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Interview with Paul Mazursky (1980)

LOS ANGELES - Paul Mazursky, in 1980, is very much an outsider in contemporary Hollywood. At a time when the bosses of the major studios are engaged in games of musical chairs, when few studio chiefs give any thought to long-term filmmaking philosophies. When the creative deal is more highly regarded than the creative film, when bloated budgets are poured into films that will become either monster hits or complete a time like this, Paul Mazursky is so out of date he seems almost Victorian.

Consider. He writes his own movies "based on his own concerns. His films are invariably about intellectuals. He does not make films for or about "the kids." His films feel free to follow their characters into intensely personal matters, with no regard for whether the unwashed masses of movie audiences will care about, or even understand, those concerns. Paul Mazursky is making New Yorker movies in a People magazine era.

"I couldn't make movies for the kids if I wanted to," Mazursky said not long ago in an interview, placing the phrase "the kids" in audible italics. "The studio executives who talk about the kids don't have any idea who they're talking about. If you really cross-examine them, they're really talking about the kids of 10 years ago, of the Woodstock generation. Somebody who is 28 today probably still thinks of himself as a kid, but he's totally out of touch. What do studio executives know about punk rock? What do they think kids wear to parties today? What do they think they do at parties today? They don't have a clue."

Perhaps Mazursky doesn't have a clue either, but then he doesn't claim one. After he wrote and directed "An Unmarried Woman" in 1977, the critics began to say he was Hollywood's expert on the upper middle class. That was not a completely unfair description. Mazursky has examined the folkways of urban compulsive overachievers in several of his films, including "Blume in Love," "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" and "Alex in Wonderland." But, thinking it over, Mazursky doesn't consider himself a specialist on the middle class so much as a specialist on how middle-class people deal with the dilemma of personal freedom.

In Mazursky's world view, personal freedom has become much more available during the last 25 years - or ever since the arrival on the scene in the late 1950s of the Beat Generation (of which most of today's punk rockers have never heard). People have been free to make choices about lifestyles. And one of the first things they've done, given that freedom, is to find lifestyles that make the choices for them: Look at the encounter groupies in "Bob and Carol" or the hip bohemians of "Next Stop, Greenwich Village."

In "An Unmarried Woman," Mazursky's heroes were people well into their 30s who had made, earlier in their lives, the expected, socially correct decisions. "For everyone of that generation or older," Mazursky explained, "to begin with, you went to college. Then your parents held their breath until you graduated and did the other right things. First, you had to go into an acceptable profession. Second, you had to get married. Third, you had to buy the house. Fourth, you had to have the kids. Then you were home free."

But the era beginning with the Beats gave people options for those obligations. And Mazursky, having made "An Unmarried Woman" (about the complications facing people from, say, 30 to 45), began to think about a younger group, the people between about 20 and 35 - especially if they happened to be 20 in the late 1960s, when freedom, nonconformity and hippie power were in the air.

What does freedom mean at a time like that?" Mazursky asked himself, rhetorically, a few weeks ago in his office at Twentieth Century-Fox. "It can mean romantic freedom, that's for sure. For the first time, people were beginning to be free to live with each other, not just in bohemian enclaves, but all over the place. Their parents were learning to be a little more tolerant. Women no longer had to fear pregnancy. They had their own new freedom of choice.

"So I began to think...What about a movie about a woman and two men? Both men would be in love with her, each in his own way, and she'd be in love with the men in her own way, and the men would love and admire each other. They wouldn't be rivals. Well, it was a great idea, of course...and then I immediately thought, God! The movie I want to make has already been made, and it's Truffaut's 'Jules and Jim'! Or, for that matter, even before that...'Design for Living.' "Did that mean I shouldn't make it? No, I decided: It's healthy to be touched by other people's work. So I dared to admit it. In 'Willie and Phil' (which is the movie Mazursky made and which just opened in Chicago) the triangular situation is the same, and the characters in my movie even go to see Truffaut's movie. But I think my sensibility is very different. One thing remains the same, interestingly: In a movie made in the late 1950s and in one made in the late 1970s, the men both times come out somehow as the victims. Time hasn't changed much. They're boys. Men will always be boys in love affairs, I sometimes think."

Michael Ontkean and Ray Sharkey play the boys in Mazursky's "Willie and Phil", and the woman in their lives is Margot Kidder. In her first film since she played Lois Lane in "Superman." The movie is almost a catalog of lifestyles from the late 1960s to the 1980s, ranging from guru cults in India to the good life in Southern California, from social activism to ecology to est. As a sort of anchor throughout the movie, Mazursky intercuts the reactions of the parents of the three main characters, who are, respectively, Italian, Jewish and Southern.

As for himself, Mazursky at this point is content with his past and present and apprehensive about his future.

"I've made seven movies, and I feel certain I'll be able to make the eighth. So why should I complain?" he asked. "Because I've had two big hits ["Bob and Carol" and "An Unmarried Woman"] and some relatively profitable critical successes, like 'Harry and Tonto,' they let me keep working. But things are not the same. Take this studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. We have a new regime here.

I've worked happily here for years, but I'm going elsewhere to make my next picture, 'Tempest.' "Why? Because they're more interested in buying movies that have already been made than in making movies themselves. And, since the reputation of the executive who buys a picture is on the line if that picture fails, more energy is expended on promoting his purchase, to prove him right, than on promoting pictures that somebody has gone out and busted his ass to get made. Look at that Benji picture that Fox bought the rights to...What was it called? 'Oh Heavenly Dog' or some such crap? They killed themselves to sell that picture - because they'd bought it, hadn't they?

"How hard are they selling 'Willie and Phil'? I don't want to sound pretentious, but I know I've made a fine piece of work. But the philosophy in the new Hollywood seems to be not how can we make a good picture, but how can we maximize the deal and turn a profit before the picture's even been made by selling it quick to Home Box Office.

"My next picture. 'The Tempest,' is a project I've been working on for years...I almost made it instead of 'An Unmarried Woman.' It sort of begins with Shakespeare and takes enormous liberties. It's funny, exciting, cheerful and very bizarre. It will cost $13 million to make. I've gone over the budget, and that's it. Not a dollar less.

"So, the Fox management reads my screenplay and says it's great. They love it. They want to make it.

They'll give me $9 million. But I can't make it for $9 million. So I'm going to leave Fox, where I've worked for years, and make it somewhere else. Here's a guy, a filmmaker...let's not beat around the bush, here's me...who has a consistent track record and has made some winners for them, and they have nine but they don't have 13. What do they think they're in, a retail business?" You sound, I said, discouraged.

"I am discouraged. Look at the movies that came out this summer. It was a tremendously disappointing summer, and one way of looking at it was that 1980 was the first summer when the new deal-making Hollywood released deals instead of pictures. Everything that came out all summer long represented a great deal for somebody. But where were the audiences?"

What directors do you admire right now? If directorial credits were brand names - and in a way they are - which ones would you buy at this time of a mixed-up market?

"Well...Woody Allen. One way or the other, there's always something there in his movies. Michael Ritchie, although 'The Island' was awfully hard for me to take. Martin Scorsese; anybody who made 'Mean Streets' is a force to be reckoned with. And his 'Raging Bull' is one of the autumn pictures I'm looking forward to the most. John Cassavetes is a phenomenon; I hear his new 'Gloria' is good. Robert Altman is...different now. I don't know what to say about his pictures anymore. Terrence Malick has made two interesting pictures, 'Badlands' and 'Days of Heaven.' But what can you know for sure on the basis of two pictures? As a top professional, Hal Ashby. And Francis Ford Coppola, of course."

So there is hope?

"The audiences rejected a lot of the garbage this summer. There's hope in that. What depresses me is that it's so damned hard to make a movie in this town. You're spending all your time making the deal. So much energy is wasted in getting ready. All I want to do is make the movie."

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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