Mazursky and Marriage


‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’

Paul Mazursky captured such a fractured moment. His 1969 feature debut, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, giggled at both partner swapping and matrimony. If humans have been promiscuously spilling our seed for centuries, where did this “’til death do us part” stuff come from? If the norm didn’t seem so constricting we mightn’t even ask. Marriage is a dreamy notion—especially in movies—until it isn’t, and then divorce starts to look like deliverance. Surveyed here, in honor of Paul Mazursky’s passing, a few films that take on the institutions of marriage and divorce.


‘Marriage Italian Style’

A supposed comedy about a carnal man (Marcello Mastroianni) shackled to a loyal and petulant woman (Sophia Loren),  Vittorio de Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (which earned Best Foreign Film and Best Actress noms at the Oscars) can’t take seriously the damage Domenico’s (Mastroianni) incessant lechery inflicts upon their union. Predating Bob and Carol by five years and 5,000 miles—Marriage Italian Style laughs off cruelty in a gesture not unlike the Divine Comedy—a story that also took place in Hell.


‘Two for the Road’

Divorce American Style and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road came out the same year (1967) and both made longterm relationships look impossible—if you’re in the upper middle class, that is. The films didn’t tangle with adultery so much as demonstrate love had a shelf life—with an expiration date invisible to the couple but blinding to the world at large. Playing around, the films suggested, somehow prolonged said shelf life, but the risk could be caustic. The tagline for Divorce American Style was “Is Marriage Dead?” As that question had been regularly posited with the word “marriage” swapped for “Art” or “God” it leads a mind to think on the social weight of the institution—is it really as big as God…or the Beatles? Somewhere in the hardship of keeping alive the dream (or just keeping holy the union) cynicism takes root.


‘The Happy Ending’

Richard Brooks, a Mazursky contemporary, is cinema’s cynical sledgehammer. His film, The Happy Ending, came out the same year as Mazursky’s ode to swinging America (1969 mustabeen quite a year), but it can’t muster a giggle, and really would be cruel to try. A redemption meant to break your heart, Happy Ending watches a “middle-aged” Jean Simmons crawl out of a marriage so dignity draining she spent it mostly medicated. The passages describing nameless but desperate marrieds clamoring to the salon for useless beautification are horrifying. Lip waxing could be funny (it was in Steel Magnolias) but when it’s the only thing keeping a woman’s obviously unfaithful husband at home a little lip-hair amounts to tragedy.   It’s really worth noting that while these hard-hitting dramas were earning their Oscar noms, slap and tickle movies were plentiful and popular. It’s perhaps a statement about the era that audiences, from highfalutin’ to hoi polloi, had their pick of ways to take their extra-marital fantasies out for a safe spin. The “end” of traditional marriage didn’t have to be tragic—especially if Henpecked Harry was just hungry for an eyeful. And anyway, why be coy? Adultery is as old as prostitution.


‘The Other Woman’

Movies like The Other Woman liked to model their comic crimes of the heart around conniving beauties; Eve, these stories suggest, is alive, well—and horny. The narrator of The Other Woman refers to luring ladies as “villainnesses of the peace.” Henpecked Harry’s wife (who had her own militant theme music) is too scary to screw anymore and what Harry ever saw in her is a distant memory. But with streets full of “model girlfriends” he’s always a stone’s throw from part-time lovin’ and the shame of “paying for it” is no deterrent.


‘Au Pair Girls’

Au Pair Girls follows in this tradition by lampooning the apparently perennial desire husbands have for the foreign girls playing mommy to their kids.


‘An Unmarried Woman’

Not ten years after Paul Mazursky made light of wife swapping, he made An Unmarried Woman, a more sensitive answer to the question cast off so callously before: Is Marriage Dead? Erica (Jill Clayburgh) doesn’t think so—even if she realizes her happy marriage is an anomaly. So when her husband reveals he’s been in love with another woman for over a year she does what any woman would: has a good old-fashioned identity crisis. That divorce kickstarts the independence she never got to exercise before, and happiness isn’t a gauzy continuous glow, it’s a perpetual motion machine you have to grab at each moment. Clayburgh is great. She’s strikingly pretty, interestingly fleshy and oddly non-iconic. She feels like the girl next door in part because she looks like you could reach out and touch her; but she never feels like a movie star and their New York never feels like a movie set. So when her girlfriends lounge on a bed talking about the women who used to occupy the silver screen (Hepburn, Garbo), they say Fonda and Redgrave don’t stack up, and neither do they. These women star in a tragedy you’re not meant to look on with dignified remove; their sexual indiscretions are costly and their years are visible via high grain film and minimal concealer. Nothing is dead, everything is startlingly alive, and we usually don’t know what to do with it. Paul Mazursky seemed to know—he was quick enough to grab that perpetual motion machine—and he’ll be missed.

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