Filmmaker Paul Mazursky, whose perceptive social satires explored the nascent sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s and created complex Jewish characters, died June 30 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The cause of his death at 84 was pulmonary cardiac arrest.
In 17 films, released between the late 1960s and early 1990s, Mazursky usually doubled and tripled as director, writer and actor.
Most of his films earned critical acclaim (though not always box office success), starting with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and followed by “Blume in Love,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies, A Love Story.”
Born Irwin Mazursky in New York City, he was the only child of David, a laborer, and his wife Jean, who allowed her son to skip school so both could watch two double features a day together.
Between 2006 and 2011, a Jewish Journal reporter sat down with Mazursky in his crammed Beverly Hills office for three extensive interviews, in which the director shared his unconventional take on being Jewish, his views on filmmaking and the human race, and his frustration at his inability to get financial backing for his projects during the last two decades of his life.
The self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn” was an outspoken atheist with a deep affinity for Jewish life and characters.
In his offbeat 2006 documentary “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” Mazursky joined 25,000 Chassidim in the Ukrainian town of Uman, to sing, dance and pray at the grave of the great Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
“I could never think like a Chassid,” Mazursky concluded after this experience. “But I learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chassidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things.”
The film’s title reflects one of Mazursky’s numerous sayings, namely “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee’.”
Mazursky demonstrated his own ability to discern both light and darkness in the human condition in “Enemies: A Love Story,” based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Its conflicted hero is a Holocaust survivor who comes to America, where he tries to sort out his relationships with his three concurrent wives.
He presented a different kind of Jew in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” starring Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss as a very wealthy and very Jewish Beverly Hills couple. The 1986 film was his biggest commercial hit.
But by the late 1980s, a new corporate Hollywood and a new generation of movie goes seemed to have lost their taste and understanding for Mazursky’s sly wit, iconoclastic world view and wry take on the human condition.
“I have five scripts in my desk drawer, but no one is willing to finance them,” groused the man who garnered four Oscar nominations for his screenplays and one as producer.
When asked about his outlook as a Jew, Mazursky told The Journal “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.”
He expanded a follow-up question on his philosophy of filmmaking to talk about his view of life.
“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 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.”
Mazursky is survived by Betsy, his wife of 61 years, their daughter Jill Mazursky, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Another daughter, Meg, died of cancer in 2009.
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