Filmmaker Paul Mazursky, 84, 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 of pulmonary cardiac arrest.
In his 17 films, released between the late 1960s and early 1990s, Mazursky sometimes played the triple role of director, writer and actor.
Most of his films earned critical acclaim, if 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 Jean, who sometimes allowed her son to skip school so they could watch double features together.
Between 2006 and 2011, this reporter sat down with Mazursky in his crammed Beverly Hills office for three extensive interviews, during which the filmmaker 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 Chasidim in the Ukrainian town of Uman to sing, dance and pray at the grave of the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
“I could never think like a Chasid,” Mazursky concluded after this experience. “But I learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. 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.
Mazursky 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 goers seemed to have lost their taste for and understanding of 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 [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.”
Mazursky is survived by Betsy, his wife of 61 years, their daughter Jill Mazursky, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Daughter Meg died of cancer in 2009.