Review: An Unmarried Woman

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

This is the first Paul Mazursky film I’ve really liked. I haven’t seen them all, but what I have thought of Mazursky until now had a lot to do with the kind of people and topics he makes films about, and with his frustratingly ambivalent view toward them. He sees the satirical possibilities in the fads and fancies of the upwardly mobile, hip middle class, and anticipates the audience’s skeptical “What kind of problems could they have?” disposition; yet he also cares very much about these people, and tends to celebrate the same things he satirizes. Nothing wrong in that, certainly: Altman did the same in Nashville. The big difference—and it dates all the way back to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—is that what Mazursky sees at the heart of a meaningful existence in contemporary America is ultimately much thinner than what an Altman or a Michael Ritchie sees, and relies chiefly on touchy-feely trends and fads, honestandopen platitudes, nothing with the feel of solid human truth. An Erica Benton, cast off by her husband in any other time but 1978, would likely respond completely differently, seek different solutions to her problems, and behave in a different way. I wonder whether Mazursky would still redeem her, and if he could get away with doing it in the same way.

Nevertheless, though I don’t much care for the kind of people this film is about, nor for the trendy ideas it deals with, I am won over by its crisp, crackling competence, the literate wittiness of its script, Mazursky’s sensitivity to pace in the editing of both image and music, and his powerful economy of characterization. If the film’s ideas and situations are old, its treatment of them is original, and sparkles all the time with visual interest and vocal energy. Moving through New York’s streets, parks, restaurants, and galleries becomes a kind of metaphor for moving through life, with its many pleasures (stopping for ice cream), pains (hearing bad news), and pleasures-and-pains (like stepping into dogshit, an experience the reaction to which is a comic measure of the difference between Erica’s husband and her new lover).

All of the supporting players are strong, with several award-quality performances, and least of all can I fault Alan Bates’s outrageous and sultry painter, Saul Kaplan. Yet if Mazursky wants to celebrate Erica’s declaration of independence—as he seems to do at the end, following her walk through New York carrying Kaplan’s legacy to her, the enormous painting he leaves her holding after her last refusal to accompany him to Vermont for the summer—he was wrong to try to do it with Bates as Saul. Even the women in the audience (perhaps I should say especially the women) want Erica to go with him. I’ve long been interested in the collective lech that middle-class, college-graduate women have for Bates’s cool, intellectual sexiness—a well-deserved response to a fine actor’s mystique, but one that works consistently against An Unmarried Woman‘s intentions as much as it may work for its box-office receipts. I have it on the authority of an Alan Bates admirer who is very close to me that Mazursky, in staging and directing the street-and-sidewalk loveplay scene between Erica and Saul, has got right to the heart of what turns women on about Bates’s style. But much as I have to admire a man for capturing so palpably well what is sexy to women (something few men are very sharp about), I pity Mazursky for blowing his own ship out of the water: the women in the audience who are in the best position to sympathize with Erica, and to join Mazursky in applauding her independence, are precisely the ones who, in Erica’s position, would most enthusiastically accompany Saul Kaplan—or better still, Alan Bates—to Vermont, for a summer or a lifetime.

Be all that as it may, the scorching fireworks of personality and fully-rounded characters that abound in Mazursky’s newest film, and that have never been so energetic or enjoyable in his work before, are its most appealing aspect, and redeem its several mistakes and misjudgments. The writer-director has created a film both sensitive and lighthearted, punctuated with many fleshy closeups that amplify good cinema acting and make us see with others’ eyes. I wish Erica were a more stimulating and satisfying person—she still has a long way to go at the film’s end—but she is the kind of person Mazursky is interested in, and if that interest keeps him making movies as watchable as this one, he’s entitled.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

AN UNMARRIED WOMAN
Screenplay, direction, and production: Paul Mazursky. Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz. Production design: Pato Guzman; set decoration: Edward Stewart. Editing: Stuart H. Pappe. Music: Bill Conti.
The players: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Lisa Lucas, Pat Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Cliff Gorman, Penelope Russianoff, Novelle Nelson, Arthur Duncan, Paul Mazursky.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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