Home Style Mazursky, Director Who Captured a Changing America, Dies at 84

Mazursky, Director Who Captured a Changing America, Dies at 84


Paul Mazursky, an innovative director and screenwriter who both satirized and sympathized with America’s panorama of social upheavals in the late 1960s and ’70s in films that included “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Blume in Love” and “An Unmarried Woman,” died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 84.

A family spokeswoman, Nancy Willen, said he died of pulmonary cardiac arrest at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Mr. Mazursky lived in Beverly Hills.

As the nation’s counterculture revolution shattered traditional norms of sex, marriage and conformity, Mr. Mazursky made his most popular and commercially successful films: lighthearted sendups of wife-swapping, yoga classes, group therapy, pot-smoking, midlife crises and other self-absorbed, middle-class indulgences that reviewers said he crafted with even-handedness and generosity.

Some critics complained that his satire wasn’t cutting enough. Others called his comedies crisp at a time when behavior was at its fuzziest. Vincent Canby, in a 1976 analysis in The New York Times, acknowledged: “Mazursky is a tough man to handle critically. He is alternately witty and brilliantly sarcastic, then suddenly, soddenly sincere and self-centered, only to explode unexpectedly as a first-rate social satirist.”

Indeed, comic ambiguity, blending satire and social observation, was Mr. Mazursky’s stock in trade.

In his most vivid illustration of the technique, he explored the pain and dislocation of divorce, and its liberating effects, in “An Unmarried Woman,” released in 1978 and quickly embraced by the women’s movement. His screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, while the film itself was nominated for a best picture Oscar and Jill Clayburgh for best actress.

In the film Ms. Clayburgh, who died in 2010, plays a wealthy, happily married mother in Manhattan whose stockbroker husband of 16 years announces tearfully that he is leaving her for a younger woman he had met at Bloomingdale’s. Dumbfounded, she stalks away and retches in a trash bin. Rage and sorrow ensue. But new freedoms — a resurgent self-esteem, another man in her life, the power to make her own decisions — bring fresh perspectives on sex, independence and her identity as a woman.

Mr. Mazursky told Sam Wasson, the author of “Paul on Mazursky” (2011), that his films were shaped less by broad cultural trends than by what he saw around him.

“When I wrote ‘An Unmarried Woman’ I was aware of the women’s movement, which was happening then,” he said. “But it was happening to me! I wrote it not because it was happening in America, but because I’d seen divorce happening around me.”

Mr. Mazursky made his directing debut in 1969 with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” which skewered wife-swapping, encounter groups and Esalen, the California counterculture mecca. The four swap partners explore their feelings and wind up in a crowded bed together without actually having sex but looking quizzical and a bit guilty — an image that seemed to sum up middle-class doubts over America’s wrenching societal changes.

“ ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ isn’t really about wife swapping at all,” the critic Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, “but about the epidemic of moral earnestness that’s sweeping our society right now. For some curious reason we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.”

In “Blume in Love” (1973), Mr. Mazursky examined a man (portrayed by George Segal) who flippantly divorces his wife (Susan Anspach), then realizes that he still loves her and uses desperate, even violent means to win her back. The marriage is renewed against the splendors of Venice, but it is hardly a happy ending. The couple’s privileged world of psychiatry, money and marijuana remains flawed by the fundamental emptiness of their lives.

In “Harry and Tonto” (1974), which he wrote with Josh Greenfeld, Mr. Mazursky found subtle humor in the hardships of aging. In the film, Art Carney plays a crotchety old man who, with his cat, Tonto, travels across an America populated by misfits, including his own children. Mr. Carney won the Academy Award as best actor for his performance.

Some critics likened Mr. Mazursky to European directors like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir and François Truffaut for his ability to bring out the interior lives of his characters. Paying homage, Mr. Mazursky cast Fellini in a cameo in “Alex in Wonderland” (1970), a distinctly Felliniesque autobiographical film about a director (Donald Sutherland) who sinks into despair after a successful first film. And he incorporated scenes from Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” in his 1980 film, “Willie & Phil” — which, like the Truffaut film, told the story of two friends in love with the same woman.

Mr. Mazursky was a show-business rarity, almost never out of work in a run of six decades that began as a stage and screen actor in the early 1950s and was still adding credits at the time of his death. He appeared in some 90 Hollywood films and television productions; wrote comedies and dramas for television, and, starting in the late 1960s, directed, produced and wrote screenplays for a score of films and documentaries.

For all that, there was an ageless quality about him. Associates said he had boundless energy, the rapid patter of a stand-up comic and an actor’s gift for memory. With his long hair tied back, his hawkish nose and his solemn eyes, he looked a bit like the American Indian in the well-known public service commercial who sheds a tear for a profligate nation.

Some of his later films were his most ambitious, notably a 1989 adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1972 novel, “Enemies, a Love Story,” which he wrote with Roger L. Simon. That film examines the hopes, foibles and fatalisms of Holocaust survivors in New York, centering on a Jewish man (Ron Silver) who shares one apartment with his wife and another with a mistress while maintaining a vexing third relationship with a former wife. When she turns up, the film becomes a triple-romance comedy of high anxiety against a backdrop of painful memories.

“Like the best of Mr. Mazursky’s work, it presents a very full spectrum of complicated and sometimes darkly funny emotions,” Janet Maslin wrote in The Times. “Although the shadow of the Holocaust extends to cover everyone in the story, none of the characters are in any way typical; each has a psychic makeup that is idiosyncratic and distinct. In a story with so much potential for sentimentality and broad bedroom farce, it is surprising that there is none of either.”
Irwin Mazursky was born in Brooklyn on April 25, 1930, to David Mazursky and the former Jean Gerson. His father was a laborer, and his mother played the piano for dance classes.

Although he became an atheist, Mr. Mazursky grew up with Jewish traditions. He was also devoted to his Russian-born maternal grandfather, who read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov in the back of his candy store.

Mr. Mazursky graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn in 1947, hoping to become an actor. At Brooklyn College, he appeared in student productions and an Off Broadway play, and in his senior year he took a month off to make his film debut in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, “Fear and Desire,” about soldiers behind enemy lines. He changed his first name to Paul and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1951.

In 1953 he married Betsy Purdy. The couple had two daughters, Meg and Jill. His wife and his daughter Jill Mazursky survive him, as do four grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Mr. Mazursky appeared in the 1955 social-commentary film “The Blackboard Jungle,” a drama about an urban high school starring Glenn Ford, and for years he worked as a comedian in nightclubs and played small roles on television. His first screenplay to be produced — written with his frequent collaborator Larry Tucker — was “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” (1968), considered Hollywood’s first sendup of hippie culture, starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hy Averback.

Mr. Mazursky never won an Oscar, but was nominated five times. In addition to “An Unmarried Woman,” he received best screenplay nominations for “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Harry and Tonto” and “Enemies, a Love Story.”

Among his other films were the autobiographical “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976); the comedy “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984), about a Russian musician (Robin Williams) who defects; “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986), about a vagrant (Nick Nolte) who insinuates himself into the home of a well-to-do couple (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss); and “Scenes From a Mall” (1991), about the disintegrating marriage of a couple played by Woody Allen and Ms. Midler.

Mr. Mazursky directed only sporadically after the early 1990s, but continued to work as an actor, notably on several episodes of Larry David’s HBO comedy series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” His memoir, “Show Me the Magic,” was published in 1999.

The film critic Richard Corliss wrote in New Times in 1978 that Mr. Mazursky had “created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.”

He was, Mr. Corliss said, “likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the ’70s. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations.” (New York Times)

Previous articleEdo threatens to punish errant traffic officers
Next articleBayelsa to gather world business leaders at maiden Investment Forum

Leave a Reply