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Paul Mazursky: 1930-2014

Because he was an actor first if not foremost (he has 76 credits as an actor on IMDb but only 19 directorial credits), Paul Mazursky’s own movies as a director live and breathe and bloom with the air and abandon of human behavior in all its contradiction and all its starry glory. Think of his movies and you immediately think of the people in them and the actors who played them. Mazursky knew how to play to his performer’s strengths, so that Natalie Wood is not outmatched by the more comedically expert Dyan Cannon in his first film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) but brought gently into the fold of the movie’s jokes and warmth and sexual glow.

“Bob & Carol” is a sex comedy that is actually sexy and actually funny and also tenderly sad, underneath. Remember Cannon’s hilarious scenes with her therapist in that movie, and then remember the far more sincere and exploratory therapy scenes that Erica (Jill Clayburgh) has in “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), where she goes all-out with her feelings and Clayburgh herself doesn’t care how she might look or how she might be coming across. Clayburgh’s Erica is one of the signal triumphs of Mazursky’s career as a sharp and discerning director of actors. She is funny and flaky, irritable and sometimes irritating, good-hearted, selfish, petty, and aware that time is passing by, but determined to stay true to herself and whatever dreams she might still have.

“An Unmarried Woman” is a feminist movie, one of the very few made by a male director in this period. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974), this is not a film that ends with the liberated heroine finally deciding to settle down with a man. Yes, Alan Bates’s painter Saul is an attractive and talented guy and a giving lover and much else besides. But Erica cannot stay with him. Why? Because when they are walking in Washington Square Park together, Saul casually mentions that he would “allow” Erica to work. This is a red flag for a woman who has managed to pull herself out of a long marriage where she was in essence sleepwalking and letting herself be supposedly cherished and cared for. How does Mazursky choose to end his movie? Not with Erica trying to tame Saul and settle down, which would be the result in most movies and which would even be the result for a lot of women in life. She breaks up with Saul and he gives her one of his Big Male Paintings as a parting gift and she is left to find out a way to struggle down the street with it, the ideal visual metaphor for her situation in life.

Do you remember Bill Conti’s score for “An Unmarried Woman” and the way that it swells as Erica tries to walk down the street with that painting? Or the way it swells when Mazursky films Erica ice-skating? “An Unmarried Woman” is a film devoted to both a character (Erica) and an actress (Clayburgh), and it sees the difference between them (because Mazursky takes the separation of actor and role very seriously), but it lets each of them blossom in their own way. The same could be said for George Segal’s Stephen Blume in “Blume in Love” (1973), who is in some ways like a male version of Erica, and an apotheosis for Segal. Blume has many fine qualities, as Erica does, but he is capable of far worse things than she is because as a male he has more power in society, physical and otherwise. Mazursky does not step away from Blume’s behavior and let us off the hook. He is a real artist because he always seeks to implicate us in what his characters do. We can like them and we can dislike them, and what it all adds up to is a ledger that is up to us individually. Some directors make this weighing of pros and cons depressing. Mazursky fills it with sunshine and life and joy and makes it very entertaining. He was like a chef who always knew how much of each ingredient was needed to make a complicated and wholly satisfying dish.

This is the fantasy and the art of Mazursky, but the facts are these. He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family and married his wife Betsy in 1953; they would remain married until his death today. He studied acting at the Actors Studio and appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature “Fear and Desire” (1953) and played a juvenile delinquent in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955). This period of his life was dramatized in one of his best movies, “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976), a heartfelt ensemble piece that paid affectionate but clear-eyed tribute to acting coaches, friends and enemies, the Café Reggio, and a Jewish mother to strike fear and pity in the heart of us all, Shelley Winters’s Faye Lapinsky, a woman who is always trying to get you to eat some rye bread and apple strudel and write every day and call once in a while, will you? Mazursky films Winters with awe and understanding and affection, and this extends to the lead, Lenny Baker (a talented actor who died young), Ellen Greene as his prickly girlfriend, and even the icy young Christopher Walken as the kind of nasty Village poseur who assures you that you “must read Pound.” When Baker tells Winters, “You’re a funny lady, Mom,” and she quietly says, “My life has not been very funny,” it’s clear why comedies are the movies that can break your heart far more than most heavy dramas.

But Mazursky could do heavy drama, too, and he proved it in his masterpiece, “Enemies, A Love Story” (1989), a movie based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s very tough book about survivors of the Holocaust in post-war New York. The Singer material was not so much lightened as enlivened by Mazursky’s touch, so that Anjelica Huston and especially Lena Olin were brought to full, quivering, sexual, unbearably sad and funny life. “I’m not dead,” Huston’s Tamara says at one point. “I’m not alive and I’m not dead!” she quips, with heroic gallows humor, something that percolates up through Olin’s Masha, a hedonistic landmark of a woman who speaks up for pleasure amidst the most unspeakable degradations of life and then says, “To hell with it.” Never has self-destruction on screen seemed more earned and more alluring than in Olin’s Masha, one of the truly great screen performances, the height of Mazursky’s skill and feeling for the humor in tragedy and the tragedy in humor. And a smile and a grope along the way.

There are some duds in his filmography, like most of the films he made after “Enemies,” and maybe there came a point where he had run out of material or actors or need. But his warmth and insight come through in Sam Wasson’s excellent book of interviews “Paul on Mazursky” (2011), and his work should stand the test of time. Even though most of his movies are billed as comedies, I was surprised at how emotional I got thinking about Erica walking with her painting down the street, or Larry in “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” sweetly saying to his mother, “No, I’m not angry at you. I’m crazy, but I’m not angry.” Or Olin’s lush but burnt-out Masha confronting herself in a mirror in her last scene, finished with life and even with pleasure. Paul Mazursky gave us all of these moments and all of these people, and he did that by never being judgmental and never giving up and always welcoming the fun and nonsense and personal idiosyncrasies that can make up for so much in the hard lives that all of us lead. The problems that Erica has in “An Unmarried Woman” are pitifully small next to Masha’s problems in “Enemies, A Love Story,” yet Mazursky loves them both equally. That is no small feat. 

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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