Paul Mazursky, RIP

Writer/director/actor Paul Mazursky died in Los Angeles on Monday at the age of 84. The Los Angeles Times recounts his incredibly long and productive career in its obituary. The Times also picks five of Mazursky’s best films.

Movies you may have forgotten, or forgotten to associate with Mazursky, include I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (which he co-wrote with Larry Tucker), starring Peter Sellers. Mazursky provided an early (1967) take on the dissolving effect of the counterculture. I would also like to mention Scenes From a Mall (which he wrote and directed), starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler. Scenes was a commercial flop and a critical dud, but I’ve watched it many times and enjoy it greatly.

See also, if you get a chance and haven’t already, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and An Unmarried Woman (Roger Ebert shows Mazursky at work writing the film here).

Enemies, A Love Story, for which he wrote the script with Roger Simon, was also a highlight of his career as a director. Roger has posted a distraught note on Mazursky’s death here.

Mazursky came through town 15 years ago to support his memoir, Show Me the Magic. He begins the book with the simple declaration, in case you hadn’t picked it up from his work: “Since I was a little boy, I have loved to make people laugh.”

The memoir disappoints, but Mazursky himself did not. He had us laughing in St. Paul. He talked at length about Sellers’s paranoia at the time they worked on Alice B. Toklas. When Mazursky met Sellers, he thought he had endeared himself to Sellers by telling him he “deserve[d] better than The Bobo,” Sellers’s recent film.

Sellers had wanted Mazursky to direct Alice B. Toklas, but after that Sellers’s paranoia kicked in. He claimed that Mazursky had slept with Sellers’ wife, Britt Ekland, whom Mazursky described (as he does in the book) as “probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”

Complications ensued. He was told he had to hide during the shooting of the film. “He could flip, pal,” Sellers’s friend Freddy Francis tells Mazursky. “You gotta lay low.”

When he ran into Sellers ten years later, Sellers hugged him, bawling, and apologized. “There’s nothing to forgive. We were all very emotional,” Mazursky tells him.

It’s a grace note that is characteristic of Mazursky’s work.

My favorite of Mazursky’s films is Harry and Tonto. Watching it on DVD, I think it holds up remarkably well.

Harry is a retired high school English teacher and widower. When his New York City apartment building falls victim to redevelopment, Harry compares himself to King Lear: “He gave up his real estate, too.” Like King Lear, Harry turns to his kids to put him up. (Harry’s children are played by Phil Burns, Ellen Burstyn, and Larry Hagman, who are phenomenal).

Harry’s travels to and from his kids across the country with his pet cat (the Tonto of the title) give rise to a series of closely observed portraits, slightly mocking but without the least hint of antipathy or meanness. A family dinner with his oldest son on Long Island early in the film is almost excruciatingly real and painful. Co-written, directed and produced by Mazursky, this is a comedy with a difference. At the end of the film, you realize that Mazursky has made just about every character in the film likable in his or her own way. He showers them with affection, and you are sorry to see the film come to a close.

Mazursky says little about the film in Show Me the Magic. Mazursky describes his desperation to find the money to get the film made: “It was a funny and touching story about a seventy-year-old widower looking for a place to live. I loved the script, but nobody wanted to finance a film about old age.”

Having written sketches for Danny Kaye’s television variety series back in the sixties, Mazursky thinks to approach Kaye about playing the lead role and possibly financing the film, killing two birds with one stone. In their meeting, however, Kaye tells him: “I think it needs a few more jokes.”

Mazursky comments: “I suddenly saw the project jump out the window! Humor, yes. Jokes, no.” As I say, this is a comedy with a difference.

Mazursky asks Kaye what kind of jokes he had in mind. “Oh, I don’t know, Paul — some physical stuff. Why can’t this old codger bump into things? You know what I mean.”

Mazursky knew he had lost Kaye: “I felt like throwing up.” He tells Kaye: “I think there is a lot of humor already, Danny. Once we get into it, the situations, you’ll see the humor. After all, the man talks to his pussycat. He walks his cat on a leash.”

Mazursky brings his account to an abrupt conclusion: “Two years later Art Carney won the Academy Award for his devastatingly simple looking portrait of Harry.”

For whatever reason, Mazursky omits the heart of the story about the making of the film from his memoir. (He puts back in some of the good stuff in his voiceover commentary on the DVD.) He leaves the impression that there must have been a few miracles along the way. The movie puts the evidence for all to see right up on the screen (trailer below). RIP.

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