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Remembering Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman

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Possibly the biggest surprise for me at the recent Oscars telecast was when Jill Clayburgh’s photo flipped past on the “stars we lost” segment. I’m not sure how I missed hearing about her passing.

My dad took the whole family to see An Unmarried Woman when it came out. He must have had a big crush on Clayburgh, because it wasn’t the usual subject matter that he would be drawn to in a film. My mom and I walked out of the theater in love with Alan Bates.

Clayburgh was a great actress, very empathetic. Director and writer Paul Mazursky took a chance that paid off casting her as Erica in his film.

The film has a lot to say about the 70s and the “women’s movement,” and what it means for a woman of a certain age to make decisions for and about herself. The last scene confused me when I saw it as a kid, not understanding why any gal would walk away from groovy painter Saul, played by Bates. To meet someone like him was my ultimate girlish fantasy at the time. But watching it now, a little bit older and wiser, it has a very different feel.

[a very large painting is being lowered to the ground from Saul’s loft]

Saul: [shouting up to the loft] OK Mario, I’ve got it.
Saul: [to Erica] Can you hold this a minute? You got it?

Erica: I got it.
Saul: [Saul opens his car door, looks at Erica, and smiles] Bye.
Erica: What about this?
Saul: Oh, that’s for you.
Erica: How the hell am I gonna get it home?
Saul: Take a taxi. [Saul gets in his car and drives off. Erica picks up the painting, struggling with it a bit, and begins walking home]

Clayburgh’s character is on her own. She has a (very large) token of her love affair and has decided to go her own way. She knows now that she doesn’t need to depend on a man to be happy. She does, however, need to find a pretty large wall for that painting … As she struggles down a SoHo street, we don’t feel that she won’t be okay. She’s more than proved that in the film. It’s a slice of life from a different time, before AIDS, before the label “single mom” was commonplace. But An Unmarried Woman isn’t dated. It’s just a good film with a good actress living through what plenty of women still live through everyday.

 

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