“When I had an idea for a movie, I never thought about making a ‘contribution’ to the cinema or of being a revolutionary,” Paul Mazursky said, sitting in his small, poster-filled office in Beverly Hills.
Cinephiles of a certain age and attitude beg to differ. So does the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which will confer its Career Achievement Award on the veteran director, screenwriter and actor at its dinner on Jan. 15.
From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Mazursky set the standard with his social satire, exploration of the nascent sexual revolution and creation of complex Jewish characters.
Among his memorable pictures were “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Blume in Love,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “Moscow on the Hudson,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Enemies, A Love Story.”
Brent Simon, president of the critics association, put it well, saying, “It is impossible to imagine American independent cinema in its current form without Paul Mazursky in all his multihyphenate glory. Mazursky is a great figure in world cinema, as well as an American original.”
At 80, the self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn” and “optimistic cynic” has lost none of his acerbic wit nor his penchant for telling endless jokes, some even printable.
But a new corporate Hollywood and a new generation of moviegoers seem to have lost their taste for, and their understanding of, Mazursky’s sly wit, iconoclastic worldview and wry take on the human condition.
“I have five scripts in my desk drawer, but no one is willing to finance them,” said the man who has garnered four Oscar nominations for his screenplays and one as producer.
But Hollywood’s neglect, plus a quadruple coronary bypass operation, has not idled Mazursky, to the benefit of his Jewish fans.
Four years ago, the outspoken atheist created and self-financed a funny and warm film, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” tracking a pilgrimage of some 25,000 ecstatic Chasidim to the Ukraine grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
Returning to his roots as an actor, he appeared frequently in episodes of the TV shows “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He also has lent his talents to the West Coast Jewish Theatre to direct “The Catskill Sonata” and “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie.”
Understandably, Mazursky casts a somewhat jaundiced eye on the current movie scene.
“Hollywood still makes some good movies, like ‘Fair Game,’ but the values are different,” he said. “Sure, the old movie moguls like Mayer and Goldwyn wanted to make money, but they also wanted to produce something classy, or, like the Warner brothers, something socially relevant.
“The days when the Jews ran Hollywood are over. Today, the likes of Sony and [Rupert] Murdoch own the studios, and they’re just in it for the money.”
As for his outlook as a Jew, Mazursky said, “I feel Jewish as a secular Jew, I feel emotional about it, and I love the culture. I get angry when anyone says a bad thing about Jews.”
In a previous interview with The Jewish Journal, Mazursky was asked about his philosophy of filmmaking.
“All my films have been shaped by how I feel about life, for better or for worse,” he said. “I think life is a cosmic joke. I believe in the power of love, I think it cures, and the older I get, the less sure I am that I know what I know. I always derive an enormous amount of pleasure from the things that humans do that are surprising and touching and sometimes a little crazy.”