‘An Unmarried Woman’ At 45: The True Predecessor To ‘Sex And the City’

20th Century Fox

On March 5th, 1978, director Paul Mazursky released a film to the world that would forever change the perception of women in Hollywood. An Unmarried Woman challenged traditional expectations and tired gender stereotypes with its relatable central character, Erica Benton. The film follows Erica (portrayed in a beautifully nuanced performance by Jill Clayburgh) as she navigates and rediscovers her life as a single woman in New York City after her husband leaves her for someone younger. The compelling combination of the female struggle for independence and complex urban living was far ahead of the 1970s curve. It offered an alternative to the one-dimensional, domesticated roles women had become resigned to in the testosterone-driven New Hollywood era. Nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman consequently paved the way for some of the most culturally relevant portrayals of female strength in the twenty-first century.

In interviews over the years, Sarah Jessica Parker has repeatedly referenced An Unmarried Woman and cited it as a strong influence on the Sex and the City franchise. When she spoke with New York Magazine in 2008, Parker described the film as “an earlier version of Sex and the City, set in a far rawer seventies Manhattan.” But An Unmarried Woman isn’t just a precursor to today’s progressive female-driven series, which also include Girls and Broad City. It’s a film that stands on its own, examining the challenges and freedoms of being a single woman in a culture that, to this day, is still uncomfortable with the idea of an unmarried, unattached female. With its portrayal of complex characters and a female perspective on sex, the film was the first to offer an alternative lifestyle and give women their own voice in media.

When asked what inspired the idea, Mazursky explained that it was born from the observation of friends’ divorces over the years. More often than not, he and his wife became closer with the female half of the couple in the aftermath of a breakup. One day, one of the friends announced she’d bought a new home. “On the deed to the house,” Mazursky said, “right after her name, she was described as ‘an unmarried woman.’ As if, somehow, that described her or was important to homeownership.” Mazursky had an epiphany and began inviting their friends over more frequently for some serious conversations. “I must have interviewed ten or fifteen of our friends,” he remembers. “As friends, we’d talked a lot about divorce, being single, getting used to being alone, how to cope…But now I really began to listen to what our friends were saying.” Now in script-writing mode, Mazursky had a clear premise for his next film. Though he’d enjoyed considerable success with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969, An Unmarried Woman would blow his previous films out of the water.

Throughout the process, Mazursky toiled through the arduous task of staying inside a woman’s mind by constantly checking in with the women in his life. “I wanted to think like a woman,” he explained. “That’s one of the reasons there was so much rewriting. I changed a lot of things based on experiences I had.” While on set, Clayburgh was also given the freedom to interject in dialogue that didn’t feel natural to her. “There was a scene where Martin (my husband) tells me that he’s leaving, and my character said a lot more before than she does now,” said Clayburgh in an interview. “I felt that in that position, I would be much more unable to speak than he’d had the character written in that scene.” Wisely, Mazursky removed the dialogue in question from the pivotal scene for an authentic sense of shock. Though he wasn’t considered as cinematic a filmmaker as his seventies counterparts like Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, Mazursky had a more unique understanding of human behaviour and everyday subtleties. He knew how to empathise with women and men in sensitive ways, which shone through in the performances. 

20th Century Woman

Throughout the seventies, while films like Easy Rider, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver dominated the scene, women’s films generally took a back seat. An Unmarried Woman was clearly a box office risk, but it would pay off and become a stand-alone revival of the classic Hollywood “women’s picture” genre. Back in the pre and post-war studio era, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford made their careers playing strong-minded women. An Unmarried Woman pays homage to this in a touching yet tongue-in-cheek moment. One lazy afternoon, Erica and her three closest female friends are mooning around her Upper East Side apartment, poring over magazines of Golden Age movie stars. They begin to wonder out loud, “Where are all the wonderful women from the old days?” Names like Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand come up, but they agree it’s not the same. “Bette Davis always had self-esteem,” notes Erica’s friend, Sue. This statement is a sign of the times and foreshadows Erica’s growth, as An Unmarried Woman marks the second emergence of confident women in film.

A film’s ending is the most telling of the underlying message it’s delivering to its audience. In a market that’s still chock-full of coupled-up conclusions, An Unmarried Woman challenged the moviegoer in a different way. It bravely flipped the script and challenged the audience’s definition of a happy ending. It proved that this can be when a person makes a different decision about their lives and independence, which Erica does when she’s, yet again, in the position of deciding between a man’s agenda or her own. Though the Sex and the City series ended with all the central characters coupled up, it still took many cues from An Unmarried Woman about the power of sticking to your standards in a society that still feels uneasy about women leading the way. The series continually wrestled with this idea and the fact that a woman’s success is still often measured by her marital status and not, as Miranda learns in season two, by her ability to land a promotion and buy her own apartment.

Candace Bushnell, the author of the column and book on which Sex and the City was based, felt the story empowered everyday women to make their own choices in life. “It was really about a new time in women’s lives when they were delaying marriage and childbirth,” she explained. “Sex and the City allowed women to imagine their lives taking a different course.” Even though starting a young family was the route Erica initially took in An Unmarried Woman, the film portrays the aftermath in her mid-thirties when she ends up back where she began. The film mirrors Sex and the City in its exploration of her newfound independence in a whole new Manhattan. It also portrays the inner fight for self-love and the contentedness of being alone.

In a 2016 interview with Stuff, Sarah Jessica Parker again referenced An Unmarried Woman and its influence on her HBO show Divorce. “I remember going to see its opening weekend with my parents,” she said, “I probably watch that movie every few years, easily. There was a time when we talked about normal lives, and we found all sorts of virtue in those stories.” Just like Erica, Parker’s character, Francis, is a soon-to-be divorced mother, who also works in a gallery and, in search of her identity, is trying to find her way back to the art and dating worlds of Urban Manhattan. With the uncanny likeness today’s female-driven content shares with An Unmarried Woman, it truly can be considered the pioneer of pop culture’s independent woman — a woman who thinks for herself amidst a noisy society full of opinions.

When Roger Ebert selected An Unmarried Woman as one of his favourite films of the seventies in 1979, he made a powerful statement about women in the movies. “At the end of a decade when we got a lot of dumb, stupid, vicious, sexist portraits of women, this was a movie that took us out of ourselves,” he said,” and at least in my case, took me into this woman’s world.” Mazursky began with an intellectual and political viewpoint about women and told a story that communicated his ideas on human emotion so we got a bird’s eye view of what Erica thinks about herself, her husband, her life, and most of all, what she wants out of life. As we celebrate this compelling piece of feminist cinema on its 45th anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on and considering its enduring themes on society – yesterday and today.

by Jennifer O’Callaghan

Jennifer O’Callaghan is a film and entertainment writer whose main obsessions include New Hollywood, French New Wave and the Golden Age. She’s got eclectic tastes, but can narrow down her favourite films to Rear Window, Two for the Road and Chinatown. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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