In John Herzfeld's TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY, Paul Mazursky played Teddy Peppers, a film director whose career has seen better days. He's got a Golden Globe and still bumps into cast & crew from his old movies, but these reminders just highlight how far he's fallen from the spotlight. He's broke, unemployed, and worst of all, forgotten.
This was my first exposure to Mazursky, and that's the portrait of his status which framed my appreciation for him and his work. He, like Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Rafelson, and many others, was one of those dudes who flourished in the creative landscape of the '70s, only to be swept aside by the commercial thunderdome of the '80s and '90s, never to fully recover. He didn't have the lofty ambitions of Godard or the searing intimacy of a Bergman, but what he did, he did great.
He started his career as an actor in stuff like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and Kubrick's FEAR AND DESIRE, but he took to directing like a fish to water. His first film, BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, was a massive counterculture hit, and watching it now it's easy to see why. The film deals with the culture shift of the late-'60s, and how a married couple flounders to keep up with the social trends that defined the era. Like EASY RIDER or THE GRADUATE, it held a mirror up to what was happening right then, and the film singlehandedly kickstarted Mazursky's career.
Creatively, he'd kill it with films like HARRY AND TONTO and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, and he had commercial hits with MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON and DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, but he never graduated to the level of his contemporaries like Coppola or Scorsese. His interest usually leaned towards domestic, small-scale relationship dramas than to the big-budget spectacles that began dominating the scene. Provocative subjects like class struggles and sexual politics fascinated him more than any explosions or flashy gags.
By the time he did THE PICKLE, his strained relationship with the industry was on full display. The film has Danny Aiello as a has-been director who takes on a sci-fi project about an alien ship shaped like a giant pickle (featuring Dudley Moore and Little Richard, no less), and it's hard to ignore the parallels between the character and the director. He looks around the industry that'd been his bread-and-butter for 20 years, and he doesn't understand what he sees or his place in it. Sadly (or ironically) enough, THE PICKLE itself is something of a misfire, and did nothing to reaffirm his stature in Hollywood.
After THE PICKLE, Mazursky mostly just acted (save for the Cher vehicle FAITHFUL and a few TV movies), popping up in stuff like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, THE SOPRANOS, Jeff Garlin's I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH, and Antonio Banderas' CRAZY IN ALABAMA. In 2001, Frank Darabont cast him as one of the offscreen, empty-headed studio execs in THE MAJESTIC alongside heavy hitters Sydney Pollack, Garry Marshall, and Carl and Rob Reiner. Putting him in their ranks seemed to be giving him more credit than the industry of the time tended to relent.
Still, Mazursky remained an open, accessible figure, always willing to talk about his films (even THE PICKLE, which features an extended interview with the director on the DVD). Just this past March, Mazursky participated (from a wheelchair) in a live Q & A with writer Larry Karaszewski at the Cinefamily here in L.A. And having left us due to a heart attack at 84, his legacy includes 5 Oscar nominations (four for writing), collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Shelly Winters, Brian De Palma, and John Cassavetes, and a roster of fine works.
May he get the appreciation in death he was so often denied during his life.