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

Laura Linney and Julianna Margulies play characters with unmarried attitude.

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."

The Clayburgh Effect: Women On Screen Redefine What it Means to Be on Their Own

The twist is that, although Cathy is alone in her awareness that she might not be around for too much longer, she revs up her life force like never before. The highlight? Having a passionate affair with a mural painter she meets at her school.

Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife."

But despite her professional successes, Margulies tells us, through her face, that her character is torn between a woman's traditional role to support the husband – no matter what – and to ditch him. Further complicating matters is that one of the law firm's partners has affections for her, and Alicia is interested. The CBS drama is now in its second season.

Meryl Streep in "It's Complicated."

Streep plays Jane Adler, a hugely successful pastry chef, long divorced from her husband (Alec Baldwin). But they meet up at a family event and before you know it, Jane and her former mate – who has remarried but is still in love with his ex – are between the sheets. Jane, enjoying her hot affair, must figure out whether she wants a repeat of the marriage that ultimately failed.

Jessica Lange in "Grey Gardens."

"Big Edie" – perhaps out of fear of being alone, or envious of the ambitions of her daughter, "Little Edie" (Drew Barrymore) – cruelly wears down her offspring and persuades her to co-habit – for decades – the not-very-inhabitable Grey Gardens. In the early seventies, the pair faced eviction from their home.

Fortunately, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister provided the funds for renovation. But as a precursor, in time, to "An Unmarried Woman," "Grey Gardens" attests to the fear many women had that they could never thrive on their own.