More than almost every other artistic medium, movies are eternally trapped within the era they were made. Despite being from a long time ago in a galaxy far away, Star Wars is clearly from the 1970’s, Toy Story from the 1990’s, and The Wizard of Oz from the 1930’s. It’s not just the technical qualities that date these works, but everything- from the clothes to the props to the way people speak to their haircuts. No matter how futuristic the filmmaker thinks they’re being, give it a few years and the historical clues on screen become obvious.
But that’s also what makes film magical- for two hours, we get to travel back in time a place that will never exist again. How relevant the story remains to us today is not always easy to predict- some films age well, others… not so much. Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman was a big hit when it came out in 1978, but it lays mostly forgotten today, which is too bad- it’s a gorgeously made tale about a “modern” New York City wife and mother who finds herself starting from scratch. Somehow, Mazursky manages to craft a story that’s both very much “of its time” and timeless, a testament to 2nd Wave late 70’s feminism as well as the eternal existential challenge of womanhood.
The story itself sounds pretty typical- a woman finds out her husband wants out of their long-term marriage and has to figure herself out and move on. But it’s how that happens that makes An Unmarried Woman such a joy to watch. First and foremost is Jill Clayburgh, who infuses her character of Erica with such honesty and charm, it’s impossible not to love her yourself- she channels a Diane Keaton vibe into this character who thought she was happy, but very quickly has to figure out how to deal with anger, draw boundaries, heal from pain, manage a career and be a useful mother to a teenage daughter also dealing with her own feelings. Every scene is important; every scene overflows with humanity across a wide range of characters: Erica’s family, her three best friends, her macho co-worker, her therapist, her newfound artist boyfriend.
But it’s Mazursky who makes it all come together- his dialogue-heavy script is natural, full of subtlety; his camera, fuggetaboutit. 1977 New York City comes back alive with his lens, using natural lighting to its fullest extent wherever he aims. And its people, its baby-boomers who aren’t 20 anymore, who have long left the idealism of Vietnam-era protests and are having to figure out what values and rules the “Me Generation” live by, they come alive too. Scenes like mother and daughter singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” together on the piano are intimate and priceless- despite the struggles, all you need is love. If millenials really want to really understand the Boomer Generation for all it’s worth, this is a great place to start.
Mazursky only made a handful of films in his career, some better than others, but none of them with the solid artistic vision of this one, so deceitfully simple yet layered. Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz is the perfect choice for capturing NYC- after all, he did the same thing with both Serpico and A Thousand Clowns, two very different films that also bristle with city life all over. It’s all that timeless craft that combines with the very “modern” 70’s attitudes and themes that dominate this character-driven film, handing us a snapshot of a very specific time and place. An Unmarried Woman is dated, but in the very best of ways.
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