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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Films of Paul Mazursky

By Steven Rosen

Whenever the 1970s is mentioned as the last golden era of Hollywood filmmaking—which is often—the usual “easy riders, raging bulls” get named as its brilliant auteurist directors. Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Polanski, Malick, Spielberg, Lucas, etc.

Paul Mazursky rarely is listed in the first or even second tier of that decade’s great filmmaking talents. Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only gives him two short mentions. Yet has anyone else noticed how well his 1970s films have aged?

I’ve recently watched four Mazursky films from that decade (or just before it) that have been released in the past couple years on DVD -- 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (co-written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker), 1974’s Harry and Tonto (co-written by Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld), 1976’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village and 1978’s An Unmarried Woman (both written by Mazursky unassisted).

These DVDs have been issued with the director’s commentary and -- in Bob & Carol’s case -- a short interview with Mazursky filmed at Los Angeles’ Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Yet they’ve been put out with surprisingly little fanfare. No boxed sets or special editions. That’s a shame.

Mazursky was no film-school rebel when the 1970s started. Born in Brooklyn in 1930, he had already carved out a career as an actor (Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, 1953’s Fear and Desire, and 1955’s Blackboard Jungle), a stand-up comic, and a writer for television (The Monkees). He made worthwhile films throughout the 1980s, and remains active today, although his theatrical releases have since become few and far between.

Bob & Carol, Mazursky’s first directorial effort, observes with sometimes rowdy humor and compassion as two upper-middle-class California couples struggle with the new sexual freedom of the times. Harry and Tonto, his fourth film, is a gentle look at a lonely New York widower who takes a road trip across a changing America with his closest friend, his pet cat. (In between came Alex in Wonderland and Blume in Love.)

The autobiographical Greenwich Village, Mazursky’s follow-up to Harry and Tonto, provides a loving yet clear-headed evocation of the confusing bohemian outpost that the Village was in the early 1950s, when Mazursky was a young method actor.

His next film, An Unmarried Woman, set in the Woody Allen-ish world of sophisticated contemporary New Yorkers, combines wrenching drama, subtle comedy and tender romance as it follows a woman’s self-discovery after her marriage falls apart. It’s hard to imagine Sex and the City without this having occurred first, particularly in its use of a Greek chorus of female friends to comment on their times.

Overall, these four films’ subject matter remains prescient, their visual style enduringly naturalistic with touches of the poetic, their characters real, and their dialogue precise—funny conversations and eloquent monologues that give shape to vignettes with long-lasting, cumulative power.

And the acting is across-the-board superlative -- Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould received Oscar nominations for their supporting work (as Ted and Alice) in Bob & Carol; Art Carney won as Best Actor for Harry and Tonto; Jill Clayburgh was nominated for Best Actress for her egoless, defiantly vulnerable turn in An Unmarried Woman. (Mazursky himself received Best Original Screenplay nominations for Bob & Carol, Harry and Tonto and An Unmarried Woman.)

Greenwich Village’s wonderful young cast -- Lenny Baker, Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Dori Brenner, Lois Smith, Antonio Fargas -- works together with the kind of ease that makes acting seem as seamless as a beautifully tailored suit. And Shelley Winters simply transcends acting -- she’s her own Big Bang theory as the anxious Brooklyn Jewish mother afraid to let her son (Baker) leave home for the Village of the 1950s.

All the films have satiric elements as well as delicate melancholy. And Mazursky is capable of writing frank, confessional sexual dialogue -- especially between his female characters and their therapists. Both Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman have remarkable discussions of abortion, considering how skittish Hollywood is of that topic today. He also has a flair for sexy bedroom farce, such as the give-and-take between a horny Gould and reluctant Cannon in Bob & Carol.

Then there is a weird sentimental streak that manifests itself in unusual ways, as in that film’s closing scene in which ambling strangers face each other, looking for a connection. Overall, these films are part of their time -- the post-1960s, Watergate-era age of disaffection -- but they avoid the youth-culture solipsism and genre deconstruction of too many films of the same era.

That may have worked to his disadvantage. The films of the period most rhapsodized about today are more macho and violent, sometimes nihilistically so, and feature New Hollywood’s superstar actors -- De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Beatty, Keitel, Jeff Bridges.

Ironically, a film from the 1970s that plays like a Mazursky movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is probably better remembered than any of his precisely because its director, Martin Scorsese, also made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

By comparison, Mazursky was a contrarian. He was comfortable with Old Hollywood -- his first film, Bob & Carol, featured the glamorous Natalie Wood and TV’s Robert Culp. He was sensitive to the elderly, especially in Harry & Tonto -- not always a fast ticket to hipness in the 1970s or now.

And not only was his eye and ear for his women characters feminist, but he often tried to blunt the toughness of his men. One of the most striking and shocking scenes in his movies comes in An Unmarried Woman when Clayburgh’s husband, played by Michael Murphy, announces he’s leaving. He cries like a child.

More than anything else, these four Mazursky films are humane. That’s a rare quality and it will keep them fresh for decades to come.

(This originally ran in Landmark Theatres' FLM Magazine in 2006.)

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