“Are you happy?” the woman asks her husband midway through Paul Mazursky’s “Blume in Love” (1973), to which he replies, “I’m just not miserable.” It is a flashback to earlier, relatively happier times in the busted-up marriage of the divorce lawyer Blume (George Segal) and his wife, Nina (Susan Anspach). But one can find the same scene or its close equivalent in most of Mazursky’s 15 feature films, which time and again centered on small-time American dreamers striving to feel a little less miserable in their lives.
The time was the early 1970s — that much-mythologized moment in Hollywood cinema — and Mazursky was among the directors whose work most embraced the new personal and sexual freedoms then taking hold in American culture and American movies. Divorce and adultery were laissez-faire subjects in his films when they were still taboo around the water cooler. Four years before “Blume,” his debut feature, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969), had made waves as the opening-night attraction of the typically buttoned-up New York Film Festival, even if the movie’s promise of a marijuana-laced, couples-swapping orgy was ultimately something of a ruse. As in so much of what was to come, Mazursky saw that the work of maintaining relationships was thornier than any such quick fix could resolve. And so “Bob & Carol” ends on an unresolved but deeply optimistic note, as the four protagonists lead a wordless mass exodus from a Vegas casino, accompanied by the hopeful strains of Jackie DeShannon singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”
If there is such a thing as a marriage “contract,” Mazursky’s films suggest it is one open to constant renegotiation — though it’s worth noting that Mazursky himself was married to his wife, Betsy, for more than 60 years. In his greatest film of the ’70s, “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), the sublime Jill Clayburgh stars as a Manhattan stockbroker’s wife who believes herself immune from the imploding marriages she sees all around her, until suddenly she isn’t. It was, along with Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974), an unusually liberated “woman’s picture” in which the woman ultimately does not need a man to actualize her goals — a kind of movie, 40 years later, still too rarely seen in this country.
Mazursky began as an actor and nightclub comic — the inspiration for his touching, little-seen memory film “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976) — and like the work of his contemporaries, John Cassavetes (whom he cast as a kind of alter ego in 1982’s “Tempest”) and Robert Altman, his movies course with a love of shaggy, untethered, go-for-broke performances. Six of those actors earned Oscar nominations for their work — many others deserved to — with Art Carney winning lead actor as the elderly widower on a quixotic cross-country road trip in “Harry and Tonto” (1974). It was a movie akin to those of Frank Capra or Leo McCarey in its eye for distinctly American oddballs and misfits, and its subtle but insistent sense of the hero’s encroaching mortality.
Indeed, like a lot of the “New Hollywood” directors, Mazursky seemed influenced equally by classical American cinema and by the European “auteur” films that began turning up in arthouses and festivals in the early 1960s. He even cast Federico Fellini as himself in “Alex in Wonderland” (1970), an extravagant homage to “8½” with Donald Sutherland as the Mazursky-like director struggling to live up to an early success, and a far more ambitious, inventive movie than its reputation suggests. A decade later he paid homage to Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” by transposing it to the West Village and calling it “Willie and Phil” (1980).
To be sure, Mazursky benefitted from the longer leashes given to enterprising writer-directors by the studios before the word “tentpole” had entered the industry lexicon, and even his failures (like Altman’s) were reliably more personal and adventurous than many filmmakers’ lauded successes. But he managed the transition to the blockbuster ’80s more deftly than most, delivering two popular hits — “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984) and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986) — that remained rich in his signature strain of humanist comedy.
Brilliantly played by the slapstick triumvirate of Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler and Nick Nolte, “Down” was an update of the 1932 French classic “Boudu Saved From Drowning,” whose director, Jean Renoir, shared Mazursky’s affection for the collision of grace, folly, madness and courage. But Mazursky came even closer to Renoir with “Enemies: A Love Story” (1989), a lyric, melancholy farce about a Polish Holocaust survivor juggling the affections and recriminations of three formidable women — each of whom believes herself to be his wife. A decade after “An Unmarried Woman,” it was another masterpiece, and a film badly in need of rediscovery.
As with so many figures from the comedy world, the accolades were late in coming. Mazursky earned five unrewarded Oscar nominations and, surely, if he’d held out a bit longer, would have scored one of those apologetic honorary statuettes that seem to come with “RIP” pre-engraved. But I’m happy to say that two institutions with which I was formerly affiliated were quicker on the draw: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which feted Mazursky with a career retrospective in 2007; and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., which gave him its lifetime achievement award in 2011. Around that time, I had the pleasure of meeting Mazursky at the morning coffee klatch he had held at the L.A. Farmers Market for more than 25 years, where the quips flew as fast and furiously as if he were still a hungry young comic singing for his supper. He was working less, but his influence loomed large, from the sun-streaked Southern California relationship pictures of Judd Apatow to the boisterous ensemble hangout movies of David O. Russell.
He had also, somewhat improbably, launched a career as a film critic, filing the occasional “Mazursky at the Movies” column for the website of Vanity Fair. Writing there in 2011 about “The Descendants” and its director, Alexander Payne, he wrote, “His films are sometimes ironic, sometimes sad, often quirkily funny — and on a few occasions they offer us some unique scenes of Americana.” He might just as soon have been eulogizing himself.