Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

An unmarried woman (1944-2010)

Forget Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Women I knew in the late 1970s took to their heart as a feminist totem Jill Clayburgh. But it didn’t have anything to do with anything Clayburgh did or said or wrote. It was all about the screen roles she happened to play.

It certainly had a lot to do with timing. The actor was the right age at the right time in history to portray women who wanted or were forced to find themselves. At a time when a number approaching half of Americans were finding themselves divorced, writer/director Paul Mazursky cast Clayburgh to star in a movie that looked at the breakup of a marriage from the woman’s point of view. And it struck a chord. In our media-saturated culture, seeing what looks like one’s own life on a movie screen is a powerful form of validation. And from what I could tell, a lot of women looked at the character of Erica in An Unmarried Woman and felt some sort of comfort that they weren’t alone in what they had gone through or were going through or might go through.

What made An Unmarried Woman notable is that it provided an ideal new man for Erica (in the form of a sexy, bearded painter played by Alan Bates) and a happy ending that didn’t involve her getting married to him. The message was that a woman can be self-sufficient without being an appendage to a male. Of course, Bates was a bit too good to be true making it seem unlikely to some that Erica wouldn’t have snapped him up. A couple of years later, Goldie Hawn gave voice to a lot of (more traditional minded) women when her titular Jewish princess character in Private Benjamin expressed bewilderment at Erica’s choice: “I really didn’t get the point of ‘An Unmarried Woman.’ I would have been Mrs. Alan Bates so fast.”

The Mazursky film undoubtedly typecast Clayburgh to a certain extent as far as movies were concerned. She seemed often to be cast in roles that led many obituaries to begin with descriptions like this one from The New York Times: “an Oscar-nominated actress known for portraying strong, independent women.” She followed up with La Luna, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, in which she was a widow who (is this European or what?) enters into an affair with her 15-year-old son to help him kick his heroin habit. Next she was a teacher in Starting Over, who becomes involved with Burt Reynolds, who has recently been divorced by Candice Bergen. Then she was a mathematics professor who got involved in a triangle with Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin. Then, more or less coincident with the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, she played the first female justice on the Supreme Court in First Monday in October. And then she played a TV producer (based on Barbara Gordon’s memoir) who gets hooked on valium in I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. She apparently missed a chance to add another feminist icon to her c.v. She reportedly turned down the title role in Norma Rae, which resulted in an Oscar for Sally Field.

But despite the quasi-feminist movie persona that many remember, it is worth recalling that she had a gift for comedy. In fact, she played one of the all-time great comediennes, Carole Lombard (to James Brolin’s Clark Gable) in 1976’s Gable and Lombard. She also appeared in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and in Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. And she played Eric Stoltz’s mother in Naked in New York.

While she wasn’t always as visible after her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Clayburgh was always working, on the big and small screens and on the stage. She had recurring roles on TV shows like Trinity, Everything’s Relative, Ally McBeal and Dirty Sexy Money. And this in spite of the fact that she was battling leukemia for 21 years.

Despite her close identification with the movie An Unmarried Woman, Clayburgh herself was never a divorcée. She lived with Al Pacino in the early 1970s and was married to the writer David Rabe (Streamers, Hurlyburly) from 1979 until her much too early death at the age of 66.

Gentle debunker (1926-2010)

Geoffrey Crawley was an expert on photography (and also a pianist, linguist, chemist, inventor and editor) but, as far as I can tell, he had no direct connection to movies. So why am I noting his passing?

Well, he figures as an important footnote to an intriguing story that resulted in one of the best movies I saw during the 1990s. Is that reason enough?

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Crawley was editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Photography. In 1982 and 1983, he published a 10-part series giving the results of his investigation into a photographic mystery that was more than six decades old. In 1917 in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley, two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, took their first photographs with a camera borrowed from Elsie’s father. And the photographs made history. They appeared to show fairies in a nearby glen. The girls did not waver from their story that the fairies were real and, by the time all was said and done, their work was validated by Britain’s Theosophical Society and a personage no less than amateur photographer and renowned author Arthur Conan Doyle. Well into old age, Elsie and Frances stuck to their story, and the mystery persisted.

The year 1997 saw the release of a lovely movie based on the events in Cottingley. It was directed by Charles Sturridge and starred Peter O’Toole as Conan Doyle and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. Bill Nighy played Edward Gardner, leader of the Theosophical Society, and Elsie’s parents were played by Sturridge’s wife Phoebe Nicholls and Paul McGann, fresh from the lead role in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. FairyTale: A True Story caught brilliantly the human need to believe in magic, especially during a grim time, such as 1917 was in wartime England. What I was not aware of is that another movie based on the same events was also released the same year. Directed by Nick Willing, Photographing Fairies starred Toby Stephens as a photographer and Ben Kingsley as a reverend and featured Edward Hardwicke as Conan Doyle.

Crawley’s investigation was precise and scientifically rigorous. But he was also sensitive and gracious. In 2000, he wrote in the British Journal of Photography, “Of course there are fairies—just as there is Father Christmas. The trouble comes when you try to make them corporeal. They are fine poetic concepts taking us out of this at times too ugly real world.” Referring to Elsie, whom he befriended before her death in 1988, he added, “How many professed photographers can claim to have equaled her achievement with the first photograph they ever took?”

The Legacy

Filmmaker Mike Doto was kind enough to let me see his latest film The Legacy this week. A bit over 11 minutes in length, it has the feel of a blockbuster. The opening credits and music make us feel that we are about to see a Steven Spielberg movie or, more to the point, one of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Indeed, it is every bit a loving homage to those movies. Its slick look and special effects are a testament to what a creative mind can do with computers and imagination these days. It gives every impression of having a major Hollywood studio behind it.

The story celebrates youthful imagination and the mythic influence fathers have over sons. And it speaks especially to those of us who were or are lovers of comic books and superhero movies. The central role is played well by Paul Butcher, a busy young actor who has starred for several seasons in TV’s Zoey 101.

The Legacy has played at a slew of film festivals since March, including Cannes and the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival. I’m not sure what the opportunities for seeing the film are going forward, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for. In an interview back in February, Doto mentioned that he was writing a feature length Superman script on the chance that Warner Bros. might be interested. Based on The Legacy, I’m willing to bet it would turn out to be a better movie than Bryan Singer’s go at the franchise.

-S.L., 11 November 2010

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive