Betsy Mazursky Has Not Been 'an Unmarried Woman,' Husband Paul's Movie Hit, for 25 Years
‘Someone wrote Betsy is eerily calm,’ Paul says. Is it laid back or repressed?’
In Manhattan’s Washington Square Park filmmaker Paul Mazursky, 48, embraces his social worker wife Betsy, 51, as they fondly reenact their first meeting in 1952. Then Mazursky suddenly deadpans, “Betsy, it’s been real nice being with you these 25 years…See you, kid.”
He walks away, stops and in mock despair pretends to throw up on his tawny overcoat. The Mazurskys’ Australian silky terrier, Bogie, whose curling lip resembles his namesake’s, starts to yelp at this point. Paul is clearly pleased: “You see, the dog got panicky.”
The scene is a parody of Mazursky’s latest and most successful movie, An Unmarried Woman. In it a stockbroker (Michael Murphy) tells his wife of 16 years (Jill Clayburgh) that he is leaving her for a younger woman he met in the shirt department at Bloomingdale’s. Shocked at being abandoned, she clutches a lamp post and vomits. “We are nothing like the film,” Mazursky insists. “It’s fiction. It’s not our story.”
There are reasons why he and Betsy protest so much. One is that a number of previous Mazursky films—notably Alex in Wonderland and Next Stop, Greenwich Village—were acknowledged to be variations on Paul’s own insecurity-plagued New York youth and career struggles. Another reason is that the wisecracking teenage daughter in Unmarried Woman bears a more than passing resemblance to Jill Mazursky, 13. And still another reason seems obvious. In showbiz these days, how long can a long-married couple survive, especially when the husband is a much-traveled movie director and the wife a non-Hollywood type who has gone into therapy to expand her consciousness? Isn’t domestic chaos inevitable?
The Mazurskys say no. This is the first and only marriage for both. Not only have they not been divorced, they’ve never even been separated. They rarely argue. There are none of the stinging one-liners used by, say, Neil Simon’s mismated New Yorkers. Says Unmarried Woman star Michael Murphy, “When I took the part I thought it was written by someone who knew a lot about marital turmoil. As I became friends with Paul and Betsy I realized how stable and solid their relationship is. It’s so rare in this business.”
The Mazurskys’ unlikely idyll began at the Washington Square fountain. The Brooklyn-born Mazursky was a struggling actor, Betsy an itinerant jewelry-box salesman’s daughter (“I went to 12 schools before graduating”) who was completing a master’s degree in library science at Pratt. She was perusing the New York Times and he was nearby plowing through Neurotica, a now defunct literary journal. “Someone else tried to pick me up,” Betsy recalls. “A sailor or something. Paul got rid of him, walked me home and invited me to a movie screening a week later.” The next year they were married at City Hall.
While Betsy worked as a librarian in city schools Paul scrounged for parts, eventually trying a career as a stand-up comic—no laughing matter, as it turned out. After five years of marriage they had their first daughter, Meg, now 20 and a student at UCLA. Two years later they moved to the West Coast, where Mazursky was a writer for The Danny Kaye Show on TV (“It was good money and a steady job”). Meanwhile, he was writing movie scripts and attending an evening film course at USC.
Finally in 1967 Mazursky co-wrote the screenplay for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, a comedy about a middle-class dropout starring Peter Sellers. Other successes zeroing in on the psyche followed. His first directing job was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (on wife swapping), then Blume in Love (marriage) and Harry and Tonto (old age).
Mazursky still occasionally acts. In Unmarried Woman he’s the boor escorting Clayburgh’s friend in the Chinese restaurant scene. In A Star Is Born he was Kris Kristofferson’s manager.
“I’ll tell you what there is to know about Mazursky,” sneers one woman acquaintance. “He uses his friends as models for characters in his movies.” (She nevertheless boasts of “appearing” in Bob & Carol.) Perhaps because of this verisimilitude, most of Mazursky’s films have been well received. He and Betsy are now in Cannes, where An Unmarried Woman is among the four U.S. entries competing for best picture. Throughout his career he has maintained a rare degree of control over his work, writing as well as directing six of his seven features.
Betsy works as a senior citizens’ counselor in L.A. and on a research project on welfare eligibility in New York. “I’ve had a lot of volunteer jobs,” she says, “but people don’t take them as seriously as those that pay. It’s the way society measures you.” (Both her current jobs are unsalaried.)
The Mazurskys divide their time between an unostentatious two-bedroom Greenwich Village co-op and a four-bedroom Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills. “We live where Paul wants to write or direct,” Betsy says. They sometimes see alumni of Mazursky films socially—Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Elliot Gould, Ellen Burstyn—but most of their friends date back to Betsy’s baby carriage days in Los Angeles with daughter Meg and their early years in New York.
Their sharp younger daughter, Jill, also keeps them busy. She’s reading a novel, A Runaway’s Diary (“I’m getting some good ideas”), and also operates a skateboard repair shop in the corner of her Manhattan bedroom. “I’m more like Meg,” says mother Betsy. “Jill is acting out my fantasies about being brazen.”
Mazursky, as well as his wife, has been in psychotherapy. “Just talking things out makes them seem less shocking,” says Paul. Betsy explains: “I felt I wanted to explore some areas to become less dependent and more assertive.” Paul, whose conversation leans toward Socratic dialogue mixed with tongue-in-cheek psychoanalytic probing, observes, “Betsy is extremely honest. Sometimes I’ll ask for approval and I won’t get it. Someone wrote that she is eerily calm. Is it laid back or repressed? I don’t know.” When Betsy does not respond, he adds. “Maybe she is really the dominant one.”
Whichever, he’s not complaining. “Betsy has been with me through everything,” he says. “She’s helped shape a lot of my ideas about women. She’s played the married woman for 25 years.” Betsy interrupts, “It’s a hard role,” then smiles.