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Criterion Collection: An Unmarried Woman (1978) | Blu-ray Review

Academy-Award nominated writer/director Paul Mazursky makes his first entry into the Criterion canon with his sixth feature, the seminal (first-wave) feminist landmark An Unmarried Woman, one of a handful of New Hollywood alums to place a woman’s agency as the crux of the film. Notably, it is the signature role of Jill Clayburgh, who like Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway, ascended to prominence in the 1970s on a crest of female empowerment heretofore rarely glimpsed in American cinema.

Winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (she tied with Isabelle Huppert, who took home the award for Violette), and scoring one of her two Academy Award nominations, it would cement Clayburgh (wife of playwright David Rabe and mother of actress Lily Rabe) as a permanent iconoclast. In the same breadth, the film’s universality is limited to a specific bubble, a time and place which mark it as much a story of privilege as it is about empowerment.

Unbeknownst to Erica (Clayburgh), a wealthy white woman who has been married to stockbroker husband Martin (Michael Murphy) for the past sixteen years, her life is about to be upended. Announcing he’s fallen in love with a younger woman whom he met at Bloomingdale’s a year ago, Martin moves out of his apartment with Erica and their teen daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas). Reeling from the separation, Erica, who works in a swank Manhattan art gallery, attempts to make sense of her new environment through the help of a therapist and her three best friends, all who have experienced their own significant issues with love and marriage. Eventually, Erica begins to embrace her newfound liberation, but back out on the dating scene, she begins a romance with divorced artist Saul (Alan Bates), leading her to choose between independence or falling into the arms of another man and the limiting role such an opportunity presents.

Clayburgh’s charisma and subtlety shine brightest in her shared sequences with her therapist (a dry but drolly empathetic Penelope Russianoff), not entirely unlike similar scenes in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute with Jane Fonda and her therapist, women talking frankly about feelings and issues specific to their existence, desires and dreams. Out about in the world of 1978 in the Upper East Side, Erica’s mid-life drift doesn’t ever threaten to push her over a precipice, unlike, say, the women of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria (2013) or Huppert in Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come (2016). Instead, she must grapple with being pulled back into the forceful tide of the heteropatriarchy in her burgeoning romance with Alan Bates’ affable artist, whilst eschewing the advances of suitors less able to hide their desire to control Erica merely as a force of habit (a likeably, trenchantly New York playboy played by the multi-faceted Cliff Gorman in a role as equally magnetic as his turn in Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band is also a bright spot).

Other interactions highlight how aggressively women are pursued by men when they’re considered ‘available,’ as evidenced in one of the film’s most memorable scenes when Clayburgh fights off the advanced of an amorous lunch date. And then there’s Michael Murphy, who appears as her spineless, milquetoast husband, which leaves most of Mazursky’s script open for the exploration of its female characters, including a trio of Erica’s friends and her teenage daughter (Lisa Lucas) to play off. Like a template for the marital discord and battle of the sexes Noam Baumbach would mine in the same city decades later in films like The Squid and the Whale (2003) and Marriage Story (2019), the rigid, heteronormative understanding of marriage remains imbalanced for the white women whose narratives proliferate these landscapes in English language cinema.

But Mazursky paints his periphery brightly in Woman, utilizing character Novella Nelson (making her debut), the only Black woman on hand, in an interracial relationship with Raymond J. Barry and seemingly a centrifugal force in the art scene uniting Erica to all her potential outlets.

An emotive score from Bill Conti and a beautiful rendering of late 70s New York from Arthur J. Ornitz (who lensed many classics set in the city, from The Boys in the Band, Serpico, and Death Wish) add to the enduring appeal of An Unmarried Woman, a perfectly titled exercise (consider the connotations which set this apart from A Single Woman, A Divorced Woman, An Independent Woman) which may not be a universally feminist story, devoid of any potential intersectionality as it is, but suggests the hopefulness of possibility when removing oneself from the continuum (or acceptance of) a power structure designed to suppress, oppress and repress women.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★ /☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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