book review—Paul on Mazursky

by Sam Wasson; foreword by Mel Brooks (Wesleyan University Press)

A filmmaker with Paul Mazursky’s résumé deserves a great book about his career—and now he has one, thanks to Sam Wasson, who is not only a gifted writer but (like his subject) a keen student of human nature. This is no dry dissertation, nor is it a conventional interview volume. Wasson takes us inside Mazursky’s world and makes us feel a part of it—not only by painting vivid word pictures of the daily doings surrounding each of their conversations, but by talking to many of the filmmaker’s closest collaborators, from casting director Juliet Taylor to the late actress Jill Clayburgh. He also adds his own incisive comments about each movie, even when his opinion clashes with the director’s.

The interviews with Mazursky—the ultimate mensch—are incredibly thoughtful and detailed, often interrupted by—

—phone calls and jokes. (One day, in the midst of a conversation, the director even dozes off!) They make you want to revisit all of his films, not just the hits and award winners (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Harry and Tonto, An Unmarried Woman, Enemies: A Love Story) but even the imperfect ones and outright failures (Alex in Wonderland, Tempest, Scenes from a Mall). I was especially interested to learn just how thoroughly Mazursky mined his own life for the poignant (and brilliant) Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

How many other writer-directors managed to tap into the zeitgeist so acutely in the late 60s, and right through the 1970s and 80s, without compromising his intelligence or ideals for the sake of box-office returns? His intelligence, and his humanity, make him a singular figure in modern American cinema, yet somehow he’s been overlooked, or taken for granted.

That’s not to say he hasn’t had his share of recognition, including five Academy Award nominations. Just this year the Los Angeles Film Critics Association presented him with its Career Achievement Award, which permitted him to hold court at our annual dinner. (SEE HERE)

But if Mazursky’s work was popular in its time, it’s also worthy of respect and renewed interest today. Any man who’s managed to pay homage to Fellini and remake Renoir in mainstream Hollywood has to be doing something right. (He even wrote a script for, and directed, Woody Allen.)

As to why a man this passionate and gifted has had so much difficulty launching projects in recent years, that’s a sad comment on the changing ways of Hollywood—which Mazursky isn’t reluctant to say out loud.

I thoroughly enjoyed Paul on Mazursky. It’s a great read as well as a valuable resource.

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July 2024