Paul Mazursky, Director of 'Unmarried Woman,' Dies at 84
By Richard Natale
Though his output was erratic, Mazursky at his best captured the spirit of the late ’60s and the ’70s, when the American moral climate was turned on its head. His films entertainingly explored such weighty issues as marital fidelity, the merits of psychological therapy and modern divorce: Bob and Ted, starring Robert Culp and Natalie Wood as a “liberated” married couple; Blume in Love, starring George Segal and Susan Anspach and focusing on the nature of romantic commitment; Harry and Tonto, starring Art Carney and focusing on the modern family and approaching old age; the more personal Next Stop, Greenwich Village; and his most popular film, An Unmarried Woman, with Jill Clayburgh and Alan Bates, about divorce in the feminist era.
“No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade,” wrote critic Richard Corliss of Mazursky at the end of the ’70s.
As the Reagan years set in, however, Mazursky’s output was not as consistent. He scored with the comedies Moscow on the Hudson and Down and Out in Beverly Hills and acquitted himself admirably with a dramatic adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story and — like Next Stop, Greenwich Village a strong period piece set in New York. Though he was never nominated for best director, he did cop four screenplay nominations (three of them shared) for Bob and Ted, Harry and Tonto, An Unmarried Woman and Enemies.
Mazursky’s best films were delightfully ragtag; his interesting, unorthodox characters went against the commercial formula of the times, yet audiences could still identify with them.
Though not always to good effect, Mazursky was also heavily influenced by top European filmmakers like Fellini (his disastrous homage to 8½, Alex in Wonderland), Truffaut (a tepid reworking of Jules and Jim entitled Willie and Phil) and Bergman (a rather ill-conceived reworking of Scenes From a Marriage called Scenes From a Mall, with Woody Allen and Bette Midler).
But his instincts in adapting Jean Renoir’s ’30s classic Boudou Saved From Drowning as Down and Out in Beverly Hills were right on the money, even if it commercialized the French film’s themes. He also did well by Singer with Enemies: A Love Story, which was his last completely successful film, and while it was not a commercial hit, it brought Oscar nominations for two of its actresses, Lena Olin and Anjelica Huston.
Over the years, the former actor coaxed wonderful, Oscar-caliber performances out of such actors as Carney, who was named best actor in 1975 for Harry and Tonto; Jill Clayburgh, who was nominated for An Unmarried Woman; and Dyan Cannon and Elliot Gould, who were both cited for their work in his satirical comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
He was born Irwin Mazursky in Brooklyn and was already working as an actor while attending Brooklyn College. In his early years in New York he studied with Lee Strasberg and had a modest but thriving career in early television and New York theater — and less so in films. He appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire, as well as in Richard Brooks’ 1955 drama The Blackboard Jungle.