Unmarried Woman, Un (1978): Mazursky’s Only Best Picture Oscar Nominee

an_unmarried_woman_posterMade in 1978, Paul Mazursky’s “Un Unmarried Woman” was a timely comedy that reflected the changing position of women in society, a zeitgeist movie that was in tune with the public’s taste.

This quintessential New York City movie, which was set in familiar sites that resident-director Mazursky loves and knows well, was on par with the films of Woody Allen, though it was more audacious and relevant than the latter’s Manhattan comedies.

The film benefited immensely from the ordinary looks of its star Jill Clayburgh, who until then was mostly known for her stage work.

Clayburgh portrays an upper middle-class woman named Erica Benton, whose perfect lifestyle is suddenly shattered, when her selfish husband Martin (Michael Murphy), a stockbroker, leaves her after years of a presumably happy marriage for a younger woman he had just met at Bloomingdale’s

an_unmarried_woman_4_mazurskyThe tale depicts Erica’s attempts at being single again, experiencing the whole gamut of feelings from confusion, sadness, rage, and ultimately liberation. As her life progresses, Erica begins to bond with several friends and finds herself inspired to the point where she even feels happier by her renewed liberation.

The last reel, when Erica falls for a rugged yet sensitive SoHo painter named Saul (Brit Alan Bates at his most attractive), is rather soft and sentimental, considering what precedes it.  out.

an_unmarried_woman_2_clayburghEven so, due to its honesty (and humor) in dealing with the more serious divorce issues (a subject that will be addressed by Robert Benton a year later in the Oscar-winning “Kramer Vs. Kramer”), “Unmarried Woman” was championed by the women’s movement of the 1970s as a “politically correct” statement.

The film’s most vivid and wittiest scenes are between Erica and her female friends, when they meet in various restaurants. Their blunt talk about their romantic and sex lives was unparalleled, since these subjects were usually the domains of men when it came to Hollywood movies.

Twenty years later, the hit TV series “Sex and the City,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker, took this premise to another level of frank discussions.

an_unmarried_woman_5_mazursky“Unmarried Woman” is the only Mazursky movie to have received a Best Picture nomination, though several of his other works, such as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and “Enemies: A Love Story,” have garnered acting nominations for their performers.  This movie gave Mazursky the popular success that his films Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, and Next Stop, Greenwich Village should have given him.

In an iconic role, Clayburgh became a star by playing an appealing ordinary but not necessarily beautiful or glamorous femme.  The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael commended the film for showing its heroine sleep in a T-shirt and bikini panties, thus grasping the way that recognizable individuals live, a single detail that’s enough to pick up one’s spirits.  Furthermore, Clayburgh’s cracked, warbly, husky voice is perfectly suitable for a woman whose life falls apart, and her reactions go out of control—Erica is not-quite-sure, not-quite-here.”

an_unmarried_woman_3_mazurskyVincent Canby wrote in the N.Y. Times that “Clayburgh is extraordinary in what is the performance of the year to date. In her we see intelligence battling feeling, reason backed against the wall by pushy needs.”

 

 

 

an_unmarried_woman_1_mazurskyOscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Paul Mazursky and Tony Ray

Actress: Jill Clayburgh

Screenplay (Original): Paul Mazursky

 

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1978, “An Unmarried Woman” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with two Vietnam War films, Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” which won and Jerome Hellman’s “Coming Home.”  The other nominees were Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s comedy “Heaven Can Wait” and Alan Parker’s political thriller “Midnight Express.”

Mazursky was the only helmer of a Best Picture nominee who did not get a directing nod from his peers at the Academy. His position was taken by Woody Allen, then at the height of his career, who received Best Director nomination for “Interiors.”

Jill Clayburgh lost the Oscar to Jane Fonda in “Coming Home,” which also won Original Screenplay for Nancy Dowd’s story and Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones’ screenplay. Clayburgh received another Best Actress nomination the following year, for Alan Pakula’s comedy, “Starting Over.”

 End Note:

The striking abstract expressionist paintings in the film were created by internationally renowned artist Paul Jenkins, who taught Alan Bates his painting technique for his role.

 

Cast

Erica (Jill Clayburgh)

Saul (Alan Bates)

Martin (Michael Murphy)

Charlie (Cliff Gorman)

Sue (Pat Quinn)

Elaine (Kelly Bishop)

Patti (Lisa Lucas)

Jeannette (Linda G. Miller)

Bob (Andrew Duncan)

Dr. Jacobs (Daniel Seltzer)

 

Credits

Directed and Written by Paul Mazursky

Camera: Arthur J. Ornitz

Editor: Stuart Pappe

Music: Bill Conti

Production Design: Pato Guzman

Costume: Albert Wolsky