In many ways, An Unmarried Woman is a cosmetic update of a woman’s picture from the 40s. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a tougher dame like Ginger Rogers or Carole Lombard starring in a fluffier, happier version of this story about a woman reconciling from a divorce and finding her footing again as a single woman. It would include women like Eve Arden appearing as one of the best friends, eternally with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other offering up bon mots and supportive sarcasm. It would be both incredibly similar and tonally different to this film, but it’s easy to trace the line from those films to this one.
A woman in an idealized life finds it suddenly rocked by the revelation that her husband is leaving her, and the stability and complacency of her life is thrown to the wilds. This is the only life she’s ever known. How exactly does one regain their footing and carve out their new identity, or reclaim one that they had sublimated to another person, without any of the safety nets in place that they once knew?
While so much of An Unmarried Woman happens in the lap of upper-middle class wealth that it’s hard to completely relate to these characters, there’s the strength of Jill Clayburgh’s performance that carries everything off. Clayburgh gets to play one of the most fully realized female characters in the movies, and she’s obscenely good here. Not only is she allowed to play scenes of anger, jealousy, and utter ridiculousness, but she gets to be vulnerable and hilarious. She’s allowed and encouraged a freedom of expression that is rare in a female character, and her work is transcendent, the type of finely crafted film acting that we go to the movies for in the first place.
Hell, I don’t even disagree with her decision in the end to drop the overly sensitive artist for the continued rebuilding of her identity. Apparently this decision courted some controversy, but I understood why she would choose herself over an idealized solution. Why forsake her own identity to play the wife of another wealthy, successful man in his field? The film is called An Unmarried Woman, and Clayburgh’s Erica makes a rational, informed decision based upon where she’s at in her life to remain the titular woman and not become another Mrs.
It is a damn shame that An Unmarried Woman doesn’t offer up the rest of its characters the same amount of range and expressivity. Her teenage daughter feels like the precocious fantasy of liberated, late-70s youth, and her friends feel like a bunch of entertaining neurotics with limited variations (even if they are wonderfully played by the likes of Kelly Bishop, Patricia Quinn, and Linda Miller), and the trio of major male characters in the film basically fall into broad strokes of personality. This thing belongs solely to Erica, but a little more vibrancy for the supporting players wouldn’t have hurt.
At least it doesn’t demand that Erica engage in all-encompassing suffering, long gone are the days of Joan Crawford glamorously suffering in furs, or sack her with a too trite happy ending. Nope, Erica gets to exist as her own persona working out what she does and does not want for her life on her own terms. An Unmarried Woman is at its best when it plays for the real, and I wish that the last section hadn’t descended into some kind of all too perfect romance. It was far more fun to spend time with Erica and her friends over long lunches or flipping through magazines, to watch her talk with her daughter about what the divorce means for her relationship with her father, or break down in sobs about unrelated events during therapy sessions. When An Unmarried Woman, and Jill Clayburgh by extension, are allowed to go out into emotional daring and draining territories it is at its most engaging, satisfying and deeply felt.