Sunday, July 6, 2014

The closer to home, the better: Deceased Artiste Paul Mazursky

For more than a decade, Paul Mazursky carved out his own turf in American movies, making smart, funny character studies that reflected both his NYC upbringing and his very L.A. lifestyle. Like a lot of the filmmakers working in the sublime “maverick” period in Hollywood (which ran roughly from 1968-'76), his later work wasn't as interesting as his first films (Altman was one of the few who avoided that fate), but when he was at his best, he captured a moment in time and exhibited a fine eye for human behavior.

He moved into the role of filmmaker from being an actor, a standup performer, and a comedy writer. As a comedy writer his best-remembered items were the pilot for The Monkees and the Peter Sellers Jewish-schlemiel-turns-hippie comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), both written with Larry Tucker (the impressively large gent from Blast of Silence and Shock Corridor).
As an actor his most notable early credits were the starring role in Fear and Desire (1953), the debut feature by Stanley Kubrick (which the filmmaker hated, but which is beautifully made), and The Blackboard Jungle.

Mazursky's debut as a writer-director was the “daring” (for its time) Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969). The film is notable for being both very honest (about the liberation, and the silliness, involved in the therapies and sexual freedom of the era) and for featuring mainstream Hollywood stars (the star of I Spy, the girl from Splendor in the Grass!) playing in a “sexy drama.”

The last scenes are indeed unforgettable – the one in which the couples cannot consummate their swapping because they find it funny is timeless; the very end in which all the characters in the film (including Larry Tucker) walk around a Vegas parking lot “experiencing” each other while “What the World Needs Now Is Love” plays is so Sixties it's beyond belief. The beauty of it all? That it's not being done ironically:

Bob and Carol... was a massive hit, so what is a filmmaker to do after a massive hit? Well, why not mimic Fellini and make a film about a filmmaker with writer's block? Mazursky, however, trumped all the other 8 1/2 imitators by actually getting Fellini to make a small appearance in his his imitation. 

Alex in Wonderland (1970) is very much of its time, but that time was so rich with imagination and plain old weirdness on-camera (funded by major studios!) that the “maverick” films remain more energetic and interesting than many of the independent features of today:

Presumably Mazursky realized after making Alex that he wasn't much of a diehard hippie filmmaker (for one thing, he was too old), and so he returned to chronicling American relationships after a three-year layoff. In Blume in Love (1973), he cast George Segal as a man who still longs for his ex (Susan Anspach), even after she has taken up with a hunkier younger man (Kris Kristofferson):

Still in his “golden period,” Mazursky then made Harry and Tonto (1974), a sweet, sentimental film about an old NYer (Art Carney) taking a road trip with his cat. I will confess that, of all of PM's early films, I saw this one the least, since it didn't “grab” me as much as his other films did when I was a precocious teen cinephile. It's time to rewatch it to see how I relate it as a mid-lifer.
Carney won an Oscar for the film. It was richly deserved, as he does give a terrific performance, but it has often been mentioned that that particular year (1975) the Best Actor award was a deadlock, since the performances in that category were so powerful, and the other nominees were some of the most intense actors working in film.

Thus, it was said, Carney won because the voters couldn't make up their mind between the other nominees – how do you choose between Pacino in Godfather Part II, Nicholson in Chinatown, Hoffman in Lenny, and Finney in Murder on the Orient Express? You give it to the TV comedian who proved once and for all he was a very talented dramatic actor as well.

Mazursky next reflected back on his youth with the wonderful character comedy Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), my favorite of all of his films. The late Lenny Baker stars as the young Mazursky and Shelley Winters steals the show as his embarrassing mega-Jewish mother. His boho friends are played by a wonderful ensemble of actors: Ellen Greene, Dori Brenner, Antonio Fargas, and a scarily young and pretty Chris Walken.

As a wonderfully romanticized portrait of the allure of Greenwich Village, Next Stop proved to be one of Mazursky's most deeply felt and best films. Sure, the real events were probably nowhere near as blissfully colorful as his filmed version of them, but that is what good cinema does (and I'm sure he was thinking of Fellini's self-portraits while making his own):

By 1978, Mazursky definitely had an identifiable style. His second-best NYC film (after Next Stop), An Unmarried Woman, appeared in that year. The script was excellent, the performances very strong, and the film tapped into the mood of the times. Jill Clayburgh had her best starrring role in the film, and it became the high-water mark of her career.

I also really enjoyed Mazursky's homage/update of Truffaut's Jules et Jim, the “bi-coastal” comedy Willie and Phil (1980). It's a film about film fans (not film geeks – that concept was to emerge later on) and, again, featured a charming trio of actors in the leads (Michael Ontkean, Ray Sharkey, and Margot Kidder).

The film was basically a flop, but I've seen it a few times over the years and while it rises and falls on a scene-by-scene basis, when it works, it's a very endearing picture. The trailer isn't online, but the final scene is, because it features the group of Rocky Horror Picture Show fans, who were included to represent the “current-day film cultists” who make Willie and Phil feel old. NYers will notice that they are seen waiting to get into the Bleecker St. Cinema, even though RHPS played at the Eighth Street Playhouse during that period.

For his next feature, Mazursky made another homage – this time to both Shakespeare and John Cassavetes. Like Elaine May with Mikey and Nicky, it seemed that he cast Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in his film Tempest (1982), so he could pay tribute to John's “personal cinema.” The film is uneven, but again has its charming moments, thanks to a top-notch cast, which also includes Susan Sarandon, Raul Julia, and Molly Ringwald.

After Tempest, Mazursky's output became spotty – good scenes, great casts, but films that were nowhere as rewatchable as his first seven. His 1993 The Pickle, yet another variation on 8 1/2, is barely watchable (I'm being kind). Moscow on the Hudson and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (his Eighties American riff on Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning) did well at the box office, as did Scenes from a Mall (even though it was loathed by the critics).

It's always hard to figure out where an artist goes astray, but I think in the case of Mazursky, his career was somewhat equivalent to Neil Simon's, in that his strength came from being a NYer who had East Coast sensibilities. Even his best L.A. films, Bob and Carol... and Blume in Love, both have “New York Jewish” actors in lead roles (Elliott Gould and George Segal).

Sure, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Scenes from a Mall both starred Bette Midler (the former with Richard Dreyfuss and the latter with Woody Allen – how much more N.Y. Jewish can ya get?), but the Eighties and Nineties were different periods, and Mazursky's strengths – depicting neurotic characters in and out of love (and therapy) – didn't register in his later films.When his fortunes as a filmmaker started to flag, he directed a few films for cable networks, but also returned to acting. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that he was like Sydney Pollack – who was clearly at points a much, *much* better actor than he was a director – but Mazursky clearly was comfortable as a performer and was very funny in the supporting comedy roles he had in the movies and on TV in his later life.

Doing research for this piece I discovered that Mazursky was shooting a series of video interviews with his friends for what looks to have been a video “podcast” on the Net (a la Kevin Pollack, Norm MacDonald, etc etc etc); the show was to be called “It's All Crap.” He doesn't appear to be in good health in these clips, but has a helluva time with his old friend Mel Brooks here and here:

Mazursky's work has a special place in my film-fan development, as he was the subject of the first retrospective that I attended on a regular basis. When Willie and Phil was released in 1980, the Cinema Studio in Manhattan screened his preceding half-dozen films, none of which I'd seen unedited at that point.

I was working at a temp job at the time at the Con Ed power plant in Astoria, a young teen (they'd employ anybody at any age in those days!). I made sure to exit the job at the right time, ankle it to the N train and get to the Cinema Studio before they changed the prices at 6:00. As a result, before I attended the career-retros of the giants like Fellini, Godard, and Bunuel that blew me away in H.S., I saw Mazursky's pics in chronological order and came to love his characters and their filmic fascinations.

To close out this piece, I want to spotlight Mazursky's last great film, the brilliant Enemies a Love Story (1989), based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Here he tackled big themes – immigrants in America, the holocaust, the “battle between the sexes” – but, as always, did it on a small, human scale.

The thing about the film that I cherish is the fact that Mazursky emphasizes the scheme set up by Singer whereby our hero has three women in his life, each of whom embodies one of the aspects that we all look to find in a mate. Margaret Sophie Stein plays the homemaker aspect, Lena Olin plays the sexy lover, and Anjelica Huston plays the best friend.

It's one of the most incisive views of relationships I've seen, because it Mazursky and Singer focus on the way that our antihero (Ron Silver) behaves very differently with each of the women. It definitely ranks with the best of Mazursky's work and showed that he wasn't adrift after the Seventies ended, he just needed to adapt the right material.

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