When Hollywood studio films were built around women

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Meryl Streep’s Oscar win last winter was another triumph for an actress who has managed to find good parts on a very regular basis since she started working in movies in 1977.

Now 63, Streep has become a sui generis figure in Hollywood — the only woman of her generation who has not been forced into television or supporting roles in movies.

Almost without exception, the actresses who rose to stardom with Streep in the late 1970s and early 1980s are no longer starring in films. Peers such as Sissy Spacek, Debra Winger, Sigourney Weaver, Kathleen Turner, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange no longer see their names above the titles of major films.

Streep rose to stardom at a time when Hollywood took an interest in female-dominated films to a degree that hadn’t been seen since the 1940s.

Twentieth Century Fox studio chief Alan Ladd played a role in this resurgence with his conscious decision to fund three major films in 1977-1978 that starred women — “Julia” with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave (and Streep making her film debut in a small role), “The Turning Point” with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine and “An Unmarried Woman” with Jill Clayburgh in the title role.

Ladd’s films were all critically and financially successful which led to the development of similar female-dominated scripts that would carry Streep and her peers through much of the subsequent decade.

“An Unmarried Woman” has become a bittersweet movie on several levels — studios have replaced this sort of mature female-powered production with fluffy rom-coms and Clayburgh left us prematurely in 2010 when she lost her 20 year battle with leukemia.

After I saw “Eat Pray Love” in 2010, I kept thinking that the movie touched on a lot of the same material that writer-director Paul Mazursky had dealt with in “An Unmarried Woman” 32 years earlier.

Except that the Mazursky film dug much deeper into the story of a woman trying to find meaning in her life.

And, Mazursky did this without having his heroine run off with a new Mr. Right in the final reel (Julia Roberts almost literally sails off into the sunset with Javier Bardem at the end of “Eat Pray Love”).

Few movies have ever done a better job of showing a person struggling through a major life crisis and emerging — tentatively — at the other end. It’s hard to think of a meatier role that’s ever been given to an American film actress and Jill Clayburgh plays it to the hilt.

Like the heroine in “Eat Pray Love,” Erica (Clayburgh) is living a life of financial privilege in Manhattan when we meet her, but she is brought down to earth with a sudden revelation by her husband — after they’ve had a casual lunch together — that he is having an affair.

Erica walks down the SoHo street alone, throws up into a trash can, and tries to begin a new life.
Mazursky had seen lots of his women friends going through the same experience and decided to explore divorce and its aftermath in the wake of the feminist revolution (which had erupted only a few years earlier).

We see Erica going through therapy and assessing her relationships with men for the first time in two decades. There is a doozy of a scene early on with Erica’s doctor where she angrily takes his offer of a friendly drink as a sexual pass (and it probably is). Without the safe harbor of a husband and marriage, Erica suddenly feels like totally unprotected prey in a city full of male predators.

The magic of “An Unmarried Woman” is in the way that Erica’s complex emotional journey is made so lucid and so entertaining through the collaboration of Mazursky and Clayburgh.

Erica’s therapy is funny as well as traumatic and the movie is particularly acute on the woman’s first bad dates after she decides to give a few men a go.

Mazursky finally delivers a good guy to Erica, played by an actor who was as dreamy to female moviegoers in 1978 as Bardem is now — Alan Bates (below) — but the writer-director avoids the suggestion that another relationship is the “solution” to Erica’s problem.

The finale of “An Unmarried Woman” definitely has a strong feminist feeling to it — Erica tells the painter played by Bates that she doesn’t want to run off to Vermont with him for the summer, she wants to get her own house in order first.

But then Mazursky tweaks Erica’s decision just a bit in a memorable closing shot that has the woman barely managing to carry a gift the painter leaves her with — an oversized piece of art that keeps Erica spinning in a SoHo breeze as she makes her way down the street.

Joe Meyers

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