Paul Mazursky, the innovative and versatile director who showed the absurdity of modern life in such movies as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman, has died. He was 84.
The filmmaker died of pulmonary cardiac arrest Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Mazursky’s spokeswoman Nancy Willen.
As a talented writer, actor, producer and director, Mazursky racked up five Oscar nominations, mostly for writing such films as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Enemies, A Love Story.
He also created memorable roles for the likes of Art Carney, Jill Clayburgh and Natalie Wood. Later in life, Mazursky acted in such TV series as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm and films such as Carlito’s Way and 2 Days in the Valley.
“A true raconteur, Paul brought humor and spirit to the many guild meetings he attended during two decades of service to the DGA,” said Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay. “He shared his provocative views of humanity in his many films, but what he shared with us were quick quips, thoughtful responses and pointed anecdotes always geared toward making us think and feel.”
Acting for Kubrick
He was born Irwin Mazursky in 1930 in Brooklyn. During the Depression, the family lived on the small wages his father earned as a laborer for the federal Works Progress Administration. When Mazursky graduated from high school, he changed his name from Irwin, which he had hated, to Paul.
Mazursky had always dreamed of becoming an actor, and he appeared in student plays at Brooklyn College. With the school’s permission, he flew to California to act in Fear and Desire, director Stanley Kubrick’s first film. When he received bad reviews, Mazursky buckled down to studying acting with a variety of teachers, including Lee Strasberg. But he found the most success behind the camera.
Mazursky and his writing partner Larry Tucker first triumphed with the script for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a clever takeoff on the emerging sexual freedom of the late 1960s. Warner Bros. turned it down for fear of its racy subject, but Columbia scooped it up and accepted Mazursky’s proviso that he would direct the film.
Natalie Wood and Robert Culp portrayed Carol and Bob, a well-off couple who seek open lives. Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould played Alice and Ted, who hesitate but acquiesce in Carol and Bob’s invitation to wife-swapping. In the end, the quartet bow to the old morality and the wife-swapping remains unconsummated.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a success at the box office and set up Mazursky as rising director of the new school. His next film was Alex in Wonderland, which was also co-written by Tucker, starring Donald Sutherland as a young director who, like Mazursky, had a hit first movie and mulled about what to make for his second. It was scorned by critics.
Mazursky ended his relationship with Tucker and spent six months with his family in Rome and London, recovering from his failure. He later returned to filmmaking, continuing with his socially adept films, many of which he wrote, produced, directed and acted in, including the autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, Tempest, Moscow on the Hudson and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
“I know there are some wonderful filmmakers with really tragic views of life,” Mazursky told the Atlantic magazine. “But for me absurdity is just around the corner. I see it all the time.”
Several Oscar Nominations
Over the years, he was nominated four times for screenplay Oscars: 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, 1974’s Harry and Tonto, 1978’s An Unmarried Woman and 1989’s Enemies, A Love Story. As a co-producer, he also shared in the best picture nomination for An Unmarried Woman.
Mazursky returned to semi-autobiography in his poorly received 1993 film The Pickle, about an aging movie director grappling with professional and personal stumbles. In an Associated Press interview, he objected to the notion someone had expressed to him that the film’s hero, played by Danny Aiello, was despicable.
“Every director I’ve met who was involved with a movie is self-centered,” he said. “Directors are not walking around like Mahatma Gandhi saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the movie.’ They’re worried about their movie! They’re crazed!”
He is survived by his wife, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchild.