…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
In An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh garnered a well-deserved Oscar nom as 30-something New York wife Erica Benton, who rediscovers herself after her husband of several years confesses to cheating on her (with a younger woman). She gives a refreshing, inspiring performance which I personally believe – until I see the other contenders and feel the ’78 win by Jane Fonda was justified – should have won her the Oscar, hands-down.
To put it in a nutshell, Clayburgh – as Erica – is believable and brilliant. Her metamorphosis from traditional, subtle housewife to flowering, independent woman is evident as each minute of the film ticks by following the stunning confession of her husband’s infidelity. From the moment he confesses his affair to her on the street corner and she stares, stunned, into his eyes before bluntly asking, “Was she a good lay?” and stalking away (it’s a powerful moment)… to her meaningful, almost sisterly scenes shared with close girl friends each going through their own marital and relationship troubles (one is seeing a 19 year-old boy, the other has husband woes – this latter actress, Kelly Bishop, would go on to play Baby’s mother in Dirty Dancing, but turns in some excellent acting here)… to touching scenes shared with her daughter, Patty, who is just as stymied by her father’s betrayal – all moments portrayed by Clayburgh are honest and true. A particular stand-out moment occurs when Erica is in the bathroom cleaning herself up for bed. She finds her husband’s can of shaving cream and tosses it in the garbage… which is merely a catalyst for a wild purging spree of all of her husband’s other belongings in the apartment. Emotionless yet purposeful, she piles the articles on the dining room table and glances up briefly at her daughter, who is entering the living room to see what her mother is doing. The quiet look they exchange is intense and meaningful… and completely makes sense. Both women share an indelible loss in their lives, but you know that with an hour or so left to the movie, they will have to move on – and they will move on, in a positive direction. As a viewer, you cannot help but delight in Erica’s journey. And Clayburgh’s conception of her character and subsequent delivery make it all that more engaging.
The film moves at a nice pace and could play as a soapy melodrama, but fortunately, it avoids this calamity. As expected, with her divorce, we see Erica blossom into the woman she is meant to be. She isn’t afraid to stand up to, and argue with, her fumbling husband. She even casually braves a one night fling with an obnoxious womanizer who frequents the art gallery in which she works. She allows no ties – when he says he will see her the next night, she quickly responds that she is not at a place for that to happen – but eventually, she is taken completely by surprise when she attempts another sexual fling with a very nonchalant, down-to-earth artist (Alan Bates) and finds herself falling head over heels in love with him, and he with her. I won’t give any further details away… but you can bet that Erica is once again forced to make a decision where her newfound love – and life – is concerned.
Deep into the 1970s and sexual liberation, An Unmarried Woman poses a truly interesting question: how much do we define ourselves by the relationships we are involved in? Strip away some of the inevitable 70s jazz music that glosses over the film in the soundtrack (it reminds me so much of the “Love Boat”), and you have a pretty heavy, meaningful message behind this film. As ironic as it seems, Erica Benton may never have become the women she was meant to be unless her husband had been unfaithful to her. Painful though the experience had been for both her and her daughter, she ultimately finds the strength and salvation in becoming a stronger woman on her own. Erica finds out, in essence, there is almost something to be said for finally being “an unmarried woman”. Paul Mazursky’s script and direction is top-notch, and Clayburgh truly gives a gem of a performance. If you are looking for a hidden treasure in films, look this one up. You won’t be disappointed. Clayburgh delivers.