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Interview with Paul Mazursky

In 1954, a young New York actor named Paul Mazursky hung up his beret, combed his hair into a ducktail and went to a casting call for a movie named "The Blackboard Jungle." He got the job. He left behind a bohemian existence in Greenwich Village and set out for Hollywood and an acting career that somehow never quite got off the ground.

When the movies didn't make him a star, he worked as a stand-up comic - first back in New York, and then at the old Gate of Horn in Chicago. He ran into some of the early Second City people - Paul Sills, Barbara Harris - and eventually appeared in a West Coast company of Second City. He did some writing for the movies, had some success, got into directing almost absentmindedly and became a very good director.

And now he has gone full circle, making a film about his memories of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Mazursky's "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," which will follow "Swept Away..." into the Carnegie, is a very personal film, even though Mazursky insists it shouldn't be seen as literal autobiography. It remembers a time, which is in some ways, as strange and far ago as the last century (it's always a shock to see photographs of the Beat Generation heroes, wearing suits and ties). Mazursky says it's a funny movie, "and then there are heavy places."

That describes pretty well the body of his work, which he refers to as "painful comedies." Starting with one of the basic Second City situations, in which funny skits go through transformations and end up being thoughtful and revealing. Mazursky has made several comedies that end up more seriously than they started out.

His best film was "Blume in Love," about a marriage in trouble. He made "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," about jaded Californians seeking self-knowledge through group encounters. His "Alex in Wonderland" was about a movie director deciding whether to sell out. "Harry and Tonto," which won an Oscar for Art Carney last year, was about an old man and a cat, and about the loneliness of growing old.

All of these films were comedies - technically, anyway, although it's a little unusual for a comedy to end with the love theme from "Tristan and Isolde," as "Blume in Love" did. But Mazursky isn't often included on lists of comic directors like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. He makes a different kind of movie. He rarely goes for a cheap gag, and his occasional lapses - like the shot in "Harry and Tonto" where the prostitute gleefully steers her car, and Harry, off the road - call attention to themselves because they're in such carefully crafted movies.

"I don't like movies that are morally simple," Mazursky was saying during a visit here last week. "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."

Mazursky writes all of his own films, and started as a writer in 1967 with "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas." A lot of other writer-directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese come to mind) began by directing their own scripts and then moved on to directing screen plays by other people.

"I haven't done that yet," Mazursky says. "I wish in my own mind I were more definite - that I was absolutely convinced I'd never direct someone else's script, but I keep reading scripts, because I might find something.

"One thing I know is that I don't want to be a director for hire, making genre films. I get offered a lot of those, and I'm afraid that if I took one - and I'm tempted I'd lose my will. It's hard to wait around until your next picture idea occurs to you. Right now, for example, I'm between pictures and I have a couple of ideas and a few scenes written down and, basically, I'm just fiddling."

"Next Stop, Greenwich Village," says Mazursky, is more inspired by his years in the village than based on them.

"I changed people around, I changed the years, I put in things I'd heard about or that happened to people I knew. It would be wrong to take it literally, as my story. The one thing that's closest to my story is the thing about trying out for the juvenile delinquent role and getting it. That was the start of my acting career...which I've resumed, by the way. I'm acting in the remake of 'A Star Is Born.' I play the head of the record company where Barbra Streisand works."

"Next Stop, Greenwich Village" stars a newcomer named Lenny Baker as the aspiring actor, and Shelley Winters as his stereotyped Jewish mother. Christopher Walken, a young actor with a strong presence who appeared here opposite Irene Worth in the Academy Festival production of "Sweet Bird of Youth," plays Baker's best friend.

"Walken may be just one step away from it, from the big time," Mazursky said. "He might be a big star. I don't know, I'm no good at predicting things like that, but there's something intriguing about him, something dangerous.

"Some of the New York reviews criticized me for using such an unconventional looking actor as Lenny Baker for my lead. Well, hell, who is conventional? Of the big stars, only Redford and Newman. McQueen doesn't look conventional. Dustin Hoffman doesn't. Charles Bronson has the most unconventional face in the world. I really liked it that Lenny looked like some kid in the village, not like a movie star. It's like they wanted me to make a picture in which Robert Redford leaves Iowa to go to Greenwich Village and joins the CIA. I wanted to make the movie about people."

Mazursky lived in New York for seven months while making the film, and he said he's considering maybe moving back there. "I've got a story I'm working on, called 'An Unmarried Woman,' about the situation of being a divorced woman in a big city...I might shoot it in New York, I'm not sure. There's a lot of energy there, but, on the other hand, it's a hell of a place to try and raise a family...I haven't decided. California is an island, and New York's an island. Maybe it's time for me to change islands."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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