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365 Days of Oscar: Jill Clayburgh’s one-two punch

Jill Clayburgh received two consecutive Best Actress nominations in 1978 and 1979, for An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over. At the very least, she should have won for the former.

In An Unmarried Woman, Clayburgh plays Erica, a Soho gallery owner seemingly in the midst of a happy life with her husband of 16 years Martin (Michael Murphy) and teenage daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas). An early scene epitomizes her carefree spirit, as she pirouettes around the swanky apartment in a T-shirt and underwear to “Swan Lake” on the radio.

We notice the fret lines on Martin’s face that Erica doesn’t. In the middle of an ordinary walk on an ordinary day, Martin bursts into tears and blurts out the truth: he’s in love with another woman. (Between this and playing the cheating husband in “Manhattan,” Murphy cornered the market on Manhattanite weasels in the late 1970s.)

As he does several times throughout the film, director Paul Mazursky keeps the camera in close on Clayburgh, letting her face do all the emotional work as she goes from disbelief to shock to anger to sadness. Clayburgh, a Broadway actress before her film career launched, is utterly unguarded in showing the wrecking ball that hits her life. A few scenes later, in a long conversation with her therapist, she confesses her loneliness in a way that’s simple and devastating. No wonder that so many viewers going through the divorce boom in the ‘70s saw themselves in Erica’s turmoil.

“An Unmarried Woman” follows Erica as, dazed, she picks herself up and starts putting the pieces of her life back together, adding new pieces to replace the ones gone. She tries her hand at the sexual liberation movement of the time, and there’s a very funny moment where Mazursky dissolves from casual conversation with an artist at her gallery (Alan Bates) directly into the couple dressing after a “nooner.” The sex is so casual and forgettable, it seems, that the film skips it altogether.

Surprisingly, Erica and that artist, Saul, find that they actually kind of like each other after the sex is over, and fall into a tender courtship. Erica is wary of getting too deep. While most romantic comedies present the heroine with a choice between two men, “An Unmarried Woman” presents Erica with a choice between Saul and herself.

Mazursky would go on to make more overt comedies in the 1980s like “Moon over Parador,” but his earlier films (“Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” “Blume in Love”) feel very French. No surprise that his next film was “Willie & Phil,” an American remake of “Jules et Jim.”

Not only were they disarmingly frank about sex for their time, but Mazursky lets scenes breathe. He lets conversations meander and digress, and even lets characters sit in silence for a bit. Author Sam Wasson, interviewed in one of the Criterion disc’s bonus features, called Mazursky’s films “scripted documentaries” for their willingness to just sit companionably with its characters and watch what they do.

In the film’s wonderful final scene, Erica finds herself wandering Manhattan, carrying a beautiful abstract painting that Saul made for her that’s about the size of a queen-sized mattress. It’s a beautiful burden, much like Erica’s life at that moment. And she can handle it.

This article is part of a special year-long series of anecdotes, reflections and thoughts about the Academy Awards.