He’s given only passing mention in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and Mark Harris’ “Pictures at a Revolution,” books about the New Hollywood as the late ’60s were giving way to the directorial freedom of the ’70s.
But Paul Mazursky, who is being honored for career achievement by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Saturday, is every bit as influential as the young Turks lionized in those books: Ashby, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Rafelson, et al. He might even be more of an auteur, since he wrote or co-wrote the bulk of his 17 movies – many of them drawn from personal experience.
His directorial debut, “Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice” (1969), as much as any film of the time, defined the sexual revolution in all of its complexities: free love and its consequences, the appropriation of hippie culture by the establishment, and the clash between “Me Generation” narcissism, New Age groupthink and radical chic politics. The film was such a hit that, like his peers, Mazursky was given unusual latitude by the studios to write, direct and even act in his own films, often featuring players who were either unknown or cast against type.
“In the ’70s and most of the ’80s, we were the new guys, and (the studios) trusted us,” Mazursky recalled in an interview at his Tecolote Prods. office in Beverly Hills. “‘Bob and Carol’ made a lot of money. And once you’ve made one, they’re going to let you come in and say, ‘I’m going to make a movie about a pair of eyeglasses.’ And they’d say ‘OK, that kid mostly knows his stuff.’ They don’t do that now. Now they go, ‘Let us go to the marketing people and see what they think.’?”
Mazursky’s protagonists often reflected dimensions of himself and his friends’ dilemmas: In “Bob, Carol” Robert Culp plays a documentary filmmaker who tests the limits of his marriage after he and his wife are transformed by an encounter group session; his sophomore effort, “Alex in Wonderland,” about a director whose hit first film is followed by creative indecision, ended up being a self-fulfilling prophesy that bombed; “Blume in Love” and “An Unmarried Woman,” which became a feminist manifesto, were both inspired by close friends traumatized by separation and divorce; “Next Stop Greenwich Village,” maybe his most personal film, drew on his days as an aspiring actor in New York, and is one of the more vividly authentic depictions of New York bohemia in the ’50s.
“I’ve known lots of people over all these years, and most of them have marriages that work for a while, and then stop working, or have problems,” said the 80-year-old filmmaker, who’s been married to his wife, Betsy, for 58 years. “It’s a long season, like baseball. And in order for a marriage to work, you’ve got to make compromises. All of that has always intrigued me.”
From “Bob and Carol” to “Enemies: A Love Story” (1989), Mazursky’s work is characterized by a frank sexuality and a propensity for long, uninterrupted takes that reflect a European sensibility few Hollywood directors have gotten away with.
But maybe Mazursky’s greatest contribution to American cinema has been his casting, providing meaty roles to young actors on the rise, or redefining the personas of well-known stars. Prior to “Bob, Carole,” Culp was mainly known as a TV actor from “I Spy,” and with “Harry and Tonto,” he directed Art Carney – forever inseparable from his Ed Norton character on “Jackie Gleason Show” – to a best actor Oscar over such competition as Pacino, Nicholson, Finney and Hoffman.
Ron Silver (“Enemies”); Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon (“Bob and Carol”); Susan Anspach and Marsha Mason (“Blume”); Ellen Burstyn (“Alex”); Christopher Walken and Lenny Baker (“Greenwich”); benefitted from Mazursky’s tendency toward fresh, everyman faces and strong, independent female characters.
Ellen Greene, who made her feature film debut in “Greenwich” after Mazursky saw her in a Public Theater production of David Rabe’s “In the Boom Boom Room,” calls Mazursky a “hands-on director who taught me to trust my instincts.”
As a young actor, Mazursky trained with Stanislavsky gurus Lee Strasberg and Paul Mann, among others. He naturally identified with actors, and took a more gentle approach to directing than, say, Elia Kazan — the helmer that every actor wanted to work with during Mazursky’s Greenwich Village days.
“I’m more gentle than Gadge,” Mazursky said, referring to Kazan by his nickname. “He believed that you do whatever you have to get (the performance) right. And I don’t know if I always had the courage to be that brutal.”
Greene added: “He cared about every part, and their characters are rich because the writing is rich. There’s an awful lot of people who call themselves directors, and they’re traffic cops. But with him you learned something and you became better. And with really great directors, you become your best self.”