Age of genius
A conversation with seminal director Paul Mazursky
By Ivor Davis 03/18/2010
He’s worked with the best in the business: Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Bette Midler, Peter Sellers, Natalie Wood, Angelica Huston and Richard Dreyfuss. And now writer-director and sometime actor Paul Mazursky is heading to Ventura to spill the beans about his 40-year career working with some of the greatest talents in Hollywood.
The Ventura Film Society Festival 2010, March 25-28, is bringing the auteur to our town and screening eight of his best movies, including Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).
From the 1960s through the 1990s, Mazursky was the must-see director, and now as he approaches his 80th birthday, festival-goers will be able to see what all the fuss was about his inventive, diverse body of work, which ranges from his swipe at the swingin’ ’60s in Bob & Carol to his thinly veiled autobiographical Next Stop Greenwich Village (with Shelley Winters playing his oppressive Jewish mother) to more serious subject matter with his adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s post-Holocaust story Enemies: A Love Story, his signature comedy Blume In Love (1973) and, not to be overlooked, Moscow on the Hudson (1984), a hilarious romp with Robin Williams as an indefatigable and very hairy Russian defector.
Mazursky is not one of those aging filmmakers who has little to say. After all, he started as a stand-up comic and actor before making his mark as a comedy writer and then director. Born in the working-class Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1930, he dreamed of a career on stage and in front of the camera. At age 22 he landed a small role in Fear and Desire, directed by another unknown: Stanley Kubrick.
Two years later, he was hired to play a young punk in the 1955 classic Blackboard Jungle opposite Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. For four years he penned gags for funnyman Danny Kaye, also landing gigs as a stand-up comic in Greenwich Village. Along the way, he persuaded the movie moguls to give him the directorial reins for a slew of pictures. Seizing the moment during the turbulent ’60s zeitgeist, Mazursky scored big with Bob & Carol and never looked back.
More recently, Mazursky has popped up on HBO’s hit comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Busy as he is, he paused long enough to talk to VCReporter about what it was like to get up close and personal with performing geniuses like the late Sellers and Kaye, as well as Robin Williams and Woody Allen, and why he still feels, after his long and celebrated career, like a Hollywood maverick.
VCReporter: How is it that after a long career in Hollywood, you still see yourself as a maverick?
Paul Mazursky: I’m a curious maverick, if I am one. All the pictures I made were for the studios, although today it’s unlikely they would bankroll them. Today you have to open big on Friday. It’s got to be a big franchise-type movie designed more for kids. Or be very violent. But on the other hand, the independently made The Hurt Locker won the Oscar and made very little money at the box office. Same goes for Crazy Heart.
VCR: How did you persuade Peter Sellers, who was then a huge international name, to star in that quirky little movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! — which you and Larry Tucker wrote?
We planned to make a low-budget, $200,000 movie with me directing. The agent Freddie Fields showed the script to Sellers. He had done Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Freddie told me, “Peter loves it, but for God’s sake, don’t dare mention you want to direct.” (Note: Hy Averback eventually directed the movie.)
VCR: Did you get close to Sellers?
Peter was brilliant, but quite crazy. I went to his house one day and chatted at the pool with his wife Britt Ekland as his kids swam. A few hours later, Peter called Freddie to complain that I was trying to have an affair with Britt. Eventually, he forgot that — but he could turn on you in a second. Also, many times during filming he’d call at 3 in the morning, wake me up and say, “Listen to this piece of music, it’s great for tomorrow’s scene. I’m sending it over right now.”
VCR: You worked with Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Presumably, he was easier?
Absolutely. He wanted me to do improv on stage with him, but I was scared to death. He’s a lightning brain. First we were going to get Dustin Hoffman for the part. Then, after Robin took it, Dustin called and said he wanted in again.
VCR: You made your first film, Fear and Desire, as an actor working for Stanley Kubrick. How did that come about?
I was graduating college in Brooklyn, and a relative of Stanley said he was putting up $20,000 to make the movie. He’d seen me in an off-Broadway play and asked if I would act in the picture being directed by his nephew. That was Stanley: this black-haired young photographer who was two years older than me, and had a dog and a wife and a great eye. The script was arty, but Stanley didn’t know a thing about acting. I played a GI having a nervous breakdown. Of course, Stanley went on to become one of the greats in the movie business although that movie wasn’t his best.
VCR: And how did you land a role in Blackboard Jungle?
In 1954, John Cassavetes came into the Salad Bowl restaurant in New York, where I worked behind the counter, and said, “They’re looking for juvenile delinquents for a movie. Are you interested?” I lied like mad, saying I’d done a whole bunch of Broadway plays. Richard Brooks, the director, liked me and hired me.
VCR: How did you get Woody Allen to do Scenes from a Mall?
My agent called and said, “Woody needs a payday.” When I wrote the script, I was thinking Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. I knew that Woody in the role was going to change the quality of the movie, but we signed him — and Bette Midler, who had worked with me in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. So here I was directing two huge movie icons. The big problem was, Woody only wanted to do one take on each scene. He said he needed to leave early to see the Knicks play.
VCR: And didn’t you once make a movie for Orson Welles?
Yes and no. A producer friend called and said, “Orson wants you to be in his new movie, The Other Side of the Wind. But you must go to his house tonight at 8.” I thought it was a joke, but I showed up, and there was the gargantuan Welles who sat me down opposite his friend Henry Jaglom, and told us to argue about Hollywood movies. So we improvised as Welles poured me glasses of brandy and asked questions. The movie never came out, but today you can watch those scenes on YouTube.
VCR: Were you surprised when Art Carney won the Best Actor Oscar for Harry and Tonto in l974?
I first offered Danny Kaye the chance to win an Oscar in the role. I had written for him for four years when he had a variety show on CBS. He wanted to be pratfall funny, and so he turned me down. Art won, beating out Pacino for The Godfather II, Nicholson in Chinatown and Dustin Hoffman for Lenny.
VCR: Have you become a victim of ageism in Hollywood?
I’ve got two movies I’m trying to get made. One of them is a script I wrote nine years ago based on a Bernard Malamud book. Ageism isn’t new in Hollywood. The great Billy Wilder told me he couldn’t get a movie made for 15 years. That’s the way it is. Now they want to remake Bob & Carol, which broke new ground in movies. I’d prefer them to leave it alone. OK, (laughs) maybe they could shoot the orgy scene in 3-D.
The Ventura Film Society’s tribute to Paul Mazursky takes place during the Society’s second annual festival, March 25-28, with select Mazursky films screening on all three days. Mazursky will be in attendance at the March 27 and 28 screenings, and he’ll be accompanied by actor George Segal for Blume in Love on March 27, 5:40 p.m. For a complete festival schedule and other information, please visit www.venturafilmsociety.com.