R.I.P. Paul Mazursky

Paul Mazursky has died at the age of 84. Mazursky started out as an actor, making his screen debut in Stanly Kubrick’s shoestring first feature, Fear And Desire (1953), while still a student at Brooklyn College. He eventually branched into screenwriting, but after seeing what happened to his first produced script, he decided to become a director himself. He made 14 films as writer-director, while continuing to act in his own films and those by other filmmakers.

In his memoir, Show Me The Magic, Mazursky recalled his first taste of filmmaking, watching Kubrick pulling his vision together with a skeleton crew (including his then-wife Toba, who served as script supervisor), using a baby carriage as a camera dolly, and periodically leaving the set to go demand more money from his “Uncle Martin,” a wealthy drugstore-chain owner who was funding the production. “To me,” Mazursky wrote, “there was never a question that Stanley was already master of his universe.”

Two years later, Mazursky got his first job on a big Hollywood movie, playing a member of Vic Morrow’s posse of juvenile delinquents in Blackboard Jungle (1955). The role led to small acting jobs on such TV series as The Untouchables, The Real McCoys, The Twilight Zone, and several ‘50s TV drama anthologies. In 1966, he reunited with Vic Morrow, who directed him in a film adaptation of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch.

In 1962, Mazursky and Larry Tucker, a heavyset writer-comedian, began performing improvisational revues in Los Angeles that were modeled after Chicago’s Second City—but in Mazursky’s words, “a bit less cerebral… We wanted more laughs.” Their stage show led to writing for Danny Kaye’s TV show, and Mazursky found that “somehow I’d made the transition from being a mostly out-of-work actor to a hot comedy writer.” Mazursky and Tucker helped develop the TV series The Monkees, writing the script for the pilot episode and appearing together in its opening scene.

In 1968, Mazursky and Tucker wrote I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, a comedy starring Peter Sellers as a Los Angeles lawyer who falls in love with a hippie and abandons his conventional lifestyle to explore the counterculture.  Mazursky (who had hoped to direct) and Tucker were trying to bring the rhythms of improv revue performers to the screen, but were disappointed by the work of director Hy Averback and the behavior of Sellers, who Mazursky described in his memoir as being on an out-of-control star trip. Mazursky resolved to direct his next script, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, himself.

Another satire of upper-middle-class Los Angeles straights trying to expand their consciousness and go with the ‘60s flow, Bob & Carol… was a huge hit and helped make stars of Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. The film was such a crowd-pleaser that some critics, including Pauline Kael and David Thomson, worried that its best qualities—and Mazursky’s best qualities as a filmmaker—might not be fully appreciated. “Now that its first gloss has passed,” Thomson wrote years later in his Biographical Dictionary Of Film, “it should be easier to see that it is a serious comedy where we laugh on behalf of the characters.”

Mazursky and Tucker followed it up with Alex In Wonderland (1970), starring Donald Sutherland as the director of a hit movie who has no idea how to follow it up. Alex In Wonderland failed both commercially and critically, though Mazursky’s own cameo as a studio executive who offers the hot new director a succession of bonehead projects was widely praised. The film marked the end of Mazurksy’s writing partnership with Larry Tucker.

In 1973, Mazursky wrote and directed Blume In Love, a rich, emotionally barbed comedy starring George Segal as a man trying to win back his ex-wife. He also directed and co-wrote (with Josh Greenfield) 1974’s Harry & Tonto, a road movie that won its star, Art Carney, the Academy Award for Best Actor.

In 1976, Mazursky wrote and directed an autobiographical comedy, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, starring the stage actor Lenny Baker as a young man from Brooklyn studying to be an actor in the 1950s. The ensemble cast included Ellen Greene and the young Christopher Walken.

In 1978, Mazursky had one of his biggest hits with An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh as a New Yorker in her 30s who has to remake her life when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. The film seemed to reflect the experiences and feelings of a great many people in the late ’70s, and became a much written-about zeitgeist hit.

Its success also seemed to unleash previously unrevealed depths of cultural aspiration in Mazursky, and he followed it up with Willie & Phil (1980), a feature-length homage to Francois Truffaut’s Jules And Jim; and Tempest (1982), a modern fantasy loosely inspired by the Shakespeare play. Neither did well with critics or with audiences, but he righted himself in the mid-’80s with Moscow On The Hudson (1984), starring Robin Williams as a Russian musician who defects to Bloomingdale’s; and Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986), a high-spirited burlesque of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning. As David Thomson wrote of Beverly Hills—as well as 1988’s Moon Over Parador, starring Richard Dreyfuss as an actor who impersonates a dead Latin American dictator—they “ are coarse-grained, unashamed entertainments, and both very funny.”

In 1989, Mazursky directed arguably his finest film, an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Enemies, A Love Story with Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston, and Lena Olin. Mazursky and his co-writer, Roger L. Simon shared an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Enemies would be Mazursky’s last success as a filmmaker. Neither Scenes From A Mall (1990), starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler, nor The Pickle (1993) won praise or lasted long in theaters. The Pickle, the last film Mazursky wrote, may be most noteworthy for what it revealed about the director’s feelings on the state of the movie industry. It stars Danny Aiello as a famous moviemaker who, unable to get funding for worthwhile projects, agrees to direct a hopeless science-fiction script for the money.

Mazursky also directed Faithful (1996), from Chazz Palminteri’s adaptation of his own play, and the TV films Winchell (1998) and Coast To Coast (2003). But he seemed to have a much better time acting than working on these latter-day projects. Besides taking small roles in many of his own movies, Mazursky appeared in Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side Of The Wind; as a music industry executive in the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson A Star Is Born (1976); in the heist movie A Man, A Woman, And A Bank (1976); as a Roman officer in Mel Brooks’ History Of The World—Part One (1981); as a ghost in Paul Bartel’s Scenes from The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills (1989); as a pissed-off judge in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993); as a suicidal, washed-up director in 2 Days in The Valley (1996); and as the infamous, predatory music hustler Morris Levy in Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1998), among many others. His credits also included recurring roles on the TV series Once And Again, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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