POSTED July 1 2014

Paul Mazursky, 1930 — 2014: Marriage was his motif

thPaul Mazursky made comedies about tragedies. Marriage was his motif, as Manhattan is Woody Allen’s.

From wedding vows to open marriage, infidelity to divorce, second thoughts to bigamy, Mazursky sampled the 31 Flavors of conjugal relations in films such as I Love You, Alicce B. Toklas, An Unmarried Woman, Blume in Love, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Enemies: A Love Story.

Surely his longtime troth to Betsy Purdy, his bohemian sweetheart, influenced the way he took human relations and transformed them into memorable stories. About 15 years ago when he was 69, radiating the Beverly Hills glow of suntan and success and resembling  more a Cherokee than a member of the Jewish tribe, Mazursky told me, “Betsy and I have had a great 22 years.” He added, “Of course, we’ve been married for 46.”

He did not ascend so much as zig-zag across the showbiz ladder. After he received his degree from Brooklyn College, aspiring comedian Mazursky detoured into acting — you can see him as an army grunt Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 Fear and Desire and as a juvenile delinquent in Richard Brooks’ 1955 Blackboard Jungle.  and became a comedy writer-for-hire. In 1963, he wrote for television’s The Danny Kaye Show.

“I became a comedian in self-defense because I wasn’t getting good parts,” Mazursky told me.  “Having done stand-up puts you in direct confrontation with the audience. It’s not intellectual, it’s visceral.” Such confrontations didn’t prepare him to direct movies, but they helped.

Though Mazursky worked with the likes of Robin Williams (Moscow on the Hudson), John Cassavetes (Tempest) and Bette Midler and Woody Allen (Scenes from a Mall), the only person he gossiped about was Kaye, whom he described as a name-dropper that could work Sandy Koufax and Princess Margaret into the same sentence.

About the only professional regret Mazursky confessed in his 1999 memoir, Show Me the Magic,  is that perhaps he and his partner Larry Tucker, who created the pilot for The Monkees, is that the creators did not enjoy the financial rewards that were rightly theirs.

“I came to Hollywood at a great time to be a director, because I started making movies when studio heads thought the director knew better than the mogul,” he told me.

With The Monkees and his early films Alice B. Toklas and Bob & Carol…, 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,  Mazursky’s comedies are time capsules, inventories of what upwardly mobile Americans wore and ate at a given moment (miniskirts and gazpacho in Bob & Carol, capes and quiche in Unmarried Woman, silk shirts and sushi in Down and Out). His best films, Harry and Tonto (1974), a geriatric King Lear, and Enemies: A Love Story, a Holocaust romance, are comedies about survival and survivors.

Of Mazursky’s most productive period in the 1970s, writer Elvis Mitchell noted that, “Often, the truest indicator of great pop culture is its timeliness. Some of it is so date sensitive that when you take it in years after its creation, you’re slightly embarrassed because the piece so acutely summed up its time that you see a reflection of yourself as you were when you first beheld it.”

More than any other American filmmaker of the ’70s and ’80s, Mazursky was a keen chronicler of cultural shifts, whether they were seismic – like the open marriages and open drug use in Bob & Carol – or subtle, like a bourgeois family’s acceptance of a homeless man and vice-versa in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

What connects the comedies with the comic tragedies is their characters’ ruefully funny — and immediate –recognition that they are in the process of reconciling who they were with who they are.

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, about a Jewish aristocrat who survives the Holocaust and arrives in America with two wives (the one he thought had died and the Gentile who saved him) and a mistress. But I also love Alice B. Toklas (1969) with Peter Sellers and Bob & Carol with Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon, Elliot Gould and Robert Culp, and the list is endless. I have a soft spot for Tempest (1983), which I believe is Molly Ringwald’s feature debut.

Whether marital or familial, Mazursky bridled at the ties that bind, as did his characters. (Has there ever been a mother/son relationship like that between the bohemian Lenny Baker and his bourgeois mother than Next Stop, Greenwich Village?) Ultimately, Mazursky and his characters were agnostic about the institutions of marriage and family, But they admitted that no one had invented anything better.

Your favorite Mazursky? Why?





  1. Gary Kramer says:

    HA! You failed to mention my favorite Mazursky, WILLIE AND PHIL, which was a loose update of JULES AND JIM. I had such affection for this film when it was out–a real ramshackle film about a trio of friends and lovers (played by Michael Ontkean, Margot Kidder and Ray Sharkey. The film is really lovely if you get into it’s bohemian groove. I enjoy how Mazursky treats his characters, given them time and space to evolve. This is what I’ll miss about his films.

  2. “Blume in Love.” I love all his movies but this one broke my heart. I can’t explain why, Carrie, but the merest thought of this movie makes me tear up.

  3. Joe says:

    Carrie! Fantastic tribute. Mazursky was a mensch among filmmakers. Largely because he had such transparent affection for his characters. He stood apart from Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Billy Wilder (all of whom I admire) because, unlike them, he exhibited no cynicism or contempt for his characters. -J

  4. Carrie, A great piece on Paul and all true. I worked on Willie and Phil and loved the guy.

  5. Carlye says:

    Wait. No “An Unmarried Woman”??

    • Carrie says:

      Carlye, he made so many great films it’s hard to choose just one or two. Jill Clayburgh dancing in her bedroom is one of the great moments of ’70s films.

  6. wwolfe says:

    My soft spot is for “Moon Over Parador,” in which Richard Dreyfuss realizes that his actor’s ego slots perfectly into the role of the tinpot dictator of the fictitious country of the movie’s title. He realizes it’s the greatest role he’ll ever have, but he’ll never be able to tell anyone about it.

    As an actor, I enjoyed Mazurskey as the suicidal director saved by Marsha Mason in “2 Day sin the Valley.”

    Thanks for the excellent appreciation, Carrie. I think Mazurskey was a little undervalued during his career and I hope his stock rises over time.

  7. In the past 30 days we lost two great performers, Paul and James, may God bless you both….

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