Daily | Paul Mazursky, 1930 – 2014

Paul Mazursky

Paul Mazursky

Paul Mazursky, the writer and director behind such Oscar-nominated films as An Unmarried Woman and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has died in Los Angeles,” reports Eric Kelsey for Reuters. “He was 84.”

“A gentle satirist of contemporary society, Mazursky at his best chronicled the social trends of the late 1960s and the ’70s, including its touchy-feely self-improvement fads, shifting rules for love and sex, drug experimentation and other excesses,” writes Elaine Woo for the Los Angeles Times. “In the process, he created characters memorable for their struggles and vanities: the well-heeled couples in his 1969 directorial debut Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice who believe spouse-swapping is the cure for their hang-ups; the divorce lawyer in Blume in Love who thinks sexual freedom is great until his wife wants it; and the divorcee in An Unmarried Woman who steps gingerly into the singles scene after 15 years of what she thought had been a happy marriage.”

The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “A child of the 30s and 40s who started out in the 50s, he was a creator of the 60s—a co-writer, with Larry Tucker, of the TV series The Monkees, and the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas…. Because Mazursky wasn’t of the 60s, they hit him hard; as a new world opened up and an old one was sloughed off into irrelevance, he saw the dramatic and comic possibilities of radical change on an intimate scale—and saw that the drama and the comedy were inseparable…. Mazursky’s exposed nerves and hypervulnerabilty show through his characters’ expansive chutzpah, worldly bonhomie, and relentless activity—and through his own. He overleaped two generations to become a director of our times.”

“There was probably no writer and director more in love with love and its power to heal and disrupt since the heyday of the screwball comedy,” wrote Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times in 2001. “As a director, even at his most hyperbolic, he never sensationalized. The odd, imagined riots inside the head of the filmmaker-hero (Donald Sutherland) of Alex in Wonderland or the wired bacchanalian overkill of the festival in Moon Over Parador have a sense of wonderment about them. Mr. Mazursky has too much tenderness in him. He cares as much about the actors as he does the mechanics of filmmaking.”

“Mazursky’s films radiate such admiration for actors and understanding of their vulnerabilities,” writes Benjamin Ivry for the Jewish Daily Forward. “His memoir Show Me the Magic (1999) describes his own early struggles as a performer, after studying method acting in the 1950s with Paul Mann, an actor blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunt. Mazursky’s film debut was as a glowering soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s surprisingly routine first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), for which he changed his first name to Paul.” He was born Irwin Mazursky “in Brooklyn of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry,” notes Ivry. “Remaining close in spirit to actors, Mazursky turned filmmaking into an eternal return to his own past.”

“His 70s pictures both reflected and challenged American culture in the moment they were being made, which by necessity time-stamped them.” noted the Austin Chronicle‘s Kimberley Jones in May. Four decades after that exceptional and diverse run of movies, they can seem dated to modern audiences. Funny, searching, never didactic, these films explored monogamy, divorce, aging, race, womenʼs lib, and the eternal struggle to make a soulful, authentic statement as an artist. (Next Stop, Greenwich Village was a period piece, inspired by Mazurskyʼs own experiences as a budding boho in the 50s, but its treatments of abortion, suicide, and sexuality were at the time progressive for a studio picture.)… But as tin-eared as some of these moments may play now, thereʼs still something not just admirable but electrifying in how Mazursky retuned the domestic comedy to catch counterculture vibrations. Time and again, he went out on a ledge in his films; it feels unsporting not to join him there.”

At Criticwire, Sam Adams is gathering further remembrances and tweeted tributes. In 2011, David Poland recorded an epic interview with Mazursky in four parts: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Updates, 7/2: “Mazursky knew how to play to his performer’s strengths,” writes Dan Callahan at, “so that Natalie Wood is not outmatched by the more comedically expert Dyan Cannon in his first film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) but brought gently into the fold of the movie’s jokes and warmth and sexual glow. Bob & Carol is a sex comedy that is actually sexy and actually funny and also tenderly sad, underneath…. But Mazursky could do heavy drama, too, and he proved it in his masterpiece, Enemies, A Love Story (1989), a movie based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s very tough book about survivors of the Holocaust in post-war New York…. Never has self-destruction on screen seemed more earned and more alluring than in [Lena] Olin’s Masha, one of the truly great screen performances, the height of Mazursky’s skill and feeling for the humor in tragedy and the tragedy in humor.”

“If there is such a thing as a marriage ‘contract,’ Mazursky’s films suggest it is one open to constant renegotiation—though it’s worth noting that Mazursky himself was married to his wife, Betsy, for more than 60 years.” Variety‘s Scott Foundas also notes that “like a lot of the ‘New Hollywood’ directors, Mazursky seemed influenced equally by classical American cinema and by the European ‘auteur’ films that began turning up in art houses and festivals in the early 1960s. He even cast Federico Fellini as himself in Alex in Wonderland (1970)… A decade later he paid homage to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim by transposing it to the West Village and calling it Willie and Phil (1980).”

Carrie Rickey: “Mazursky introduced the mainstream to the counterculture—and vice versa. Not only did he have a keen eye for generational fault lines but also a curator’s sense of the defining articles of pop culture of the moment…. For me, Harry and Tonto (1974), starring Art Carney as an aging father who loses his rent-controlled apartment in New York and travels with his marmalade cat across country to visit his grown-up children, is the most accomplished of Mazursky’s films, closely followed by Enemies: A Love Story.”

Filmmaker‘s posted the interview Stacie Passon conducted with Mazursky last year; and the Telegraph‘s pulled up a 2003 conversation John Whitley had with Mazursky about Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953).

Abraham Riesman hadn’t even heard of Mazursky when he was assigned to shoot footage of “the so-called Mazursky Table,” a regular meeting at “a Los Angeles market where a bunch of aging showbiz types hung out… For decades, Mazursky had convened this informal group, and they met up there most mornings for eating, drinking, and kvetching. While I watched and taped, they mocked each other, did impressions, swapped sex stories, argued about Obamacare, told dick jokes (lots and lots of dick jokes), and just generally had a good time on a gorgeous May morning.” Vulture‘s posted a couple of clips, too.

“The best of Mazursky’s later work was Winchell (1998) made for HBO television, starring Stanley Tucci as the columnist Walter Winchell,” writes Michael Carlson for the Guardian. “His final film, Yippee (2006), was a documentary chronicling the pilgrimage of 25,000 Hasidic Jews to the Ukrainian town where their sect’s founder is buried. Mazursky’s acting outside his own films included roles in A Star Is Born (1976), Carlito’s Way (1993) and Miami Rhapsody (1995). In recent years he appeared on television in the Sopranos, and had recurring roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Once and Again, which could be seen as a reworking of Mazursky’s 70s films for a new generation.”

At Film Comment, you’ll find Mazursky talking to Justin Stewart in 2012 about Fear and Desire, Terry Curtis Fox‘s 1978 interview and Roger Ebert‘s 1978 review of An Unmarried Woman.

Updates, 7/3:Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), Mazursky’s nostalgic valentine to theater aspiration and bohemian freedom, brims with affection for acting and actors, the intertwining of vanity and insecurity that twists nerves into knots, when every audition might be the Big Break or another stop on the road to rejection,” writes James Wolcott. “Such a cast: the improbably young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Greene, Antonio Fargas, Lois Smith, Lenny Baker as Mazursky’s autobiographical hero, and Shelley Winters as the Jewish mother of all Jewish mothers, not a suffocater and castrater like Alex Portnoy’s gorgon mom looming loudly outside the bathroom door, but a giant matzoh ball barreling down the track. Mazursky’s comedies were at their characteristic best when they remained rooted to the stage floor, allowing themselves lots of breathing space for improv, giving the actors elbow room to splay.”

And via Movie City News, Heeb presents a clip of “Mazursky and Leonard Nimoy cracking wise like a couple of Hebrew school delinquents, replete with ample ‘Uranus’ jokes. It is, like so much for Mazursky’s work, a genuine pleasure to watch.”

Updates, 7/8: At Movie City News, both Leonard Klady and David Poland recall the lively conversations at the The Table, and then Poland takes it further, to the hospital and the last days: “We talked about Cameron. The World Cup. The Yankees. How shitty the food was at the hospital. Others from The Table coming to see him…. I’ll be 50 later this year. I’m just at the beginning of this cycle of loss in my life. But here we are.”

Nelson Carvajal remembers Mazursky with a video essay (4’03”) at Press Play.

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