Jill Clayburgh's Legacy: After 'An Unmarried Woman,' Actresses Redefine Independence

Laura Linney and Julianna Margulies play characters with unmarried attitude.

ByABC News
November 8, 2010, 2:55 PM

Nov. 9, 2010— -- Back in 1978, in the movie "An Unmarried Woman," Jill Clayburgh played a well-to-do woman, Erica, whose husband told her he was leaving her for a younger woman.

It was the heave-ho heard around the cinematic world.

Clayburgh, who died last Friday after a long illness, gave extraordinary flesh and form to a woman thrown back into the proverbial dating pool – having to redefine her unpreparedness, sexuality and new marital status – after the dissolution of her 16-year marriage.

Erica's crisis, as depicted in a movie released more than three decades ago, would probably provoke today's young women today to say supportively, "What's the fuss? You're educated and independent, so get back into the work force and romantic arena."

Nevertheless, just because women hold professional degrees and earn their own money, it doesn't mean their relationships are any less complicated or gut-wrenching.

"'An Unmarried Woman' placed the female at the center of its universe, and included the theme of ageism, as opposed to merely sexism," said Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University's School of the Arts. "Heroines 'of a certain age' are, nevertheless, more visible and desirable onscreen now than decades ago, whether it's Meryl Streep in 'It's Complicated,' Diane Keaton in 'Something's Gotta Give,' or Helen Mirren in 'Love Ranch.' They're depicted as ripe rather than ridiculous."

Jill Clayburgh helped redefine what it means for a woman to be on her own again. But the definition of being married is still a challenge to address.

"In 'An Unmarried Woman,' it was the husband's choice to break up the marriage, and the Clayburgh character had to adapt," said Judith Stern Peck, a clinical social worker in New York who also directs the Money & Family Life Project at the Ackerman Institute. "Today women have more choices about whether to stay in their marriage. But, in making the choice, they must address how their financial and social status may shift as a result. It's still not easy."

Here are some contemporary media characters who are sisters-in-spirit to Clayburgh's Erica. They're worldly and successful but, despite their modernity, just as torn up about what it means to be married.

Laura Linney in "The Big C."

Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a teacher by profession and mom to a big-mouth teenage son. During the current first-season of this Showtime program, Cathy has just learned she has stage 4 melanoma. Realistically you'd think she'd need her family around her more than ever. But she has asked her husband to leave the house, and has zero initial inclination to reveal her medical status to him. Julianna Margulies.