One of the biggest box-office hits of 1969 featured a 10-minute scene with a husband and wife getting ready for bed during which a hilarious argument slowly builds and then erupts about six minutes in. Such a patient and leisurely sequence would be unimaginable in a Hollywood movie today; it would be almost unimaginable in any independent movie today. And yet the film in question made what would be, in today’s dollars, $180 million inside the United States—a hit on the level of Thor, especially considering that it cost less than $13 million to make in today’s dollars.
It was called Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and it was the first film directed by Paul Mazursky, who went on to make seven genuinely memorable movies in a fascinating 35-year career that offers some rueful lessons about the changing nature of the American film. That career is the subject of Paul on Mazursky (Wesleyan, 348 pp., $35), a delightful book of conversations between the film writer Sam Wasson and the garrulous octogenarian, himself the author of an engaging if insubstantial Hollywood memoir called Show Me the Magic.
A comedy about two couples that climaxes in a failed wife-swapping orgy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was the Sex and the City of its day: an intentionally provocative look at the chaos caused by accelerating social change that, in the end, returns to the comforting illusion voiced in the Burt Bacharach/Hal David theme song: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”
But if that were all Bob & Carol had been, the movie would be a sniggering and dated mess, and a cop-out. It’s anything but. Throughout his career, in good films and bad, Mazursky strikes a tone that is entirely unique to his work: He combines satire with affection, cold-eyed social observation with a kind-hearted understanding that people are usually just bumbling along trying to do their best, and often failing.
Here is what he has to say about the 10-minute bedroom scene between Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon:
That kind of length gives you a series of behavioral moments that build on each other, and that’s what makes it funnier. . . . It’s that you’re seeing real life. You’re seeing a couple in real time. She’s taking her makeup off and putting her creams on. He’s doing his jogging. It’s building. If the scene began with the beginning of their argument, it wouldn’t be as funny.
Wasson adds, “Movies today are about precision, but real life is a mess.”
In 1973, Mazursky made what is probably his best and most original film, Blume in Love—Wasson calls it a “manic-depressive screwball comedy”—in which a successful lawyer has a fling that loses him his wife. He becomes obsessed with getting her back, going so far as to befriend her new hippie boyfriend. The movie lopes through early-1970s Los Angeles until it hits its red-hot center—a scene in which Blume attacks his wife sexually. The sequence is both entirely believable and utterly unimaginable today, especially considering the fact that one of the biggest Hollywood stars at the time, George Segal, plays Blume.
“He rapes her,” Mazursky says, “but she wants it and she doesn’t want it. What I’m saying is that it’s complicated. Real life is complicated.” They end up back together, but his wife Nina is on to him: “You’re not my boss, Blume,” she says, as they embrace in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
The Mazursky career went on to encompass a gorgeous movie about old age, Harry and Tonto; a glowing fictionalized memoir of his own experiences as a young actor in 1950s New York called Next Stop, Greenwich Village; an overlong but resonant portrait of divorce in An Unmarried Woman; a wonderful midlife-crisis mashup of Shakespeare, Tempest; and the heartfelt melting-pot celebration, Moscow on the Hudson. There were missteps along the way, but usually because Mazursky was, in the Woody Allen manner, emulating other directors (Fellini in Alex in Wonderland from 1970, Truffaut in Willie and Phil from 1980) rather than speaking in his own expansive, messy, and unusual voice.
In 1989, he made the most unusual movie of his career, Enemies: A Love Story, an enigmatic black comedy about Holocaust survivors based on a lesser Isaac Bashevis Singer novel. It was acclaimed and Oscar-nominated—but his next, Scenes from a Mall, was a misstep, and marked the effective end of his career as a major figure in Hollywood.
The only contemporary moviemaker who evokes Mazursky is the writer and director Judd Apatow, who similarly graduated from outlandish comedies (The Monkees TV show was a Mazursky creation, while Apatow worked on Will Ferrell vehicles) to large-hearted and leisurely attempts to portray the way we live now. But Mazursky’s movies are far more ambitious and socially precise than Apatow’s. Indeed, they rely on their observational exactitude to create the conditions for the humor and pathos he could summon up peerlessly.
More telling is the fact that studio executives wanted to work with Mazursky not only because he was able to make money but because he made the kinds of movies they were proud to associate themselves with—movies that, by their very existence, suggested the medium was something valuable in and of itself. No one in Hollywood even pretends to believe anything remotely like that now.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.