“He was buying a shirt in Bloomingdale’s and he fell in love,” proclaims newly divorced Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) when the topic of her former husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), comes up. For 16 years, the Bentons shared a life together in their bright, two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they raised a daughter, Patti. When Martin tearfully confesses that he has fallen in love with someone else, Erica’s seemingly stable life crashes, and she vomits on the street near the SoHo gallery where she works. Scared, miserable and angry, Erica moves forward into life as a newly single woman, determined to find herself and raise her daughter with some help from her divorced women friends. After surviving several uncomfortable and unsuccessful attempts to find male companionship, Erica eventually meets a brash, friendly painter, Saul (Alan Bates), and decides to give him a chance.
After making a splash at the Cannes Film Festival, where Clayburgh won the award for best actress, Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, a feminist-minded take on the life of a single, urban female, became a critical and commercial hit in the 1970s. To give the film a direct, realistic visual sensibility, Mazursky chose to shoot entirely on location in Manhattan, borrowing several apartments, lofts, stores and offices. He tapped cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz, his collaborator on Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), to film the project. Ornitz had gained a reputation for photographing New York in a gritty, realistic way with such films as Serpico and Death Wish. For An Unmarried Woman, the cameraman adjusted his eye for urban crime dramas and gave the streets of Manhattan a sunny, open and occasionally romantic quality without ever losing a sense of the real.
An Unmarried Woman recently made its DVD debut courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, and the film finally looks as it should on home screens. Fans who are familiar with the drab, anemic VHS release that has been available for some time will find this DVD a revelation. The picture transfer is faithful to the look of the film; Ornitz’s careful work in brightly lit, often cramped interiors finally shines with sterile sophistication, while the city exteriors have just enough visible grain and sharpness to illuminate shadows and detail not evident in the earlier video version. The clean audio is presented in both stereo and monaural tracks. (The stereo track seems only to enhance Bill Conti’s occasionally intrusive musical score.)
The DVD’s supplements comprise the film’s theatrical trailer; a collection of trailers for other Fox titles, including Next Stop, Greenwich Village and the Clayburgh vehicle Silver Streak; and a feature-length commentary by Mazursky and Clayburgh. Although the director and actress recorded their remarks separately, their comments have been integrated well. The commentary is generally absorbing, offering reminiscences about the making of the film and the response it received. Mazursky occasionally gets carried away but manages to make some interesting, generous remarks about his cast and crew. (He notes that Ornitz had a difficult job with the practical locations but produced great results.)
Though Clayburgh and Mazursky point out obvious similarities between An Unmarried Woman and HBO’s popular series Sex and the City, there is a great deal about the film that remains unique, interesting and poignant. A forerunner of the many single- or divorced- mother sitcoms that became so popular in the late 1970s, the picture also imparts a genuine sense of hope as it draws to a close on the sunny streets of an as-yet-ungentrified Greenwich Village. Things might not turn out perfectly, but there’s a chance the main character will be able to have lovers, friends, a family, a career, a sense of peace and, most importantly, choices.