Saturday, September 29, 2012

STARTING OVER 1979

Before Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre conspired to sour me on the whole genre for good, I really used to love romantic comedies. To me, the absurdist roundelay that is two human souls striving to connect is marvelous fodder for films both touching and hilarious. In that vein, Two for the Road, Ball of Fire, and Sweet November (the 1968 version) are among the funniest, most engagingly romantic films I've ever seen. But I don't think they make those kind of romantic comedies anymore.
There seems to be a post-feminist hostility embedded in romantic comedies today: a passive-aggressive assignment of all things emotional to “chick flick” dismissiveness, combined with a self-serving aggrandizement of all things boorish and sophomoric to the realm of masculinity. Maybe it’s time for me to explore what’s out there in gay-themed romantic comedies, because the heterosexual battle of the sexes seems to have grown increasingly reductive and mean-spirited. 
One particular favorite of mine from the past is Starting Over, an almost forgotten romantic comedy smash from 1979 (one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of the year) directed by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Sophie’s Choice) and written by James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment). 
Jill Clayburgh as Marilyn Holmberg
Burt Reynolds as Phil Potter
Candice Bergen as Jessica Potter
Starting Over is the story of freelance journalist Phil Potter (Reynolds), struggling to adapt to single life after the dissolution of his marriage to singer/songwriter/self-realization enthusiast Jessica (Bergen). Through the touchy-feely intervention of his psychiatrist brother and sister-in-law (the always-reliable Charles Durning and Frances Sterhagen), Phil meets emotionally wounded, self-effacing grade-school teacher Marilyn Holmberg (Clayburgh) and the two embark on a tentative relationship wherein each is afraid of, yet longing for, emotional commitment and a chance to start over.
Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen oozing well-intentioned sincerity
I don’t have a whole lot of objectivity where Starting Over is concerned. Not to the degree that I’m blind to the film’s faults, but in as such that my abiding fondness for the film seems inextricably tied to my feelings about the time in which it was made (the late '70s) and my initial response to it when I first saw it (it rivaled What's Up, Doc? as one of the funniest comedies of the time). In other words, this might be one of those films about which I rave from the housetops, yet could very likely leave those seeing it for the first time feeling a little underwhelmed.
I guess it's good for me to remember that the proper response to some films (like jokes that don't translate) can only be, “You had to have been there.” Starting Over was released at the very tail-end of the 1970s and a great deal of its humor is derived from its so perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of that particular point in time. Pop history (and especially historical motion pictures) would have us believe that eras begin and end neatly and succinctly, but in truth, time has a tendency to overlap, and trends and cultural preoccupations sort of bleed into one another.
The underutilized Mary Kay Place (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) is extremely funny as a particularly awkward bind date  

In 1979, the narcissism of the “Me” decade began to be co-opted by yuppies and started to transmogrify into a new kind of unashamed era of self-interest and self-realization. It was an era of encounter groups, self-help books, and a whole lot of psychoanalytical navel-gazing. Of course, all this preoccupation with self would eventually lead to the “Decade of Greed” that became the '80s; but in 1979 all this meant was that everyone was caring, sharing, and feeling feels all over the place. The drug-fueled hedonism of the swinging-singles disco era led to a post-sexual revolution ennui mixed with singles-bar aimlessness (captured the previous year in the morbidly moralizing 1978 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar) that in turn boosted divorce rates and threw male/female relationships into a tailspin.
At the urging of his brother, Phil (Reynolds) attends a divorced men's workshop. That's What's Up, Doc?'s Austin Pendleton to the right.
By the late '70s, women who had had their consciousness raised by the feminist movement had to contend with a dating landscape in which there appeared to be no rules. Men, heretofore relegated to the culture-mandated roles of provider/protector, grew commitment-phobic, sought therapy, or clung to macho traditionalism. Women were in a quandary wondering whether there was really such a thing as "having it all," or was the by-product of emancipation merely learning to live alone and liking it. What exactly was romance in the world of the zipless fuck, no-fault divorce, Plato’s Retreat, and men’s sensitivity workshops? It was a crazy time to look for love and Starting Over seemed to capture it all in a humorous lens both sharp and fuzzily sentimental.
Marilyn -  "Before I met you I'd finally gotten to the point in my life where I no longer thought some man was gonna come along and make this huge change. I'd finally gotten to the point where I liked being unattached."

After her Oscar-nominated emergence in 1978's An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh became the unofficial screen spokesperson for modern womanhood. She was a real favorite of mine and is sensational here. The progressive feminine image she presentedof a woman who wanted, not needed a manwould become fairly obsolete by 2012 thanks to the regeneration of the Disney Princess Myth and TV reality show humiliations like The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As stated, the thing I most enjoy about Starting Over (and something I’m not at all sure carries over to those discovering the film today) is how wittily the film captures the tenuous, walking-on- eggshells state of male/female relationships in the '70s. The 1970s was culturally the decade where all the dust was settling from the upheavals of the 60s, and people were these vibrating bundles of anxiety putting herculean effort behind maintaining a front of laid-back serenity. (The sale of Valium skyrocketed in the '70s; a fact inspiring one of Starting Over’s biggest and then most talked-about gags).
Phil suffers a panic attack at Bloomingdale's

Traditional gender roles, those typified by the  Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies of the '60s, were dismantled in the '70s, necessitating a new kind of sex comedy. Ads for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)—the real game-changer in romantic comedies—labeled it “A Nervous Romance.” That classification goes double for Starting Over; only instead of urban singles, were invited to enjoy the amorous fumblings of the newly-divorced. Individuals who perhaps married when one set of rules were in place, forced to re-enter single life ill-prepared for the cultural change-up in the game plan.
Love, American Style
(I've always loved that print that hangs above them: "Woman Reading" by Will Barnet)

PERFORMANCES
Few who weren’t around to bear witness to the painful spectacle of Burt Reynolds’ willful self-exploitation and wasting of his talents in the '70s can't appreciate what a delightful departure (and surprise) Starting Over was. The promising performer of Deliverance (1972) spent the better part of the decade ignoring his gifts as an actor, instead choosing to court dubious celebrity and fashioning himself into the male Jayne Mansfield (or the Matthew McConaughey) of the '70s. One of the biggest (if not the biggest) box-office stars of the time, Reynolds, with his myriad talk-show appearances, gleeful self-objectification, and seemingly endless stream of unwatchable, good ol’ boy redneck comedies, enthusiastically participated in turning himself into a Hollywood punchline.
Divested of his trademark pornstache and dropping his tired Dean Martin-esque "I'm so cool I don't care" indifference act; Reynolds gives perhaps his best pre-Boogie Nights performance in Starting Over. I don’t know that I've ever found Reynolds to be particularly likable before, but here he is quite appealing and quite wonderful. Underplaying marvelously, he’s one of the few male characters on screen able to convey a sweetly insecure vulnerability without slipping into wimpdom.
Alas, much in the way Eddie Murphy’s noteworthy performance in Dreamgirls failed to prevent Hollywood from remembering the hot mess that was Norbert; the career turn-around Starting Over may have signaled for Burt Reynolds was sabotaged by the two-strikes-you're-out disaster followup that was the craptacular Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981).
The ultimate sign of commitment: giving your sweetheart the key to your apartment 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Without a doubt the biggest buzz attending Starting Over on its release was the breakout comedy performance of Candice Bergen. Never highly-regarded for her acting, but a popular screen presence due to roles capitalizing on her ice-princess beauty, Bergen had heretofore only shown her comedic side on television (she was the first female host of Saturday Night Live and appeared to great effect on The Muppet Show). As Starting Over’s self-confident, atonal singer of atrocious “empowerment” pop songs, Bergen garnered the best notices of her career and, at age 32, launched a second career of sorts as a skilled comedienne.
Candice Bergen's highlight scene, in which she attempts to seduce her ex-husband by singing her disco composition "Better Than Ever," received the loudest and longest laugh from an audience I have ever heard in a movie theater.

The songs attributed to Bergen’s character were written by then-collaborative-couple Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, whose own relationship they immortalized in the Neil Simon-penned Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song (1978). I'd always thought Bergen’s songs in Starting Over were intended to be awful, both musically and lyrically (although I can’t help liking the song “Better Than Ever.” Oddly enough, Bergen’s version more than the Stephanie Mills version heard at the end), but in truth they sound identical to the songs from their hit Broadway show, so maybe they aren't as satiric as I once assumed.
Future Murphy Brown co-star, Charles Kimbrough, has a bit part as a salesman
 Home Alone's Daniel Stern (who would also appear in the Jill Clayburgh films I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can and It's My Turn) plays a student in Burt Reynolds' journalism class in Starting Over

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Starting Over is a terrifically funny and touching romantic comedy, but I can understand if time has diluted some of its punch. For one, the image of Burt Reynolds as a wiseguy sex machine is so dim now that no one is likely to derive much pleasure from seeing him cast against type. Seeing Burt Reynolds without his moustache in 1979 would be today akin to seeing Lady Gaga wearing Crocs.

Similarly, most people's memory of Candice Bergen today only extends back as far as Murphy Brown, so her atypically relaxed and risk-taking performance here lacks the shock value it had in 1979. The same can be said for the humor derived from her terrible singing. The idea of a no-talent pop star was riotous in 1979; folks looking at the film today might well think she sounds no worse than Katy Perry.
The Academy snubbed Reynolds, but both Clayburgh and Bergen received Oscar nods for Starting Over. Clayburgh had previously appeared with Reynolds in Semi-Tough (1977) while Bergen would re-team with the actor in the 1985 crime film Stick

I have no idea why some comedy is enduring (I Love Lucy) while other kinds of humor seems to grow less funny over time (I love the film Shampoo, but I look at it now and can't even remember why I once found it to be so hilarious). Starting Over, for better or worse, bears the stamp of its time, but in a way that I don't think dates it so much as lends its humor an authenticity and its characters a sense of existing in a real time and place. (Starting Over, which takes place in Boston, has a great look of winter and autumn about it. The huge coats the characters wear look for once like they're actually for function, not fashion, plus, I love that people in this movie use the bus!)
Starting Over is full of '70s-era jokes about finding oneself, Accutron watches, and telephone answering machines, but its sweetly comic look at the need to take chances to find love is something I don't think can ever be labeled dated.


THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Autograph of Candice Bergen from 1991, at the height of her Murphy Brown fame
Copyright © Ken Anderson

18 comments:

  1. "...the heterosexual battle of the sexes seems to have grown increasingly reductive and mean-spirited."

    Welcome to my world, Ken.

    Being from 1970s San Francisco, you would no doubt recall "EST" groups (albeit maybe not first-hand).

    I can think of several films that lampoon these "self-help" groups. Of course, you have already mentioned "Semi-Tough" (I have this on DVD). Another one is "The Big Fix" (1978) starring Richard Dreyfuss. Many years later, the 1970s cultural spoof "Spirit of '76" (1990) featured an "EST" type group with Rob Reiner making an appearance as the condescending group leader (the film is worth seeing for the "EST" stuff alone, and it IS available on DVD).

    I've not yet seen "Starting Over". But I do have a few Burt Reynolds movie from around that era sitting around on DVD ("The Longest Yard, and by that I mean the ORIGINAL, is one of my all-time favourite movies).

    (Stating the obvious: Jill Clayburgh looks just like Diane Keaton!)

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    1. Hi Mark
      You notice the same thing in today's so-called "romantic comedies" too, huh? They just feel so full of hostility these days.

      As for EST, I have firsthand knowledge of it, as my mom went through it in the 70s. The change in her was remarkable. It got a real bad rap, but in her case (an African-American woman who survived an extremely racist and repressive youth) EST turned my mom into this incredibly confident, happy, self-assured go-getter. She almost scared us kids!
      I haven't seen ANY of the films you listed as EST spoofs, but I think it might have been a part of this Tuesday Weld movie "Serial" that I saw in the 70s. And of course we know what effect it had on the writer and star of "The Wiz."
      And yes, Clayburgh looked a LOT like Diane Keaton.
      Thanks for another enjoyable response to a post. Much appreciated!

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  2. Romantic comedies? I'm talking about real-life! The battle has become a war!

    I tend to avoid today's romantic comedies for the most part. I once read the lament ("The Top Ten Lies Blockbuster Video Tells Their Customers"--it's online) from a film buff who worked at Blockbuster somewhere in the USA. One of his managers said that her favourite movie of all-time was "Rumor Has It" (starring a certain someone with the initials "J.A."). I don't know how you can work in a video store, be exposed (presumably) to so many movies, and your favourite is a romantic comedy that stars that "Friends" girl.


    Where did you meet Candice Bergen?

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    1. Ha! I never thought for a moment that these awful films about betrayal, lying, game-playing and generally treating each other like dirt, were reflections of real life. More's the pity.
      And I know what you mean about the Blockbuster person.
      I remember on this year's Academy Awards, Reese Witherspoon said that she watches the Goldie Hawn flick "Overboard" when she wants to be cheered up (words to that effect, anyway). We're talking about a film where a man exploits the amnesia of a woman he dislikes (for laughs)and tricks her into being his indentured servant/wife. Yes, that's the stuff of real romance.

      I met Ms. Bergen when I was teaching at a studio in Santa Monica and she was with her kid and just stopped in to look around.

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  3. The death of romantic comedy is one of the saddest developments in modern movies. Maybe the actresses of today just don't have the equipment for it. Even in the 1970s, there were not a whole bunch of good rom-coms, but then along came Jill Clayburgh who, to me, always seemed reminiscent of Jean Arthur. Funny and warm and down to earth (and with a great voice!)
    "An Unmarried Woman" isn't really a romantic comedy but Clayburgh brought so much humor and likeability to her role there that it seems like something Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne might have starred in if they had come along in 1978.

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    1. I think your likening of Clayburgh's appeal to that of Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne to be pretty apt. She never seemed to do well in weighty roles (Luna) but she was almost in a class by herself in light comedy that required a grounded, likable sort of woman and not a girl. I thought she was terrific.

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  4. I recall that "Overboard" was on television many years ago, but it didn't really hold my attention, to be honest, so I didn't continue watching it. Still, I think that sticking a spoon on your nose ought to be an Olympic sport (maybe if some small town in Kentucky ever wins the bid to host), or at least have its own half-hour every week on ESPN2.

    Ken, it's interesting that you don't rate Jill Clayburgh's performance in "Luna" very highly. I saw this as part of a full Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective at the cinema that allowed me to experience most of (I didn't get around to all of them) BB's feature films on the big screen. I thought that Ms. Clayburgh was absolutely astonishing. It's the sort of role that could very easily have fallen to pieces or maybe just not really hit home. In fact, I found the film overall to be most astonishing. Wonderful on the big screen--it's BB after all (has a knack for choosing brilliant cinematographers, often Vittorio Storaro).

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    1. Yes, I found "Overboard" hard to sit all the way through as well. You could predict where it was headed so it felt like a lot of torture to endure to get there.

      And alas, as much as I like Betolucci and Jill Clayburgh, "Luna" was kind of trying for me. I just always felt at a remove from it.

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  5. Ken, I haven't seen this film probably since its release but you've inspired me to re-visit. Your assessment of the romcom situation today is dead-on. Desperately sad: negligible romance, sappy comedy (and Judd Apatow...don't get me started). I love the screwball era romcoms - "The Awful Truth," (obviously) "The Lady Eve" (and adore Bogdanovich's brilliant '70s homage, "What's Up, Doc?"). Probably my all time favorite/guilty pleasure of the genre is "Breakfast at Tiffany's"...almost every woman-who-is-now-of-a-certain-age wanted to grow up to be Holly (because she was portrayed by Audrey Hepburn we didn't understand she was a call girl - I thought "party girl" meant she was madcap and was so charming that men paid simply to be in her presence) and find our Fred - errr - Paul.

    Have you read Frank Langella's "Dropped Names"? He began writing it when Jill Clayburgh, who had been a close friend, died and he realized his young girlfriend had no idea who she was.

    You don't miss a thing with this review - you never do - and I keep thinking you ought to be doing this for a living.

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    1. Hi Eve
      What a very kind comment! Thank you very much. I too am a fan of "breakfast at Tiffany's" and when I saw it as a kid, I never once thought Hepburn was a call girl, either. She just seemed like all those other women in rom-coms of the day (Natalie Wood, Sandra Dee) who never seemed to work. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen "The Awful Truth". Perhaps I should seek it out.
      However, I am definitely going to seek out that Frank Langella memoir you mention. I read a little about it on the Joe's View website, but your reference makes it sound irresistible.
      Thanks again for your encouraging words. It pleases me that you take the time to stop by and comment. I'm a flawed writer, just a novice really, but I'm working on it!

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  6. Bergen's "Better Than Ever" song is the best scene in the movie, and really did launch the glorious comedic second act of her career. I too remember the audience laughing with delight, and applauding the character when she finished the song.

    Burt Reynolds did make a few artistic choices after Bandit made him a box-office brand. I especially love his dark comedy The End, with Sally Field, Joanne Woodward and Dom Deluise.

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    1. Hi 66!
      Yes, Bergen turned the corner and pulled a Leslie Neilsen with this role. She was so good in this.
      I tend to forget about "The End." I recall being very high on it when it came out and I saw it at the theater and left very disappointed. I think it was the last Burt Reynolds film I ever watched until "Boogie Nights."

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  7. You really need to see "The Awful Truth" if you still haven't. I remember as a kid me and my younger sister used alotta the movie's lines- and still do to this day. The kind of roles were so awesome for so many wonderful actresses that WWII fucked up for them: Irene Dunne in "Theodora Goes Wild," "The Awful Truth," and "My Favorite Wife." Jean Arthur in "Easy Living," the Capra "Mr..." movies and "The More the Merrier." Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night," "Midnight," and "The Palm Beach Story." Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Philadelphia Story," Barbara Stanwyck in "Remember the Night," "The Lady Eve," and "Ball of Fire," Carole Lombard in "Twentieth Century," "My Man Godfrey," "True Confession," and "Nothing Sacred." Myrna Loy in "The Thin Man" movies and some others with William Powell. Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" and "My Sister Eileen." Margaret Sullavan in "The Shop Around the Corner." Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again." Greta Garbo in "Ninotchka."

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    1. Busted! I have yet to settle down to watching "The Awful Truth", but your list of period romantic comedies is a great companion for my next Netflix run. I've seen several of those you mention, but there are several I should become familiar with.
      Thanks very much for following and taking the time to read old postsand commenting!

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  8. I liked this reveal and I understand the appeal of this movie more now. I was born in 1991 and though I could feel "Starting Over"'s heart beating intact, I couldn't get some of it's elements.
    I'm loving your posts and I'm interested in seeing what you have to say about "An Unmarried Woman" (November 5th marked the sixth anniversary of Jill Clayburgh's death and I've been watching her movies. Did you watch her in "Griffin and Phoenix", alongside Peter Falk? Amazing)
    Congrats for your blog :)

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  9. Hello João Paulo
    Thank you for commenting and for your very kind comments. I often wonder how some of the movies from my youth appear to young viewers, especially a "time capsule" comedy like STARTING OVER.
    I've never seen "Griffin & Phoenix"(not sure why), but I see it's available on YouTube for the time being, so I hope to check it out. As for "An Unmarried Woman," can you believe I've never seen it all the way through?
    I missed it at the theaters, and when it used to play on cable, I'd always seem to catch it middle or end. It never occurs to me to just look for the DVD. I need to, it was such a seminal '70s film.
    Nice to hear you are a fan of Clayburgh's and have been catching up with her work.
    Enjoyed hearing from you and hope you drop a line again. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time!

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    1. Hey, Ken! I've been riding that "Time Capsule" a lot lately and have been watching a bunch of 70s movies. Something that really bothered me the first time I watched "Starting Over" was that Clayburgh's character accepted Burt Reynolds back after he left her to try it again with Bergen. To my generation this is the utmost humilliation: if a man walks out on you then you should never take him back otherwise you don't love yourself enough. Guess we value our pride more than our need for love.
      I think most of 70s movies wouldn't please nowadays audience since they are a real document about that time. I keep recommending movies I love to my friends and they keep not feeling it (like "Klute"). The second wave feminism don't really click today (Since my generation does not acknowledges most of it's conquests. When it comes to women and gay rights we tend to think everybody was always this free), divorce is not a big deal anymore, 70s fashion never came back to the spotlight, the conflict about what it means to be a man/woman in modern times don't works for us (Maybe it works for me as I still try to figure things out as a gay guy). Romantic comedies today have less dialogue and present funny situations every 15 minutes wich would make any 70s film seem less dinamic (That's why I think romantic comedies aren't exciting anymore: they invest way too much time giving audiences what they want to see instead of trying to surprise them. While "Starting Over" has a lot of self-critic, most of romantic comedies now are based mostly on escapism).

      I can't recommend "An Unmarried Woman" highly enough. It's really my favorite Mazursky movie (and I love "Blume In Love" quite a lot). Jill's work was so amazing in it that she got too closely associated with the character to her own good, and when the feminist movies era died she could never recover (and she also loved taking career risks). The movie would feel dated nowadays but I showed it to a friend of mine and she was deeply touched because the dialogue is just so good and everything feels just too real (in the first two acts) that we can't help but identify immediately, even though we were never divorced (or married!). Too bad it's not much talked about out of cinema schools.
      (I just watched this movie cause I decided to see who was competing against Jane Fonda for the 1979 Oscars).

      Oh, sorry, this comment got way bigger than I intended it to be.
      Have a nice day (and sorry for any typo)!

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    2. Hello Jao Paulo
      Wow, such great comments again! Very enlightening to hear a young person's take on some of these films.
      Watching films is, I think, always an opportunity for self exploration. To look at older films is sometimes a bit of a cultural and mental challenge.

      The point you brought up about Jill Clayburgh's character accepting Reynolds back after he returned to his wife is an interesting one. Interesting because an aspect of movie-watching is this thing called "projection" or "surrender" (for lack of better terms). The latter is when you watch a film and so believe the reality of the characters' lives, you surrender your personal judgement or moral code and surrender to what might be the truth of the characters. Other times you watch a film and find it difficult not to project you contemporary and/or personal judgement onto the choices characters make.

      Some very bad and contrived films always frustrate me because characters often behave in ways necessary for the plot to move along, not in ways that seem "real to me" (like when I watch sex comedies from the 60s in which a happy ending is required, so a woman marries the guy who has spent the last 90 minutes deceiving and lying to her).
      Maybe that's what Clayburgh's decision in this film felt like for you.

      In all it's very enlightening hearing your take on older films. I have a very hard time with many new films. Having seen so many films in my lifetime, I often recognize formulas too easily. I love when a new film can surprise me.

      You amke a compelling case for "An Unmmaried Woman" and it's very cool that you have spent some time exploring films from the 70s. As I said before, you have very keen insights that extend far beyond just liking or not liking a film.
      I'm sure you find it to be a richer experience when you examine both a film and your reaction to a film with equal intensity.
      Thank you very much for the thoughts and impressions of this film and 70s films in general. I enjoyed reading them, so please, never feel you have to apologize about their length. It shows enthusiasm!

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