He approves; she reminds him she isn’t exercising her choice for his approval. He calls her “vicious”. “Honest,” she corrects him.
The men in An Unmarried Woman are varying shades of unlikeable. There is Erica’s adulterous ex Michael, who dreams of quitting Wall Street to become a disc jockey; the chauvinistic artist she eventually goes to bed with (“You’re out of style, Charlie,” she says of his overt sexual advances); her daughter’s dismissive boyfriend, who describes “the new Lina Wertmüller movie” as “flawed”. Erica goes for dim sum with Bob, an entitled friend of a friend, who she’s not attracted to. When he climbs into her cab and tries to kiss her, she promptly kicks him out. “What was today?” he asks, incensed when she tells him she’s not dating at the moment. “Lunch,” she replies witheringly.
Clayburgh is luminous as Erica, wounded and stumbling, yet somehow graceful. “‘Balls,’ said the queen. ‘If I had ’em, I’d be king,’” she mutters to herself. The camera still treats her like royalty. She appears in every scene. Sat at the piano in their apartment, she and daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas) sing a karaoke version of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. The scene starts with a tight close-up and slowly widens out, intimating that there’s someone else in the room. As the frame widens, it is revealed the two women are happily alone.
“An Unmarried Woman” is available to rent in the UK on Chili
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid