Paul Mazursky, at 84; writer-director probed America’s foibles

Paul Mazursky was considered one of the most insightful American directors of the 1970s.
AP/1978 file
Paul Mazursky was considered one of the most insightful American directors of the 1970s.

NEW YORK — Paul Mazursky, an innovative director and screenwriter who satirized and sympathized with America’s panorama of social upheavals in the late 1960s and ’70s in films that included “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Blume in Love,” and “An Unmarried Woman,” died Monday of pulmonary cardiac arrest at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a family spokeswoman said. He was 84.

Mr. Mazursky lived in Beverly Hills.

As the counterculture revolution shattered traditional norms of sex, marriage, and conformity, Mr. Mazursky made his most popular and commercially successful films: lighthearted sendups of wife-swapping, group therapy, pot-smoking, midlife crises, and other self-absorbed, middle-class indulgences that reviewers said he crafted with even-handedness and generosity.


Some critics complained that his satire was not more cutting. Others called his comedies crisp at a time when behavior was at its fuzziest. Vincent Canby, in a 1976 analysis in The New York Times, acknowledged: “Mazursky is a tough man to handle critically. He is alternately witty and brilliantly sarcastic, then suddenly, soddenly, sincere and self-centered, only to explode unexpectedly as a first-rate social satirist.”

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Indeed, comic ambiguity, blending satire and social observation, was Mr. Mazursky’s stock in trade.

In his most vivid illustration of the technique, he explored the pain and dislocation of divorce, and its liberating effects, in “An Unmarried Woman,” released in 1978 and embraced by the women’s movement. His screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, while the film itself was nominated for a best picture Oscar and Jill Clayburgh for best actress.

In the film Clayburgh, who died in 2010, plays a wealthy, happily married mother in Manhattan whose stockbroker husband of 16 years announces tearfully that he is leaving her for a younger woman he had met at Bloomingdale’s. Dumbfounded, she stalks away and retches in a trash bin. Rage and sorrow ensue. But new freedoms — a resurgent self-esteem, another man in her life, the power to make her own decisions — bring fresh perspectives on sex, independence, and her identity as a woman.

Mr. Mazursky told Sam Wasson, the author of “Paul on Mazursky” (2011), that his films were shaped less by broad cultural trends than by what he saw around him. “When I wrote ‘An Unmarried Woman’ I was aware of the women’s movement, which was happening then,” he said. “But it was happening to me! I wrote it not because it was happening in America, but because I’d seen divorce happening around me.”


Mr. Mazursky made his directing debut in 1969 with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” which skewered wife-swapping, encounter groups, and Esalen, the California counterculture mecca. The four swap partners explore their feelings and wind up in a crowded bed together without actually having sex, looking quizzical and a bit guilty — an image that seemed to sum up middle-class doubts over wrenching societal changes.

In “Blume in Love” (1973), Mr. Mazursky examined a man (portrayed by George Segal) who flippantly divorces his wife (Susan Anspach), then realizes that he still loves her and uses desperate, even violent means to win her back. The marriage is renewed against the splendors of Venice, but it is hardly a happy ending. The couple’s privileged world of psychiatry, money, and marijuana remains flawed by the fundamental emptiness of their lives.

In “Harry and Tonto” (1974), which he wrote with Josh Greenfeld, Mr. Mazursky found subtle humor in the hardships of aging. In the film, Art Carney plays a crotchety old man who, with his cat, Tonto, travels across an America populated by misfits, including his own children. Carney won the Academy Award as best actor for his performance.

Some critics likened Mr. Mazursky to European directors Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir, and François Truffaut for his ability to bring out the interior lives of his characters.

Mr. Mazursky was a show-business rarity, almost never out of work in a run of six decades that began as a stage and screen actor in the early 1950s and was still adding credits at the time of his death. He appeared in some 90 Hollywood films and television productions; wrote comedies and dramas for television, and, starting in the late 1960s, directed, produced, and wrote screenplays for a score of films.


For all that, there was an ageless quality about him. Associates said he had boundless energy, the rapid patter of a stand-up comic and an actor’s gift for memory.

Some of his later films were his most ambitious, notably a 1989 adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1972 novel, “Enemies, a Love Story,” which he wrote with Roger L. Simon. That film examines the hopes, foibles, and fatalisms of Holocaust survivors in New York, centering on a Jewish man (Ron Silver) who shares one apartment with his wife and another with a mistress while maintaining a vexing third relationship with a former wife. When she turns up, the film becomes a triple-romance comedy of high anxiety against a backdrop of painful memories.

Mr. Mazursky never won an Oscar but was nominated five times. In addition to “An Unmarried Woman,” he received best screenplay nominations for “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” and “Enemies, a Love Story.”

“Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the ’70s,” the critic Richard Corliss wrote in 1978. “No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations.”