After battling a long illness, writer-director Paul Mazursky died in Los Angeles on June 30 of pulmonary cardiac arrest. He was 84. Luckily for me, some years ago my friend Joan Cohen pulled me into an annual dinner party held around the time of the Oscars with Paul and Betsy Mazursky and other close friends. I looked forward to it every year, as Mazursky would hold forth–hilariously– on Hollywood, moviemaking, and the new films of the day, which he wrote about for Vanity Fair in recent years. He was an ardent cinephile and Academy voter with strongly held opinions.
At the time of his LA Film Critics Award (followed by many others including a WGA achievement award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), the director, who until recently hung out with his screenwriter pals at the Farmer’s Market every week, met with me at his office in Beverly Hills for a video interview (below). We covered a lot of ground, from acting for Stanley Kubrick and directing a movie of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to “Yippee,” his 2006 documentary about a meeting of Hassidic Jews in the Ukraine. But there was a lot more to talk about. At the end of his career Mazursky directed theater and was prepping a Broadway musical version of “Moon Over Parador.” Even as his body failed, Mazursky’s wit remained as sharp as ever. Roger Simon writes about their long friendship here.
In 1968, Mazursky’s first produced screenplay was 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,” starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Dyan Cannon and Elliot Gould, which earned Mazursky his first of four Oscar nominations for best original screenplay. (There’s talk of a 3D remake.)
The writer-director flourished inside the studio system during the 70s and 80s, at a time when the studios were more permissive than they are today. Movies didn’t cost as much. A single exec in charge of production could greenlight a movie. It’s hard to imagine any studio head today making a film about an old man and his cat. Mazursky delivered a string of strong, original movies (many of them hits), attacking a wide range of subjects with brio, humor and humanity: “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 earned a fifth Oscar nomination for producing Best Picture nominee “An Unmarried Woman” (1978) and directed six actors to Oscar noms, including that film’s star Jill Clayburgh. Art Carney won Best Actor for 1974’s “Harry & Tonto.”
The WGA’s Howard Rodman touted Mazursky’s writing talent at the time of the WGA Achievement Award:
“Paul Mazursky’s talents as an actor (he was in Stanley Kubrick’s first film) and filmmaker (one of the signature directors of the 1970s) should not be allowed to obscure a central fact: he is among our greatest living screenwriters. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman – five films in six years, any of which can make you laugh and cry, break and mend your heart. His voice is strong, unique, hilarious, wise, unmistakable. He is fearless about his characters’ flaws, but always has the generosity of spirit to make us see the ways in which they are far more like us than not. His work in the ’80s and ’90s – Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Scenes from a Mall – only deepens that generosity.”
See videos below.