Saturday, November 06, 2010

What About Paul Mazursky?

Sad about the death of Jill Clayburgh, who I really liked in An Unmarried Woman. She was one of a number of unlikely female stars of the '70s; a notoriously bad time for female leads in movies, the women who got those few juicy parts were often not larger-than-life personalities or stunning beauties, but performers like Clayburgh and Diane Keaton who seemed as close as movies get to presenting average, cute, charming people.

Since Unmarried Woman was probably her best role, the news gets me to thinking: why isn't the film's writer-director, Paul Mazursky, mentioned more often as one of the great directors of the '70s? Not that he's exactly forgotten; the L.A. Critics' Association just announced that they're going to present him with a lifetime achievement award. But when people talk about the '70s generation, I don't hear Mazursky's name come up very often, even though in my opinion he's one of the most interesting directors of that era. Maybe he suffers from the fact that his debut, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, is probably his best-known film and one that's obviously dated (though no more so than the other seminal films of that year, like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and even Wild Bunch).

But his '70s films are often quite wonderful and rarely less than interesting; unlike Woody Allen he has the gift of examining characters who aren't exactly like him, and character studies like Harry and Tonto and Unmarried Woman still work very well for me. And of course he was a fine director of actors. Art Carney won an Oscar for Harry and Tonto, yet hardly anybody talks about the movie, which I really like.

His career took a more commercial turn in the '80s and flamed out in the '90s, but neither of these things -- going Hollywood and burning out -- are unusual for directors of the '70s generation. (Some of his '80s films are pretty good; they're just slicker and more studio-ish -- more '80s, in other words.) Maybe his rather pompous public persona has obscured his moviemaking, but that hasn't stopped Peter Bogdanovich's early films from being appreciated. And the fact that he's a familiar presence as an actor might also get in the way of his reputation as a director, though I don't think this is a situation like with Sydney Pollack, who was genuinely more distinctive as an actor than director.

It may be that except for Bob & Carol he doesn't really have a "signature" film the way Allen had Annie Hall -- he could direct actors to Oscars and nominations but never got nominated for Best Director. But I think Mazursky is an uneven but important New Hollywood director whose work is waiting for a second look.


Patrick Murtha said...

I think Mazursky is interesting, too, but the problem is, the shape of his filmography is not compelling. The first six features are a fairly strong lead, with three acknowledged good films ("Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Harry and Tonto," and "An Unmarried Woman"), two sleepers ("Blume in Love" and "Next Stop, Greenwich Village"), and one oddball ("Alex in Wonderland"). But even in that group, several of the films might be unfairly perceived as "dated." Woody Allen doesn't run into that issue; as a solipsist, his films are only and ever about his own "world," and thus they do not date.

Among Mazursky's next nine features, from 1980 to 1996, there is only one acknowledged good film, "Enemies: A Love Story." He closed his career with two television movies and a documentary that I haven't seen.

The Eighties killed many promising directorial careers, of course; Alan J. Pakula comes immediately to mind. But the important fact is that Woody Allen and Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese weathered the Eighties, not without difficulty, and did interesting and often underrated work during that era. Directors who are crafty enough to keep their personal voices alive during difficult times are the ones who develop the lasting reputations, and they are probably the ones who deserve to do so.

Edward Hegstrom said...

Couldn't agree more, with both Jaime and Patrick. The problem with Mazursky, perhaps, is that his intentions often seem more honorable than the films themselves. His best movies attempt to be about how people really live their lives, and some of them are wonderful, but too often Mazursky lacked any distinctive cinematic touch, and they often seem dated now. (Though imagine how much better "An Unmarried Woman" would play without that awful Bill Conti score.)

I think much of his post-1980 work is more interesting than commonly acknowledged--I love "Tempest" and find "Moon Over Parador" somewhat charming.

Also, for what it's worth, I think "Harry And Tonto" is absolutely perfect, tonally--it could be awful in so many ways, but it always feels true.

Anonymous said...

Three words about Moon Over Parador": Sammy Davis Jr.