“I’m a fan of Jill Clayburgh and her gracdeful, klutzy, three-quarter liberated heroines. A ballerina manqué myself, I first fell in love with her as Erica, in that secene in An Unmarried Woman in which she is dancing around the bedroom, wearing high socks, bikini pants, and a T-shirt, to the music of “Swan Lake,” blissfully unaware that her magic carpet is about to come crashing to earth. And there was the final scene in which Erica makes her way through SoHo, carrying and being carried by the huge canvas bequeathed her by her departing lover. Her shaky odyssey was a pefect metaphor for the situation of the “new woman,” disoriented, yet gallantly trying to pull all the pieces together. With that sense of strength under fragility, Clayburgh comes closest of any actress to defining the reality of most women of my generation, caught as we are between ‘eighties feminism and ‘fifties conservatism.
“In I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, she once again plays a woman in extemis—a television producer who breaks a Valium habit that has escalated to sizty milligrams a day, only to experience a psychotic withdrawal when she unwisely tries to quit cold-turkey. There’s a beautiful final scene that might almost serve as a sequel to An Unmarried Woman. Having lifted herself out of madness, Clayburgh’s Barbara Gordon has come back to CBS to recut the documentary on the dying woman poet (Geraldine Page) who has been both friend and adversary to her. The documentary ends, as the film ends, with Clayburgh running along the beach in obedience to the express desire of the dying woman. It is as if the older woman’s spirit and approval had entered her body, and she is summoning strength from the depths of the older woman’s soul.
“It is a marvelously triumphant image, and yet like other Clayburgh scenes it has a light, almost offhand quality. Because she has a flair for dealing with painful subjects glancingly, never begging for sympathy, Clayburgh is often taken more lightly than she deserves. Audiences will stand in line to see Sally Field’s moist-eyed, cuddly-feminine, true-blue working woman heroine and turn a cold shoulder to the classy, assertive Clayburgh variant.
“People complained of An Unmarried Woman that anyone who could afford an apartment overlooking the East River didn’t deserve audience sympathy. Or—an alternative complaint—she didn’t appear to suffer enough. And most unforgiveable: there was Mr. Super-Right, in the form of Alan Bates, waiting in the wings to rescue her from loneliness, and she had the never to turn him down.
“In I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, there is no Mr. Super-Right. If anything, Nicol Williamson as Barbara’s lover is Mr. Super Wrong. Otherwise, some of the same old criticisms will no doubt be leveled at the new movie, but not by me. Jill Clayburgh doesn’t suffer as extensively as Barbara Gordon…, who detailed in her book every step in her ordeal: her imprisonment by her lover, her victimization by doctors (the most interesting aspect of the book, and softened considerably in the film), her institutionalization. But such lurid descents into hell, whether via madness, gambling, alcohol, or some other addiction, are too unrelieved and too predictable to make interesting drama.
“The filmmakers … have lightened the tone and shifted the emphasis from the heroine’s Freudian past to her workaholic present. Rabe relocates Clayburgh’s Barbara as a career woman caught up in her own success, a tense over-achiever who has shaved her ideals almost imperceptibly to fit the values and time slots of television.
“In a journey of self-discovery that is often as funny as it is horrifying, Clayburgh projects too much resiliency to remain down for long, and the filmmakers are correct in allowing her natural pluckiness to come through. When she strikes back verbally at the therapist (beautifully portrayed by Dianne Wiest), it is less as a patient than as an equal. And the book’s terrifying scene of madness à deux—in which an infantile Barbara becomes her lover’s prisoner—alters to the extent that one almost feels pity for Nicol Williamson. (Williamson … turns the book’s diabolical madman into an English eccentric.)
“Geraldine Page, clinging to dignity and truth through various stages of dying, is magnificent as the character who becomes the heroine’s conscience. Their extraordinary relationship, complex, taut, wary, is the heart of the film. It is like a richly expanded version of the Maureen Stapleton-Diane Keaton relationship in Reds, in which a proud, egocentric, established intellectual older woman rebuffs, ignores, needles, and at last embraces a younger woman who has finally earned her respect. If Clayburgh and Page don’t come up with at least Academy Award nominations for their roles in I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, there is no justice in Oscarland.”
Vogue, May 1982
“The movie … is a stunning reworking of a difficult theme—lighter in tone, more triumphant in its ending, but no less true to that psychic split in the modern professional woman. Clayburgh is incandescent as the workaholic producer so caught up in what she is doing that she no longer knows who she is.
“…. The complex relationship between these two—the egocentric but fiercely truthful artist and the well-intentioned but callow media pro—becomes the emotional core of the film….
(Haskell continues in this June 1982 Playgirl review, re-stating, sometimes more concisely, sometimes less descriptively, the appraisals of Clayburh and audience reaction made in her Vogue review.)