Every faith needs its defender, and no other filmmaker has championed middle-class mediocrity with the religious zeal of Paul Mazursky. Often mistaken for a liberal humanist, Mazursky habitually drops his bourgeois characters into a countercultural fishbowl and then celebrates their inevitable efforts to come up for air. His is the most ideologically conservative body of work ever dedicated to the activity of hippies, dropouts, polygamists, feminists, homosexuals, Hasidim, pedophiles, abortionists, prostitutes, primal scream therapists and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
“If you don’t know about [my films],” the Brooklyn-born actor-turned-director stated in a Lincoln Center press release, “then you don’t know much about the movie business.” He may have a point. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new retrospective, which is unimaginatively titled “The Magic of Paul Mazursky” and runs from May 4 through May 10, proves that a pedestrian director can sustain a lengthy (and not uninteresting) Hollywood career by catering to a middlebrow discomfort with social progress. Cosmopolitan enough for Lincoln Center and old-fashioned enough for Peoria, Mazursky’s 15 features are case studies in how to exploit the most alluring elements of radicalism without making anybody uneasy.
If there is magic to the Mazursky process, it’s in his unfailing empathy for middle-class malaise. At times, an inflated self-interest seems the only requisite for a Mazursky hero. In his risible take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero is just another wealthy Manhattanite suffering a midlife crisis. And while “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” sounds like a harmlessly ironic title, it actually typifies the existential quandary of almost every Mazursky comedy: Why is it so hard to be comfortable with our comfort?
Consider his directorial debut, 1969’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” in which a weekend at an Esalen-like institute leads a newly open-minded, haute bourgeois married couple (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) to temporarily join the sexual revolution. They invite their comparably repressed friends (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) into the bedroom for a climactic kick of social liberation, but prudishness regains its sway before any damage is done. Instead, the foursome marches outside in a conga line to the strains of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” It’s a remarkably provocative ending, because you’re not quite sure if the film is glorifying their defection or mocking it.
In 1973’s “Blume in Love,” Mazursky extends his superhuman empathy to a titular divorce lawyer (George Segal) who becomes infatuated with the ex-wife he compulsively cheated on (Susan Anspach). Brooding over espresso in a Venetian café, our hero plots his way across the globe and back into the heart of his former partner, now shacked up with an unemployed — but friendly — hippie songwriter (Kris Kristofferson) in Venice, Calif. She seems comfortable in her liberated incarnation, but Blume ain’t buying it. In an astonishing feat of moral relativism that should have made the film notorious, a frenzied Blume rapes his ex-wife, and she soon decides to take him back for good.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert — a consistent Mazursky booster in the 1970s and ’80s — refers to the scene in question without even mentioning the rape, and then (perhaps in defense) calls the characters “real people with real desperations.” Is that the magic of Mazursky? (At least one other person noticed the film’s inherent creepiness: Director Stanley Kubrick conspicuously displays “Blume in Love” on a TV screen during a scene in his “Eyes Wide Shut.”)
The three films that Mazursky made for 20th Century Fox between 1974 and 1978 provide the best possible justification for Lincoln Center’s retrospective. “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” screening in a brand-new print, is the director’s semi-autobiographical account of leaving a comically overbearing Jewish mother (a scary Shelley Winters) to begin life anew as a 1950s Village thespian. It’s at once Mazursky’s humblest and most affectionate film, showcasing what should have been a star-making turn for Lenny Baker, who died of AIDS a few years later. With “An Unmarried Woman,” the filmmaker brings watered-down feminism (and a lot of therapy) to a spurned housewife (Jill Clayburgh) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Both a proto-“Sex and the City” and an assault on male inadequacy — take that, Blume the rapist — the film feels considerably dated, but it still provides a 1970s-savvy update on the classic Hollywood “women’s picture.” Best of all is “Harry and Tonto,” an unabashedly schmaltzy chronicle of a free-spirited septuagenarian (Art Carney, who won an Oscar for his performance) and his cat going westward ho after the senior man is forcibly evicted from his Upper West Side apartment.
In the past, this Jewish filmmaker’s body of work has remained obstinately secular, with the exception of 1989’s “Enemies, A Love Story,” an Isaac Bashevis Singer adaptation that is in many respects Mazursky’s richest film (and one that perhaps deserves a separate essay). But after a 10-year hiatus from filmmaking — precipitated by a significant drop-off in his work’s quality and relevance — he has returned with “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” a documentary about the Hasidic Breslov sect. In the film, which I have not seen, Mazursky visits Rabbi Nachman’s burial place in Uman (along with 25,000 Jews, most of them Hasidic) to catalog a different sort of love-in. Those who want to see if the filmmaker returns home with his ideology intact can attend the New York premiere at Lincoln Center, where Mazursky will introduce the film in person.
Ultimately, Paul Mazursky is less a cinematic aesthete than a Strasberg-trained director of actors, and as such, even his best work lacks the formal elegance and tragicomic bite of films by contemporaries Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. But even if Mazursky’s films are too unadventurous to ever return to fashion, one could argue that the beleaguered bourgeoisie still needs its bard, the man who dares to commemorate those who can look in the mirror and repeat after Blume: “I do the best I can. I eat. I sleep. I worry.”
Akiva Gottlieb’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice.