WHEN ALAN BATES CLOUTS the sassy Cliff Gorman over an insult he has just thrown at his new-found lover (Jill Clayburgh), one sighs, settles back and recognizes that "An Unmarried Woman" has just permanently botched its chance of being considered a great movie. That the film is still a highly enjoyable--even moving--effort has not been affected, only its pretentions to the kind of greatness accorded to it by some reviewers. Most of its leading actors and actresses, particularly the much-touted Jill Clayburgh are, indeed, stunningly good and that is of no small importance in a movie of this kind.
Perhaps it is not so much the actors and actresses but the roles themselves with their depictions of thoroughly intriguing and dynamic people that prove so captivating. The movie opens on the stable, happy marriage that is about to disintegrate as soon as Martin, Erica's husband, breaks the news that he is seeing another woman. One genuinely is convinced that it has been a happy marriage, resting soundly on a bond of humor, a discreet adoration of the daughter Patty and a balanced, thriving sex life. Erica (around whose development the movie revolves) is an obviously contented woman whose basic strengths are to be only partially threatened by the forthcoming catastrophe. She handles the divorce serenely, though with the services of a psychiatrist (brilliantly played by Penelope Russianoff) and rejects her ex-husband unconditionally. She is not a woman to be misused.
With the divorce, the film really begins. Erica is a thirty-five year old woman on the loose for the first time. She is lonely yes, but we are never convinced of it, despite the masterfully acted crying scenes with the psychiatrist and the volatile hatred of her former husband. After all, she is a beautiful, hip woman in New York and there are many, many eager men on the prowl. She accepts it, after an intermittent period of abstination, and considers it an adventure. We watch her fall into lust, fall into love and yet bounce out of it all without dependence of the comfortable pattern of her former marriage. She comes through with a renewed sense of self-worth and an awareness of her own needs.
Erica is buoyed throughout by three only slightly caricatured women. The genuineness of these women (despite their New York-style eccentric sophistication) and their interaction with one another is what holds our attention; their other problems--with men--are predictable and add little insight. Yet the capacity for comfort brought into the four-woman sessions is moving and believable. Erica's daughter Patty is a precocious (but hardly obnoxiously so), loving daughter who sides with her mother yet cannot reject her father. Old plot, new faces. Lisa Lucas's performance is well-honed, though, and the scene designed to make Erica's new lover (Alan Bates) feel uncomfortable and invading is particularly effective.
What keeps "An Unmarried Woman" from the ranks of great moviedom is that one never really becomes involved. One is never truly worried about Erica--she is strong and capable of laughing at herself, even at the most painful of moments. Her relationships with people are all loving and we know that she is bound to pull through. It is satisfying but does not shake us on a deeper level. One comes out of the theatre content but without new perspective. And it is not likely to bring encouragement to divorced women who are trying to make it on their own, unless of course, they happen to be beautiful, chic New Yorkers launching on serious careers in art galleries and jogging each day before breakfast.
And this is because Erica's true comfort is not in her worth on her own, but in her worth buffeted by a dynamic Alan Bates who is mad about her. It is almost as if the moral of the story slaps itself in the face--yes, Erica is independent enough to reject a live-in situation with a man, but she is not really happy until she has a man who wants to live-in with her. It seems somehow as if her laughing proclamation to the mirror, "'Balls' said the queen 'If I had 'em I'd be king"', is just another 20th-century illusion.