An Unmarried Woman: Prelude to Sex and The City

July 2, 2008 at 9:00 am | Posted in DVD, movies | Leave a comment

An Unmarried Woman
DVD – July 2, 2008

By recommendation of Sarah Jessica Parker in an interview in New York magazine, I rented a DVD of the 1978 film, An Unmarried Woman. She calls it an earlier version of Sex and the City, set in a far rawer seventies Manhattan. For the time, An Unmarried Woman was quite controversial, but very well received.

The story revolves around Erica Benton (heroically played by Jill Clayburgh), a housewife and art dealer who is suddenly left by her husband of 17 years for a younger woman. She goes through all the stages of divorce: first throwing her husband stuff out, then therapy, then anger, then casual sex, and finally making an choice between a meaningful relationship with a lover and one with herself. Through it all, she has her teenage daughter, Patti and her close friends: Sue, Jeannette (played by Jackie Gleason’s daughter Linda Miller, who married Jason Miller, best known for his role on the Exorcist) and Elaine (played by Gilmore Girls’ grandma Kelli Bishop, who prior to filming had just won the Tony for A Chorus Line). The friends are the three archetypal women (the level-headed business savvy, whimsical and romantically optimistic, and *cough* promiscuous type), all of which are clear foundations for the SATC characters of Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. Complete with dinner scenes and witty exchanges, the directing style feels very modern and ahead of its time. Even dialogue in some cases (“Do you want to f*ck him or adopt him?”) rings a familiar bell. You can see where Sarah Jessica Parker (and perhaps writer/director Micheal Patrick King) drew inspiration from this story and these characters.

In the DVD commentary, writer/director Paul Mazursky reveals that the inspiration for the movie originated from the seemingly odd label placed on women at the time. It was common in the 1970’s for women to classify her status as married or unmarried. Not only was it insisted as social protocol, but some legal forms actually required it. For instance, in the case of buying property there was a check box for “married” or “unmarried” female. On the contrary, men were rarely, if ever, asked to classify their marital status, as if this fact was substantially less important by comparison. Mazursky found this concept intruging, asking himself “What is an unmarried woman exactly?”

I find myself still wondering the same thing. Does “unmarried” equate to a divorced woman or just a single female? Unfortunately, the film never clearly addresses it. This is one of the main structural differences between the film and SATC is that the film begins with all four women as already married or divorced. I’m guessing that the idea of four completely single women in the 1970’s, even at the ripe old age of mid-30’s, was culturally too sad or pathetic to even address.

Paul Mazursky also claims he had little to no problems producing the film as far as the censors went. 1978 was a different time. When movies could be written, shot and released in the way the filmmakers intended, without the Hollywood censor vultures descending on every small detail. He knew exactly what he wanted, and character authenticity was very important to him. The scene where Erica comes in late from dinner and proceeds to undress for bed required Jill Clayburgh to go topless. This point was stressed very heavily by Mazursky because it illustrates real life. [Paraphrased] “Scenes where a female spouse changes in the other room or off camera somewhere basically means she told to the director, “I’m not taking my clothes off.” This to me feels very fake. I approached [Jill Clayburgh] with the scene two ways, but I told her which I preferred and she said “Okay. No Problem” and she did it. On the other hand, we knew where the line was. If we had gone totally nude, then we risked an X Rating. Makes no sense nowadays. You can kill 400 people on screen, but don’t show a bare breast!” He also mentions the movie as a precursor to Sex and the City, though he disagrees with how far SATC pushed the envelope with open conversations about “bl*wjobs and such.”

My personal favorite scene in the movie is towards the beginning. After her husband and daughter leave, Erica proceeds to dance around the apartment with careless abandon. In her DVD commentary, Clayburgh stated that she had no idea how to “dance” properly, but she trusted the director’s vision in addition making it up as she went along. “So sexy and raw,” marveled Sarah Jessica Parker, with whom Mazursky (and myself) heartily agree. “This scene makes the film. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it really captures the essence of the character.” I love and completely relate to this scene, as it is also one of my “secret, single behaviors.”

Pictographic review by Subtlety in Excess

Clayburgh received many accolades for this role, including nominations for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award and won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. She was nominated for an Oscar in 1979, but lost to Jane Fonda in “Coming Home”. Ironically enough, Fonda was offered the role of Erica Benton, but turned it down. Mazursky said that Fonda actually called to express her regret for this decision upon viewing Clayburgh’s performance, but had nothing but good things to say. Fonda is also quoted as favoring Clayburgh to win the Oscar that she herself received!

All in all, the film will definitely please fans of SATC. Though I appreciate the comparison, I can’t help but wonder if it makes the show feel slightly derivative. It feels similar to reading a book after seeing the film adaptation; pondering the reaction you might have had if -vice versa- you had read it first… well, I guess I’ll never know.

RATING: ***/5 (Worth seeing, though some may feel the material is dated.)
Recommendation: Recommend this or watch with a hardcore SATC fan. Or maybe just watch with your mom.


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