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Feminist Analyses: ‘Alice’ and ‘An Unmarried Woman’

Two 70s proto-feminist movies that show the myths

1950s style waitresses
Waitresses — Girochantal on Pixabay

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is now streaming. I had never seen the film that made a small splash at the time. I couldn’t believe it was honoring the heroine for leaving an abusive relationship which seems, now, like such an obvious choice.

At the time — it was distributed in 1974 — we were still figuring out our roles as women, our independence, our partnerships, and how to be who we are.

I was disappointed that what I remembered as feminist seemed so small — a waitress choosing to leave an abusive man and be a single mother. Reportedly, the script ended without her falling into a relationship with the character played by Kris Kristofferson. The studio insisted on a happy ending — that is, the woman is partnered in the ending. I was puzzled that Alice would seem to gain her independence and then so willingly be tied to a man, even if the character was played by the oh-so-charming Kristofferson. Reportedly Ellen Burstyn fought against that ending.

Four years later, in 1978, An Unmarried Woman covers much of the same ground, but instead of a down-and-out waitress, Jill Clayburgh plays an affluent Upper East Side wife. Her husband leaves her for a woman he’s seeing in an affair.

A couple of months later, she is in love with Alan Bates’ character, though this time she doesn’t agree to be his wife or live-in mate, as she needs to make time for herself.

Side note: Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates are similarly hairy and 70s bearded and handsome. The more hair, the better, at a certain style point in time.

Falling in love seems to involve little other than moon-eyed gazing and physical passion for Clayburgh and Bates.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, of the same time, was far more nuanced about relationships. The movie is told from Alvie’s point-of-view, Woody Allen’s character. It is the little shared memories like chasing a lobster, and shared interests, that construct a relationship. Maybe this is a more feminist film, a woman who needs more from a relationship and more for herself, and the guy is trying to figure it out, as we all were trying to figure it out.

I may have discovered a new hobby: watching old films that are message films to assess their current relevance and reassess my memories. I’ve learned a lot about time in a bottle or time captured on 35 millimeters. It’s easy to elide who we think we are and who we think we were. Change happens in small steps. It took four years from the studios insisting a man rescue Alice to the year of Jill Clayburgh’s ambiguous need to discover herself.

Of course, it is not a linear progression. The characters Katharine Hepburn played or Bette Davis played are often feisty. And Hollywood has such strange standards. We denigrate or elevate an experience by describing it as “like a movie.”

The movies don’t lead the times by much but seem to follow. It is interesting to watch who we have been and who we become. We are, for better or worse, reflected in the culture which we reflect back.

Another film of the same era was Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. It also features a single mother, left by her boyfriend and her follow-up romance with the next boyfriend. While it features the same tropes that seem to have been popular during this period, it is primarily a Neil Simon comedy and not a woman’s story. I loved the exterior shots because it was filmed in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side. New York City was a popular location for 70s movies, and we saw film crews around the city.

Ellen Burstyn and Diane Keaton both won Academy awards for their performances. Jill Clayburgh received an Academy Award nomination, as did Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl.

What messages or films do you suggest revisiting? Have they worn well? Have you been surprised by the gap between your memory and your current point of view? Are there films that should be grouped in their own subgenre?

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