Jill Clayburgh stars as the quintessential, privileged Upper East Side woman of the 1970s in “An Unmarried Woman.” So identifiable is this character that she could have slipped into a Woody Allen film of that era unnoticed.
As betrayed wife Erica Benton, Clayburgh is consistently believable and at times incandescent, even if she is not immediately a sympathetic character because of her relative wealth. Erica wins over the audience shortly after learning that her entitled stockbroker husband is leaving her for a predictably younger woman. As she studies her tormented face in the mirror she declares, “Balls, says the queen, if I had ‘em I’d be king.”
Indeed, the male characters accept their power and advantage as natural and expect a degree of servitude from women. Erika becomes unwilling to acquiesce.
Clayburgh deservedly won the best actress award at Cannes in 1978 for her performance and was nominated for an Oscar that she lost to Jane Fonda. Her nuanced portrayal of Erica deserves attention because she is not the lushy, desperate-for-sex and a new wedding ring “divorcée” that Hollywood was so fond of until this film. Erica is not shown as a perfect wife or mother and she makes very real mistakes as she recovers from the shock of betrayal.
The attitudes, dialog and situations shown in the film are both realistic and radical if understood in the context of the late 1970s, when divorce remained somewhat scandalous, women were earning 59.4 percent of what men earned and a woman in her later 30s was considered “older” and already a less desirable marriage prospect.
As the film’s title explains, Erica is not a single woman but rather a de-coupled woman who carries the stigma of having been married and discarded, a true social impediment in this early phase second wave feminism. An unattached woman continues to be an object of curiosity, a slightly subversive element, but in 1978 she was an anomaly, even a pariah.
The men in Erika’s social circle would have been convinced of their support of “Women’s Lib” and self-congratulatory of the things they “let” their wives do. The women would have chafed in their bras and embraced their natural figures but they still felt pressure to attract a husband and keep him – or suffer the cultural and economic consequences.
Erica and her wonderfully complicated group of female friends, a darkly comic Greek chorus, realize that they have a life and a self, independent of men but they are also acutely aware of the suspect perception of women who boldly assert themselves in the Manhattan bourgeoise of 1978. All their choices involve bitter compromise. (Incidentally, the “gal pals” of “Sex in the City” are clearly descendants of these women.)
The male characters are not seen contemplating the social consequences of their marital status or their sexual exploits. Even Erica’s female shrink basically prescribes a boyfriend.
Yes, these are the neurotic New Yorkers of the late 1970s that persist as a stereotype of that city, but they are also some of the first Hollywood characters to take on the uncomfortable questions of the rise in divorces and the existential anxieties of all those unmarried women.