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Along with a myriad of self- help books, psychotherapists have long utilized movies to facilitate the process of self growth. Recently a group of women began discussing movies related to women’s issues.* When An Unmarried Woman was mentioned it hit a nerve in me. I wondered if the story would “hold up” 32 years later. I was also curious to see if it would impact me differently now than it did my younger self.

My quest for the Paul Mazursky 1978 classic was successfully completed with a library copy VHS tape. In this instance, it paid off not to be technologically “advanced”. I still have my VCR!  After cleaning off the dust, I settled in for 124 minutes of a trip back to the seventies. Suddenly, I was missing my platform sandals, Huckapoo shirts and “Farrah” hair. Have we come a long way, baby?

As the movie opens, we are introduced to Erica, a woman who seemingly has it all- a bright 14 year old daughter, a job in an art gallery, a Vassar degree, an amazing Manhattan apartment and a handsome stock broker husband. But from the first scene, their marriage is suspect.

Erica and Martin are out jogging (did we really jog in ‘78?) when he steps in a pile of dog “mess” and starts ranting about his sneakers being ruined. In a nano-second Erica is cleaning HIS sneaker on the grass while Martin continues to rave and takes a cigarette break to calm his anger. I am distracted by the cigarette after jogging. But hold on here, why is SHE cleaning HIS sneaker? 

Later, he walks out on Erica, having fallen in love with a 26 year old woman he met while buying a shirt. Martin has stepped in more than dog “mess”.

Erica’s subsequent journey brings to mind other recent works in this genre, Under the Tuscan Sun and more recently Eat, Pray, Love. But unlike the heroines in those movies, who leave their life behind to discover themselves and love in foreign lands, Erica does not journey outward. She journeys inward. She turns to her “conscious raising group” of four women who meet over cocktails to discuss men, orgasm and self esteem. Later she works with a therapist who helps her explore what she feels and what she wants for herself now that her marriage is over (Martin comments, “Your therapist is a woman?”). She struggles to continue to parent and work. She is trying to keep it together as her life as she knew it, comes apart. Her efforts are heroic and universal. We all know Erica.

And her transformation inspires us as it unfolds. At first, she is devastated but then she gradually begins to see opportunity where there was fear. She ventures out. Her physician hits on her (she consults him as she wonders if she needs “help” dealing with the divorce. He responds by offering to buy her a drink.) A blind date with one of the most unfortunate comb over’s in movie history is a disaster. Later she has a sexual tryst (It is, after all, pre AIDs) with someone she doesn’t even like. She ponders going back to school and wants to be financially independent. This is all about Erica finding Erica. Erica is not looking to fall in love. Erica is trying to love herself. And unlike the heroines in Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, when our heroine falls in love, it is not the end of her story. It is only the beginning.

Ironically, An Unmarried Woman is the oldest of these three films by many, many years and yet, it is the most relevant and realistic: It is dated only in the most superficial ways- the smoking, for example. When Erica gathers all her husband’s stuff in a pile and throws her wedding ring on top we feel her rage. As she struggles to support her daughter maintaining a relationship with Martin while really hating him, we feel her conflict. When she struggles with self doubt and worries about her future, we feel her fear. When she dances around the apartment, we share her dreams. Her journey is relevant and we are along for the ride.

An Unmarried Woman doesn’t offer us the fantasy of escape nor does it entertain us with its tale of revenge like The First Wives’ Club. What is does offer is a realistic portrayal of a woman struggling to take the high road and maintain a sense of dignity and grace while she grapples with a redefinition of self.

Whether you are married, single or somewhere “in between”, you will find parts of Erica with which you will identify. Deftly portrayed by Jill Clayburgh, we cheer for both Erica and ourselves in the journey to discover the meaning of our lives.

*Other suggestions included- Thelma and Louise, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ordinary People, Hannah and her Sisters, Norma Rae, The Family Stone, Steel Magnolias and On Golden Pond.

As the days grow shorter and the weather turns cooler, we often turn to old movies for entertainment. Some are as familiar to us as old friends. Do you have a favorite movie to recommend?

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5 Comments

  1. Wendy on the 06. Sep, 2010 remarked #

    I haven’t seen An Unmarried Woman – but it sounds great. Better than Eat, Pray, Love. My one critique of Eat, Pray, Love was that it was elitist. How many of us can afford a year of travel to “find ourselves”? I simply couldn’t relate to the main character.

    I’ll have to check into my brain archives for movie recommendations.

  2. CJ Golden on the 06. Sep, 2010 remarked #

    Thank you, Donna, for bringing this classic back to us. The beauty of these older movies is the truth that is still strong so many years after their release. I hope you continue to share these contemporary reviews of the classics. For this one I give you “two thumbs up”!

  3. kathleen on the 06. Sep, 2010 remarked #

    One of my favorite characters is Diane Keaton in BABY BOOM. She starts out as a driven ad-exec nicknamed Tiger Lady in a traditionally male world. She lives with a detached man who considers 4 minute sex normal. When she unexpectantly “inherits” 2 year old Elizabeth, her world transforms from doing to being. Losing her man and her job, she learns she doesn’t need either to find fulfillment within her self. That’s what we all need to do as women. Look within, look to love, learn to love ourselves and our lives with or without a life-partner. Amen!

    • admin on the 06. Sep, 2010 remarked #

      That reminds me of another Diane Keaton Film SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE. It is a humorous yet tender account of mid-life love complete with lost reading glasses, panic attacks, sexual politics and a large pile of accumulated emotional baggage.

  4. Anne Garland on the 07. Sep, 2010 remarked #

    Thanks Donna, this was certainly a trip down memory lane that seems spot on still with womens issues today- have we advanced much? I believe so. My all time favorite, Thelma and Louise – a gutsy action joyride with men, sex and risk from a women’s perspective….and along the way releasing all fear …..they bounced, right?

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