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.
But in order to get by, he had to wait tables and teach drama for several years. Besides working in stock, he appeared Off Broadway with Dody Goodman in the revue Shoestring ’57 and also directed a failed sketch play, Kaleidoscope, as well as a production of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot.
By the late ’50s he was trying his hand at standup comedy: He and Herb Hartig billed themselves as Igor and H. After moving to Los Angeles, he studied film and performed with UCLA’s repertory company while making infrequent TV appearances.
With another comedy partner, Larry Tucker, he transferred the magic of Second City to the West Coast, which landed them a highly paid writing job on The Danny Kaye Show in 1963 and scored them other TV assignments, most significantly, helping to write the pilot for the popular series The Monkees. As an actor he appeared in a low-budget film version of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch.
After several aborted attempts at breaking into movies, he and Tucker scored with the swinging 1967 L.A. comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers, but Mazursky was not allowed to direct — the job went to Hy Averback instead.
Mazursky made his directorial debut with the short Last Year in Malibu, a spoof of Alain Resnais’ nouvelle vague art film Last Year at Marienbad. His feature first was the sexual revolution comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, which proved to be a big hit. It led to Alex in Wonderland, about a director who has made a hit film and can’t decide what to do next; the answer should not have been Alex in Wonderland. Devastated by the film’s hostile reception, Mazursky headed for Europe. When he returned, he severed his partnership with Tucker and began work on Harry and Tonto.
But in between he made Blume in Love, a sweet romantic piece that put Mazursky back in the winner’s column and allowed him to get Harry and Tonto made. And a good thing, too, since it brought Art Carney the Oscar for best actor. The undervalued Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a charming autobiographical tale, arrived in 1976, and his next film, An Unmarried Woman, proved to be his biggest hit ever and was nominated for best picture of 1978 (though Mazursky did not get a directing nomination).
However, neither Willie and Phil in 1980 nor his contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1982 won audiences over. It wasn’t until 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson, starring Robin Williams, and 1986’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Nick Nolte, that Mazursky’s comedic efforts scored with audiences.
In between he had done some acting in films including A Star Is Born, The History of the World: Part I and Into the Night.
The comedy Moon Over Parador, starring Richard Dreyfuss, proved to be a weak effort in 1988, but Mazursky redeemed himself with Enemies, A Love Story, a bittersweet comedy from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tale of three Holocaust survivors trying to pick up their lives in post-war New York. It was by far his most delicately balanced film and brought him a shared Oscar nomination as screenwriter.
Thereafter, his directorial efforts such as Scenes From a Mall (a comedy that was surprisingly unfunny despite the seemingly unbeatable team of Woody Allen and Bette Midler), the almost unreleasable The Pickle and Cher’s comeback that wasn’t, Faithful, did not restore his former luster.
He had a bit more luck in his later years as an actor scoring supporting roles in such films such as Punchline, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Carlito’s Way, Love Affair, Two Days in the Valley, Touch, Miami Rhapsody and TV’s Weapons of Mass Distraction.
Mazursky directed the 1998 HBO biopic Winchell, starring Stanley Tucci as the power-mad gossip columnist, and the 2003 Showtime telepic Coast to Coast, a road movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Judy Davis. His last helming effort was the 2006 documentary Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy, which documented the annual three-day pilgrimage of Hasidic Jews to a leader’s gravesite in the Ukraine.
Yippee made its New York premiere in May 2007 as part of a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective, “The Magic of Paul Mazursky.”
Mazursky continued making appearances on the smallscreen, recurring on The Sopranos; on ABC drama Once and Again as Sela Ward’s father; and on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as Norm.
On the bigscreen in the 2000s, Mazursky voiced characters in animated pics Antz and Kung Fu Panda 2, played studio executives in The Majestic and Big Shot’s Funeral and appeared in Jeff Garlin’s I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.
Mazursky elder daughter Meg, who had a substantial role in Alex in Wonderland, died in 2009.
He is survived by his wife Betsy, who had bits parts in several of his films, and daughter Jill, a writer-producer who also appeared in several Mazursky films.
Photo: © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images