The prolific Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director whose films include Harry And Tonto, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Down And Out In Beverly Hills, died yesterday in Los Angeles of pulmonary cardiac arrest. Paul Mazursky was 84.
Born 1930 in Brooklyn as Irwin Mazursky, he was a graduate of Brooklyn College and made his cinema debut in Stanley Kubrick’s feature Fear And Desire. When he wasn’t acting, Mazursky was a stand-up comic in New York and at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. After befriending Pauls Sills and Barbara Harris, Marzursky appeared in the west coast company of Second City. Writing gigs followed on The Danny Kaye Show among many others, before he co-wrote the pilot for The Monkees TV series, in which he had a cameo. In 1968, Mazursky made his screenwriting debut with the Peter Sellers comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. The following year, he made his directorial debut with the breakout hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which he also co-wrote. The comedy, which follows the extramarital exploits of two jaded California couples and starred Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon and Robert Culp, earned four Oscar nominations: best original screenplay for Mazursky, supporting actor for Gould, supporting actress for Cannon, and best cinematography for DP Charles Lang. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice embraced the sexual revolution of the late ’60s and started a trend for films that dealt with spouse-swapping and infidelity in interpersonal relationships.
The film was bashed by then-New York Times critic Vincent Canby following its New York Film Festival premiere. This was despite the fact that the crowd was falling out of their seats and that Columbia Pictures executives were “carrying me out of the room on their shoulders” Mazursky said at the WGA Awards in Feburary, when he received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting. Following Canby’s review, Mazursky thought he was done, but it was the New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael who redeemed the film and assured the filmmaker that it would make a ton of money and that Canby was “a schmuck”.
Mazursky’s illustrious career included directing and writing such critically acclaimed films as Harry And Tonto (1974), which he received an original screenplay Oscar nom for and earned an Oscar best actor win for Art Carney.
Another film capturing the women’s lib vibe in its days was Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) which followed an Upper East Side Manhattanite dealing with life and sex after her husband of 16 years leaves her for a younger woman. The film played the Cannes Film Festival that year earning a best actress win for Jill Clayburgh. It would ultimately rack up Oscar nominations for best picture, original screenplay by Mazursky as well as a best actress nod for Clayburgh.
In a 1976 interview with the late film critic Roger Ebert, Mazursky commented on his penchant for relationship-driven dramedy, saying, “I don’t like movies that are morally simple…I don’t think I have it in me to make a movie in which all the situations and relationships are black and white. I get into the gray areas. One of my problems in seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that it wasn’t ambiguous – it was all black and white, the choices were all clear, the sides were chosen up…Even when I begin with a situation that’s basically funny or sad, I like to keep poking around in it. I like to get into the middle of a relationship, to explore the subtle places. I wonder if that’s hurt me at the box office. Maybe audiences these days want to know exactly what to expect when they go into a movie, and my movies are hard to explain in just one way. They’re…’bittersweet’ is a good word.””
But it was Mazursky’s 1986 comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label, which resurged the director’s commercial appeal as well as Richard Dreyfus and Bette Midler as marquee names, minting $62 million off a $14 million budget. The film followed a dysfunctional Beverly Hills couple (Dreyfus and Midler) who take in a local vagrant (Nick Nolte).
Mazursky also penned and directed Alex In Wonderland (1970), Blume In Love (1973), the autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), Willie & Phil (1980), Tempest (1982), Moscow On The Hudson (1984), Moon Over Parador (1988), Enemies, A Love Story (1989), and Scenes From A Mall (1991). He continued acting in numerous films, and most recently on television in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
DGA President Paris Barclay said in a statement: “A true raconteur, Paul brought humor and spirit to the many Guild meetings he attended during two decades of service to the DGA. He shared his provocative views of humanity in his many films, but what he shared with us were quick quips, thoughtful responses and pointed anecdotes always geared toward making us think and feel.”
Mazursky made a tradition of kibitzing with his Hollywood peers over breakfast at the L.A. Farmers Market on 3rd Street. Leaving Las Vegas filmmaker Michael Figgis tweeted today:
Mel Brooks, Mazursky’s cinematic peer, had this to say: