Los Angeles Times
By Elaine Woo
July 1, 2014
Paul Mazursky, the Oscar-nominated writer-director who excelled at mining the urban middle class for laughs as well as tears in such movies as "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Blume in Love," "An Unmarried Woman" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," has died. He was 84..
Mazursky died of pulmonary cardiac arrest Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to family spokeswoman Nancy Willen.
A gentle satirist of contemporary society, Mazursky at his best chronicled the social trends of the late 1960s and the '70s, including its touchy-feely self-improvement fads, shifting rules for love and sex, drug experimentation and other excesses.
His experiences in front of the camera gave him a special affinity for actors' rhythms and a preference for long takes that allowed them room to develop their characters. He was admired for his ability to extract natural performances and create a bond with the audience. "Mazursky," critic Pauline Kael once observed, "brings you into a love relationship with his people, and it's all aboveboard."
He made his share of flops, including "The Pickle" (1993), which was so bad that Columbia wouldn't show it to most critics. That movie was bookended by the poorly reviewed "Scenes from a Mall" (1991) and "Faithful" (1996), his last feature. He also made a documentary called "Yippee" (2006), about Hasidic Jews in the Ukraine.
His feature films were frequently criticized for being sentimental. "His specialty is to take a core of sentimental goo and coat it with either bittersweet nostalgia or crude jokes — preferably both," critic John Simon wrote in the National Review in 1986.
But Mazursky dismissed the barbs, arguing, as he did in the Atlantic in 1980, that "my movies aren't sentimental, they just have sentiment."
"If you go back and look at a lot of his movies, including films like 'Blume in Love,'" veteran critic Peter Rainer told the Los Angeles Times in 2013, "the compassion just pours through. ... His best movies are very sad and side-splittingly funny.
"When it comes to portraying human comedy," Rainer said, "Mazursky has few peers in Hollywood."
Irwin Mazursky was born in New York City on April 25, 1930. He was the only child of David, a laborer, and his wife, Jean, a movie lover who let her son skip school so they could watch two double features in one day. "By the time I was 12," Mazursky told People magazine in 1986, "I was already dreaming of being an actor. I'd go into the bathroom in our house, the only place you could be alone, and do imitations of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart."
While a student at Brooklyn College, he changed his first name to Paul after he was cast as a psychopath in "Fear and Desire," the 1953 film that marked Stanley Kubrick's directorial debut.
That year he also married Betsy Purdy, with whom he had two daughters, Meg and Jill.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughter Jill Mazursky, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. His daughter Meg died of cancer in 2009.
After the Kubrick movie, Mazursky continued to pursue acting while supporting his family as a waiter and nightclub comic. He studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg. Among his early roles was playing a juvenile delinquent in "Blackboard Jungle" (1955).
In 1959, he moved his family to Los Angeles and joined the improv group Second City. When it closed, he teamed up with Second City alum Larry Tucker to write gags for CBS' "The Danny Kaye Show." He and Tucker also co-wrote the pilot for "The Monkees," the TV series about a struggling rock band that debuted in 1966. Their role in the creation of the popular show was uncredited at the time.
Dissatisfied with television, Mazursky began taking classes on film editing at USC and fantasized about becoming a director.
He and Tucker shared an office in the middle of a hippie scene on Sunset Boulevard in the mid-1960s. The setting inspired their first screenplay, "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" (1968), a romantic comedy starring Peter Sellers as a lawyer who drops out of his conventional life after ingesting a marijuana-infused brownie.
Mazursky got his chance to direct with his next project. He had taken his wife to Esalen, the Big Sur retreat where members of the counterculture went to find their inner selves. The experience became grist for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." Co-written with Tucker, the film opens with a couple played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood, who return from an Esalen-like retreat with a new awareness about their relationship, an experience they want to share with another couple, played by Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould.
The movie, which made Gould a star and resuscitated Wood's career, was a box-office and critical hit; Kael, writing in the New Yorker, called it "the liveliest American comedy so far this year." It catapulted Mazursky onto the A list of directors, earning him carte blanche for his next picture, which also had autobiographical touches: "Alex in Wonderland" (1970) starred Donald Sutherland as a director who can't decide what to do with his life after his first hit movie. Mazursky meant it as an homage to "81/2," the autobiographical masterpiece by Federico Fellini, one of Mazursky's idols; Fellini even makes a cameo appearance. Mazursky gave himself the role of a groovy producer with wacky movie ideas.
Critics liked "Alex" but commercially it bombed. At the same time, Mazursky was shopping for a studio to back "Harry and Tonto" but no one wanted to make a movie about a septuagenarian retiree and his cat.
Feeling like a misunderstood artist, Mazursky sought solace in Italy for a while but found the life of an expatriate unsatisfying.
When he returned some months later, he wrote a scene about "a guy sitting in a cafe in Italy trying to figure out what the hell he is doing there," Mazursky told People. That bloomed into the script for "Blume in Love" (1973), which starred George Segal as the man who realizes he is in love with his ex-wife, played by Susan Anspach.
It won admiring reviews from critics such as Roger Ebert, who wrote that Mazursky "seems to have pulled off what everybody is always hoping for from Neil Simon: a comedy that transcends its funny moments, that realizes we laugh so we may not cry, and that finally is about real people with real desperations."
Back on the top of the Hollywood heap, Mazursky finally was able to make "Harry and Tonto," a serious comedy about a 72-year-old man evicted from his New York City apartment who goes on the road for encounters with hitchhikers, a hooker, a senile ex-lover and dysfunctional family members.
Lauded for its humanistic portrait of aging, it succeeded financially as well as artistically and made Carney, who had been best known as Jackie Gleason's sidekick in the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners," a movie star and Oscar winner.
Mazursky followed with another successful film, the semi-autobiographical "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" (1976), about a Brooklyn boy in the early 1950s who moves to the Village to chase his acting dreams. "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984) was his next hit after the disappointments of "Willie and Phil" (1980) and "Tempest" (1982) and showcased the talents of Robin Williams as a Russian musician who defects in the middle of a Bloomingdale's department store.
"Down and Out in Beverly Hills" was Mazursky's greatest commercial success. Inspired by the 1932 Jean Renoir film "Boudou Saved From Drowning," it was a farce about a wealthy couple (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss) who let a homeless man (Nick Nolte) move in with them after he tried to drown himself in their splendid pool.
The purpose of the film was "to reflect on the absurdity of having it all and still having nothing," Mazursky, a longtime Beverly Hills resident who didn't exempt himself from the film's critique of checkbook liberals, told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.
He earned his last raves for "Enemies: A Love Story," his 1989 adaptation, co-written with Roger L. Simon, of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story set in Coney Island in 1949. It earned the writers an Oscar nomination. (Mazursky was also nominated in the screenplay category for "An Unmarried Woman," "Harry and Tonto" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.")
A rare step into a period piece for the director, it revolved around a Jewish intellectual who fled the Nazi horrors and wound up in America with three wives, a situation packed with hilarity and despair. Accolades flowed from critics such as Sheila Benson in The Times, who said the movie was "the best of Mazursky's career … the brilliant dovetailing of a writer's intentions and a filmmaker's mature craft." Janet Maslin in the New York Times agreed, writing "Paul Mazursky's directorial wit and humanity have never been more fully engaged."
"I seem to have a natural bent toward humor and I seem to make people laugh," Mazursky told the Chicago Tribune some years ago, "but I think there is in me a duality. I like to make people cry also. … I like to deal with relationships. The perfect picture for me does all that."
MAZURSKY, Paul (Irwin Mazursky)
Born: 4/25/1930, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 6/30/2014, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Paul Mazursky’s westerns – director:
The Rifleman (TV) – 1960, 1962, 1963
Outlaws (TV) – 1961 (Bittercreek)