I talked to Jill Clayburgh once, in 1977, at a round-table interview for "Semi-Tough" that made her so uncomfortable she swore she would never do another press event like that again. She said that she had always wanted to play neurotics. Paul Mazursky soon granted her wish when he cast her in what became her signature part: "An Unmarried Woman" (1978). She responded with an unforgettable gallery of expressions, from cartoon whimsy to enameled rage. And she created a contemporary archetype. The way Mazursky wrote and Clayburgh played her, the title character of "An Unmarried Woman" is an unfinished woman whose marital break-up forces her to find the identity she never had. This woman, Erica, is a part-time worker in an art gallery. When the movie starts, she is pampered by her husband, Martin, with all the accoutrement of Manhattan success. She loves Martin and their fifteen-year-old daughter Patti, and is at ease in her life of comfort. She has unconventional, trembling good looks, and a mild but wacky sense of humor, displayed to best advantage when she galumphs around the apartment in a daydream parody of "Swan Lake."
But after Martin confesses to loving someone else, and they separate, we see her depths of hunger, anger and despair. Her plight provokes laughs because her emotions are so close to her skin; her disgust with the very idea of men makes her swear she'll break a date's arm if he tries anything. Without a husband, Erica feels like an erotic target, and she refuses to get hit. Even after she connects on every level with the famous Saul Kaplan (Alan Bates) -- a virile, funny, loving artist -- she won't commit herself to him or join him at his Vermont retreat.
"An Unmarried Woman" spoke to the contemporary wisdom that most relationships don't work out, and that even the best men and women can drive each other crazy. But Clayburgh and Mazursky supplied an emotional pull that made this warm, funny comedy-drama transcend its surface messages. That pull derived partly, I think from Erica's relationship to her daughter Patti. Clayburgh and Lisa Lucas, who played Patti, conjured a lived-in rapport. Even then, it was refreshing to see a teenager who wasn't as precocious as she wanted to be. In one of the best scenes, Saul visits Erica's apartment for dinner and Patti's usual self-possession leaves her. "I'm just a normal fifteen-year-old girl," she tells the bemused Saul, "except that I'm a virgin."
Erica and Patti were that rarity in adult movies: a mother-daughter team that helped complete each other. They gave this film about a woman finding her own independence the healing sense that a degree of "dependence" could be a good thing. And by embodying Erica's own humor, pathos, intelligence -- and neediness -- so fully, Clayburgh entered movie history.