Paul Mazursky made incisive, edgy comedies without a mean streak

Director Paul Mazursky's comedy was incisive and edgy without being mean or very cynical
Paul Mazursky's films made the political personal

It's hard not to take the death of Paul Mazursky personally.

When Jill Clayburgh's character was unceremoniously uncoupled in Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman" in 1978, a generation of American women were right there with her, rocked by the realities of being replaced by a trophy wife. Her issues were their issues, from rage to sexual liberation, feeling the bile rise in the back of a throat, cheering a choice to stand alone rather than commit to an eligible man.

A decade later, in the heart of the go-go 1980s, Mazursky perched Nick Nolte's homeless guy on the edge of suicide and a Beverly Hills pool in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." Liberal guilt was flourishing along with Reagan-era affluence, so of course the well-to-do and dysfunctional couple played by Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss had to take him in, clean him up and hate themselves for doing it.

Mazursky's great gift was in making it all so relatable. Though the details might vary, he lived and wrote about the experience of the upwardly mobile in this country with incredible honesty and skill in a way that mainstream audiences would embrace.

At the height of his powers, there was almost no one better than Mazursky at using the movies to serve as a mirror on our shifting mores. In 1974's "Harry and Tonto" he had Art Carney expose the emotional heart on Harry's aging face, while also exposing the cost of gentrification in both human and urban terms. In Harry, we saw a respectable retiree as disposable to society as the New York apartment house he'd lived in for a lifetime.

Mazursky made the political personal. Whether intentionally or instinctively (I suspect it was a bit of both), as a filmmaker he was forever taking the pulse of society, then helping us laugh and cry our way through the implications.

In the wake of the writer and director's passing on Monday at age 84, memories of the many rich characters he created flood in like old friends — warm, wonderful, witty, whimsical, wounded, always welcome. Always flawed.

Mazursky never forgot to factor that into his comedy equation — our unique ability to hurt each other. His ability to blend the dark with the light is why his adaptation of Isaac Singer's Holocaust novel, "Enemies: A Love Story," worked as well as it did. Ron Silver's ghostwriter at its center was not the only ghost in the picture. Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin would earn Oscar nominations for their haunted women. Mazursky would share an Oscar nod with Roger L. Simon for the writing, which kept the darkness from pressing down too much.

In "Enemies," "Harry and Tonto" and other classic films such as "Blume in Love" and "Moscow on the Hudson," his voice was distinctive and specific.

One of the leading practitioners of the American independent film movement, he was a different creature than John Cassavetes whose art was more intense and more intimate. Mazursky took on our sensibilities with a lighter, more mainstream, touch. Watching his films, you knew without question you were in Mazursky's world.

If you wonder about Mazursky's influence now, go back and watch "Harry" again. The elderly man is undertaking a cross-country pilgrimage with an insistent determination. There is a familiar sort of friction you could see reflected nearly 40 years later in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska." In both films, there's an evocative shot of a rural road with an old man plodding along. In "Harry," the man is elegantly turned out and accompanied by Tonto his cat. Carney would win an Oscar. In last year's "Nebraska," Bruce Dern is doing the long walk. He's alone and more irascible, and earned an Oscar nomination for it.

Though the Mazursky effect still resonates today, his impact on film was immediate. The box office was peppered with Mazursky comedies in a prolific period that begin with "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" in 1969 and continued with nary a pause until roughly 1993, when the filmmaker began to seriously slow down.

Though you always felt Mazursky left a little of himself in every film, it never cut closer to home than in the loosely autobiographical "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," in which an aspiring Jewish actor moves out of his parents' Brooklyn apartment to embrace the artistic life, only to feel conflicted about his decision. That was Mazursky to a T, and those themes would find their way into most of his movies.

Mazursky, the director, loved actors. You could sense the safety net he built for them in the performances they delivered. Six would earn Oscar nominations for their efforts.

He amassed a trove of acting credits himself, turning up occasionally in his own films, but more often making wry turns for others: a card shark called Sunshine in "The Sopranos," Mel Brooks' niggling assistant Norm in "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Mazursky, the writer, gave us grown-up comedies that were incisive, edgy, but without the mean streak, or much of the cynicism, that characterizes so much humor today.

I like to think it was because Mazursky, the man, loved people. And by loving his movies, as so many of us did, the people loved him back.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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