I was 18 when I saw Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman.” I loved her and I loved the film. I haven’t seen it in decades and I have a sneaking suspicion that it may not have weathered the years as well as I would have hoped, but certain iconic moments of Clayburgh’s excellent performance have stayed with me for over 30 years. When I mentioned the actress’s sad death at the age of 66 to a friend this weekend, her first thought was the same as mine: the scene in “An Unmarried Woman” where Clayburgh defiantly walks out of a lunch after her husband has just confessed that he is having an affair and wants out of the marriage. Clayburgh gets about half a city block, and then doubles over, vomiting while holding onto a mailbox. What made the scene so powerful was not just the actual (prop) vomit seen coming out of Jill’s mouth (a rarity in itself) but the intense emotional resonance of this act. Rarely has so much been conveyed by a cinematic puke. I’d put Clayburgh’s mailbox scene and Linda Blair’s projectile pea-soup a few years earlier in “The Exorcist” at the top of the list of Most Effective Body Fluid Expulsions on Film.
In its time, “An Unmarried Woman” became a pop culture watermark of the women’s liberation movement. Clayburgh wasn’t the first screen wife to be dumped by her husband for a younger model, but she was one of the first to tell said husband to go take a flying leap when he decided he wanted to come back to her. I think of Norma Shearer’s perfect Mary Haines in “The Women” whose husband Steven drops her for sexy and manipulative alley cat Crystal Allen played by Joan Crawford. As much as I love “The Women,” it’s always the other woman’s fault for any problems in the marriages of the female leads, the hapless husbands are never held responsible for their philandering ways. The final scene in “The Women” is of Mary opening up her loving arms to her idiot of a husband. Cue the cheers and applause. Not so in Jill Clayburgh’s more evolved world. I'm certainly not saying that couples can’t and shouldn’t get past such infidelities if possible, but Clayburgh’s evolution is that she comes to realize that there was a lot more wrong with her marriage than her husband's affair, and that she is truly better off on her own. Shocking! She can be happy…without…a…man? Yikes!
Another of my favorite scenes involves a fight Clayburgh has with her weak-willed stockbroker ex played by Michael Murphy. Raising her voice in his office, Murphy tries to shush her and says, “Do you want to have a discussion or an argument?” “I WANT TO HAVE AN ARGUMENT,” Clayburgh shouts on the top of her lungs. Love it. Another groundbreaking feature of this film is the warm, supportive group of non-backstabbing female friends that Clayburgh has.
I also loved the relationship between Clayburgh and her teenaged daughter, played by the wonderful actress Lisa Lucas (whatever happened to her?). I can never hear any version of Paul McCartney's “Maybe I’m Amazed” without thinking of the poignant scene between Clayburgh and Lucas where they sing this song at the piano and begin their gradual healing from the huge disruption in their family. Director Paul Mazursky (who Charlie and I still see almost every morning at his Farmers Market coffee klatch) was truly gifted at showing, not telling. At the end of the film, when Clayburgh thankfully does NOT end up with her new “sensitive” painter boyfriend played by Alan Bates, she takes the gigantic painting he made for her and carries it home through the streets of Manhattan, struggling with the huge, awkward painting while slowly making her way back to her apartment. Brilliant. Still, “An Unmarried Woman” could have been deadly cloying if not for Clayburgh’s pitch-perfect performance. What a wonderful, real actress.
Kendall was very sad to hear of Clayburgh’s death. At the height of Clayburgh’s fame, she came to Kendall’s family's hotel room in New York because she was interested in playing the title character in a big screen version of Kendall’s mom’s book, “A Woman of Independent Means.” Unfortunately, the film never happened (years later it was made into a mini-series starring Sally Field), but the Haileys loved Clayburgh. Kendall’s strongest memory was of her fascination at watching Jill Clayburgh breastfeed her daughter right in front of them. (That daughter grew up to be the lovely actress Lily Rabe.) Clayburgh’s marriage to playwright David Rabe lasted more than 30 years. She died at home this weekend after dealing with chronic lymphocyctic leukemia for two decades.
I’ve seen Jill Clayburgh on the stage and on TV, as well as in a range of film roles including her turn as Kendall’s favorite Carole Lombard in the weird “Gable and Lombard” and her role in the creepy but fascinating “La Luna” which includes a scene of her masturbating her son (oy) to help with his heroin withdrawal. But I know she’ll forever be remembered as Erica Benton in “An Unmarried Woman.” I’m thinking of the wonderful scene in which Clayburgh dances around her Manhattan apartment in her underwear and, in a ballet of independence, eventually gathers all of her husband’s stuff into a pile to be discarded. The final shot in that scene is of Clayburgh removing her wedding ring and hurling it onto a table. I can still hear the women in that 1978 movie theatre cheering this revolutionary gesture.