Paul Mazursky: L.A. Critics Assn. Honoree Drew on Personal Life

Mazursky put stamp on '60s and '70s films

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.”

More Voices

  • Deadwood HBO

    Netflix, HBO Get Ready to Rumble as Emmy Nominations and Phase 2 of Voting Loom

    Last year, Netflix ended HBO’s 17-year Emmy-nomination domination, posting 112 nods overall (to HBO’s 108), continuing the service’s miraculous rise. Now comes the next goal, which may be in reach this year: Surpassing HBO’s all-time record. HBO earned 126 nominations in 2015, its all-time best and a number that Netflix could hit this year. It’s [...]

  • Ellen Sitcom Original TV Show

    GLAAD Chief: Hollywood Needs to Continue Playing a Role in LGBTQ Progress

    This Pride Month is not only about celebrating — it’s also about reflecting how far LGBTQ acceptance has come since the Stonewall riots catalyzed the LGBTQ movement 50 years ago, and about honoring the trailblazers and leaders who propelled LGBTQ visibility and issues forward in what many social justice experts describe as relatively lightning speed.   [...]

  • Matthew Shepard MOth Judy LGBT Activist

    Matthew Shepard's Mother: Why Hate Crime Is Only Conquered When We Speak Up

    In January, “Empire” star Jussie Smollett reported a violent attack at the hands of two men outside his Chicago apartment building. Local police and prosecutors said Smollett fabricated the event, which the actor still vehemently denies. More than a dozen criminal charges, including falsifying a police report, were filed and later dropped by state attorneys. [...]

  • Stonewall Riots 50 Years Later

    What the Stonewall Riots Mean 50 Years Later

    For one to fully understand the impact of the Stonewall riots, it is important to comprehend the darkness that LGBTQ Americans faced every day of their lives in the years leading up to Stonewall. Allow me to take you back to the 1950s and ’60s, when I was coming of age as a closeted gay [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content