Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dear Paul Mazursky, Thanks for the Last Great Run of Romantic Comedies

     We recently caught Harry and Tonto on TCM.  I thought it was going to be an over-rated trifle, but I was always curious about how Art Carney won the Oscar in 1975 over Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Albert Finney.  After watching the movie, it made total sense and then made me wonder how Lenny, the dreariest commercial/art movie of the ‘70s, and The Towering Inferno, the most unintentionally hilarious celebrity snuff disaster film ever, were nominated over it for Best Movie.  Director Paul Mazursky always made romantic comedies, not in the contemporary sense that they were about love and relationships, but rather in the traditional heroic sense that they were about a search and journey – sometimes physical, sometimes emotional – and they always ended with the protagonist(s) in a new world view.

Art Carney as Harry with Tonto the Cat
     Harry and Tonto presents Harry, a seventy something year old widower – a retired teacher – figuring out who he is at that stage in his life.  He’s disconnected from himself, but not from his surroundings or the other characters.  He’s extremely engaged and able to befriend people different from himself either by age, gender, ethnicity, religious thought, or temperament.  His closest companion is Tonto, his aging but
very active cat.  (We can only wish Dexter would walk on a lead and ride in a car, though he paid attention to parts of the movie).  Their adventures as they are forced from their apartment in a dilapidated part of the Upper West side of Manhattan to a new home near Venice Beach are funny, touching, wild, discreet, and honest.
    Carney is a wonder as he embodies a decent, intelligent, clear-eyed survivor who comes to realize that he still has something to contribute to the future. The final image is not so much sentimental, but symbolic as he helps a young girl build a sand castle while she jokingly makes faces at him.  (In these times of ‘stranger danger,’ the girl has nothing to be worried about since we’ve already seen Harry deal with youngsters in the most scrupulously ethical fashion).  Harry’s last scene with Tonto is poignant and his scene with a bawdy, flirtatious retiree played by Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, sums up the life view of a generation that was the last, great wave to come through Ellis Island and came of age during the 1920s.

The Final Scene of Harry and Tonto
Currently, such a scene would utilize raunchier language and would be played either more broadly or flatly, but wouldn’t be able to reproduce the complex texture.  Mazursky and Josh Greenfield’s screenplay was deservedly Oscar nominated, but Mazursky’s direction was not recognized and that is another head scratcher because it’s the direction that makes it sing.
Paul Mazursky
     Mazursky was from New York City and had been an actor in the early 1950s who studied the Method and then moved west where he was cast in TV episodes and movies until he became a writer for The Danny Thomas Show and then co-wrote the pilot for The Monkees with Larry Tucker.  With Tucker producing, he began writing and directing movies starting with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969.  

The Cast of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
     B&C&T&A, as it became known, was an immediate hit because it daringly presented open marriages and the possibility of wife-swapping among friends.  It satirized Esalen, free love, psychiatry, and the affluence of California’s suburban professional class and it did so with greater complexity and less finger pointing than The Graduate and with less stridency and greater depth than Divorce, American StyleB&C&T&A was the American answer to the socially conscious sex comedies coming out of Europe in the 1960s, specifically Divorce Italian Style, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, Morgan, Georgy Girl, and Stolen Kisses.   Looking at that list, I wish Mazursky had had a chance to work with Sophia Loren or Marcello Mastroianni because both actors had a loose playfulness about them that would have meshed perfectly with his scripted and funky style that had its basis in both Method acting and improvisation.

     Mazursky is the type of director that loves actors and knows what to do with them.  I imagine him working in an almost Socratic dialogue with them whereas Woody Allen would be more like a Freudian.  Both of them cast terrific working professionals that they had some connection with because of New York and a number of those performers finally earned the greater recognition they deserved while some others became stars.  Allen has made a film every year; there is no American director more prolific.  Mazursky, however, had a run of films from 1969 to 1989 that was pretty amazing. I saw some of the weaker ones (Willie and Phil – his American hippie take on Truffaut’s between the World Wars Jules and Jim, Moon Over Parador – a little too whimsical in its depiction of a Central American dictatorship and its uncomfortably close relationship with “U.S. interests”), but they weren’t duds.  The major works – Blume in Love, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (his updated version of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning), and Enemies:  A Love Story look stronger now than they did in their own time.  Allen has had an extraordinary run for the past forty years, but I don’t think he made as many purely entertaining movies that said so much about America during that same period.  

     Interestingly, Allen is a former stand up comic who is recognized more for his direction whereas it is writing that is his secret weapon, while Mazursky, as an intermittently working actor, was recognized more for his writing whereas it is his directing that is his bread and butter.  Allen has consistently taken risks in form by parodying many different subgenres whereas Mazursky was more concerned with going deeper emotionally and responding to what was happening in the U.S. during the rise and predominance of the counterculture.  In terms of tone, Mazursky is the yang to Allen’s yin.  Mazursky embodies warmth, inclusion, and wisdom whereas Allen embodies wit, exclusion, and intellect.  What goes against Allen is that some of his themes seem repetitive and even impersonal, but what goes against Mazursky, and this is why he is not revered as I think he should be, is that his work looks period-bound – even dated – because we’re not far enough away from that era.

     Many actors in Allen’s movies have been nominated or won awards.  Mazursky, however, guided many actors to equally great performances.  Art Carney has already been mentioned.  Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon became stars because of B&C&T&A and were the templates for their performing personas for decades afterwards.  George Segal had already been a star, but was both hilarious and shocking in Blume in Love.  Lenny Baker, a potentially huge talent who died young of cancer, and Ellen Greene were the epitome of the fresh, hip, pre-Beatnik Silent Generation in Next Stop, Greenwich Village that actually transformed the American cultural landscape for which the Baby Boomers loudly take credit.  Shelley Winters’ mid-career image as the mother from hell reached its zenith here and she’s both vitally compassionate and repugnant.

Jill Clayburgh as An Unmarried Woman
What more can be said about Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman except that the role and her performance brilliantly epitomized the ‘70s – divorce, feminism, equality, self-discovery and realization.  Robin Williams sets my teeth on edge, but he was charming, funny, poignant, sad, and believably Russian in Moscow on the Hudson.   Nick Nolte was ragged, suicidal, intelligent, believably sexy and compassionate in Down and Out.  The entire cast of Enemies was extraordinary and both the movie and Ron Silver in the lead are forgotten treasures of the 1980s.  Unlike other Holocaust works, it examines what happened to European Jews after they’d survived and made it to the U.S.  It’s also one of the best literary adaptations ever.

Maybe they'll remake Harry and Tonto and I can try out for it!

No comments: