Paul Mazursky (1930-2014): His Cinema and My Interview

Posted by By at 12 July, at 14 : 53 PM Print

Paul Mazursky (1930-2014): His Cinema and My Interview

Paul Mazursky, the talented, versatile American actor, writer, director and producer (and avowed atheist) died on Monday June 30 in Los Angeles. He was 84 years old.

Mazursky was born into a working class family in Brooklyn, New York. He began acting in his college years. His two most important early experiences were in Stanley Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (1953), and the Glenn-Ford-as-hero-teacher classic The Blackboard Jungle (1955). He continued acting throughout the rest of his life in both film and television.

His first screenplay with written with Larry Tucker for the film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). Mazursky had originally hoped to make it his directorial debut as well, but notoriously difficult star Peter Sellers did not want to work with a first-timer, and so veteran TV director Hy Averback, who had recently begun making films, took the wheel.

As a result, Mazursky’s debut as a director didn’t come until the following year, but it was a memorable one. That film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, was a comedy reflecting the sexual freedom of the late ‘60s, and the combination of daring subject matter and box office success made Mazursky’s name overnight.

Consequently, he wrote and directed Blume in Love (1973) and Harry and Tonto (1974) back to back. Both were thoughtful, comedic ruminations on their subjects – love and aging, respectively – and both also proved critically and commercially successful.

His most successful and arguably best film followed. An Unmarried Woman (1977) was about the title character, played by Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010), after her husband of sixteen years leaves her for a younger woman, attempting to understand her new life and eventually taking up with an artist played by Alan Bates. The film received three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. Clayburgh lost out to Jane Fonda in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, but made up for it at Cannes, being awarded Best Actress at that festival.

Mazursky, along with such filmmakers as Ashby, and Arthur Penn was amongst the senior members of that group that would come to be thought of as the “New Hollywood”. Like many of them, he was greatly influenced by classic European filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman, often paying homage to them in his own work, including two outright adaptations for American audiences, Willie and Phil (1980) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) (taken from, respectively, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning).

But as the work of the “New Hollywood”, particularly that of the younger, film school whiz kid crowd embodied by the likes of Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and Scorsese, began to move into the era of the blockbuster, Mazursky continued to prefer quieter, more personal and cerebral projects, always working with lower budgets (Harry and Tonto was made for just under a million dollars, a low figure even at that time). He was a director of bitter romances and poetic comedies, with themes revolving around contemporary family life and its changing values in America. He wrote about love, divorce, aging, sexual relationships, loneliness, family relationships, and middle class crises, masterfully melding drama with satire. He didn’t care about creating his own visual style but rather used his intelligent writing to create a kind of social realism that would allow the audience to cry or laugh, not infrequently both in the same film. His work was original and intellectual, and often semiautobiographical. His scripts were inherently literate, providing golden opportunities for some incredibly deep-felt acting performances, and he was ultimately honored with four Academy Award nominations for Best Screenplay, including the one for Best Picture nominee An Unmarried Woman. I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the last moments of the film when Alan Bates’ painting is being carried out of the apartment, the beautiful music by Bill Conti swelled throughout the theater and the audience rose to their feet in loud inspired applause.

I conducted an extensive interview with Paul Mazursky in his office in New York just before his departure for the Cannes Film Festival in May 1977. You can read it in This Side of the Mind & the Other Side of the Pupil, a collection of my interviews with important cinematic figures that was collected by Parviz Jahed and published by Nila in Tehran in 1999.



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