06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
Paul Mazursky was steaming long before he came to the microphone. Normally easygoing, the director of Down and Out in Beverly Hills had come to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting to support increased relief for the homeless. For hours, as the board discussed real estate transactions, contracts and tax assessments, Mazursky and his wife, Betsy, along with representatives of several private welfare organizations and some 400 of the homeless themselves, had been waiting patiently to present their case. "Deals!" Mazursky spat it out like a dirty word. "Those arrogant bastards are talking deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in front of these people who just want $228 a month. These people know what's going on. It's insulting to them. It's insulting to me!"
Subsequently, one of the supervisors suggested that perhaps Mazursky, who in Down and Out had made a comedy of the plight of a homeless Nick Nolte, ought to be embarrassed himself. It was a cheap shot, Mazursky thought, and later, back at his Beverly Hills office, he was still fuming. "I have great compassion for the homeless," he declared. "But Down and Out is a screwball comedy, not a documentary. I don't make movies to convey messages. I'm an entertainer."
He does send messages, but he decidedly entertains and has done so in 11 films over the past 18 years. His unique vision, previously laid bare in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Harry and Ton to (1974) and An Unmarried Woman (1978), is an eccentric combination of barbed social commentary, Borscht Belt routines, sight gags, sexual angst, sentimental memories, savage parody, romantic fantasies, wit, improvisation and the fearless comic exploitation of his own life. Through it all Mazursky, 56, has been remarkably timely in his choice of subjects. Not by design, he maintains. "When I write a movie, the last thing in the world I want to say to myself is, 'I'm doing something really important,' " he says. "That's a sure sign to me that I'm pushing. Sure, I tried to hit a note of reality in Down and Out. I think if you are making fun of something—especially if you are making fun of it—you have to have a clear sense of the truth."
The truth about Down and Out is that the movie was a leper colony that worked. The new leadership at Disney took a chance on Mazursky, whose up-and-down record at the box office made him a risky choice to direct the first R-rated film in Disney's long, wholesome history. And Mazursky took a chance on three stars who were coming off bad personal and professional experiences—Richard Dreyfuss with cocaine, Bette Midler with her 1982 flop, Jinxed, and Nolte, who was so fed up with Hollywood that he'd moved to his wife's hometown in West Virginia. It was a chancy combination, but Mazursky wasn't intimidated. "The bigger an actor becomes, the more assertive he gets about wanting to be protected," he says. "Apparently there are a lot of directors making movies who don't know what they want. Those people frighten actors, and when actors get scared, they get nasty. I never had that happen." Nolte agrees. "Paul is one of the most prepared directors I ever worked with," he says. "He exudes confidence."
Down and Out was inspired by Jean Renoir's 1932 film Boudu Saved From Drowning. But Mazursky's own sense of humor intrudes everywhere. "I see the humor in a lot of things, even homelessness," he says. "Part of me wants to be slip-on-the-banana-peel funny. The other part wants to be significant, so if I can just slip on the banana peel significantly, I'm okay. It could be my downfall, but I see the comedy, the absurdity in life. If a movie is really great, it can make you laugh and cry at the same time. After all, that's what life does."
He was born Irwin Mazursky in the impoverished Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1930, the only child of David Mazursky, a laborer, and his wife, Jean. "I grew up with movies," says Mazursky. "My mother, who was a very intense woman, loved movies passionately, and by passionately I mean that she used to take me to see two double features in one day. I would stay out of school all day, and we'd sit in the movies and eat popcorn. It was a little neurotic. By the time I was 12, I was already dreaming of being an actor. I'd go into the bathroom in our house, the only place you could be alone, and do imitations of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart."
In his senior year at Brooklyn College, Mazursky and a fellow student launched a shoestring off-Broadway production called He Who Gets Slapped. As a result Mazursky was spotted and cast in Stanley Kubrick's first film, Fear and Desire, in 1953. "From that experience I learned that if you do things, things will happen," says Mazursky. "If you don't, nothing happens. It's very simple." For two years thereafter, Mazursky worked as a waiter in a health food restaurant and studied acting by night. "There is something wonderful about when you begin, because you are afraid of nothing," he says. "Well, actually you're afraid of everything, but you have the courage to try anything. You're not afraid of making a fool of yourself."
Struggling along as a sometime waiter and would-be stand-up comic, Mazursky married Betsy Purdy in 1953, played a juvenile delinquent in the 1956 film The Blackboard Jungle and began to study with Lee Strasberg. "Then in 1957 Betsy and I had a baby, and that shook me up. I realized that I had to support a wife and a child, and I had made $1,300 the previous year. So I did the only sensible thing a man in my position could do: I went into analysis." Two years later Mazursky hied the family off to Los Angeles, where he and Larry Tucker, another aspiring comedian, joined the L.A. Second City company. When it closed, they were given a four-week tryout as gag writers for CBS' The Danny Kaye Show. They stayed four years.
"I began to feel as though I was no longer an actor," admits Mazursky. "I started studying film editing at USC. I had this fantasy of becoming a director." For a while he and Tucker shared an office on Sunset Boulevard, where hippies provided free living theater. In 1967 the two began turning the material outside their window into I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, starring Peter Sellers as a lawyer who tunes in, turns on and drops out after a few bites of marijuana-laced brownies. "We just had a lot of crazy fun," says Tucker. "We would use a tape recorder and improvise scenes. Paul would do one character, and I would do another. Often we just typed up what we created on the spot."
Shortly after Alice, Mazursky and his wife went to the Esalen Institute at Big Sur for a 72-hour weekend encounter. Tucker and Mazursky parlayed that experience into a treatment for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which, to their amazement, three studios rejected as "too dirty." Tucker and Mazursky went ahead and wrote the script on speculation, agreeing that they wouldn't sell it to anyone unless Larry was made the producer and Paul the director. "This of course is a crazy demand to make in Hollywood," says Mazursky. "We were amazed when Mike Frankovich at Columbia gave us the chance to do it."
The opportunity wasn't wasted; Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice became 1969's biggest hit. But there were complications. The glow of a box office smash allowed Mazursky to do almost anything he wanted, and he decided to take a chance. He made Alex in Wonderland, about a director who has made one hit movie and doesn't know what to do with his life. Mazursky's nascent public tuned out at once, and in true Hollywood tradition, he became as popular as his last film. "I had written this sweet story with Josh Greenfeld about a 73-year-old schoolteacher who travels with his cat," he says. "But the script for Harry and Tonto was turned down by every studio in town. So I went to Italy for a while to think about it all and lick my wounds." His unhappiness wasn't entirely with Hollywood. "It wasn't only Alex, it was our disillusionment with the idealism of the '60s," says Betsy. "It had been a period of great hope and love and peace, and now we were realizing that this wasn't going to be the case." Nor was Italy any solution. "I wanted to be in Europe, where they would recognize me as a real artist," says Paul. "What I found instead was that I couldn't speak Italian, and that—aside from the great espresso—it was tough being an expatriate."
Returning to Los Angeles in 1971, Mazursky wrote a scene based—very loosely—on that painful experience. "It was about a guy sitting in a café in Italy trying to figure out what the hell he is doing there. Instead of making him a director or a writer, I made him a lawyer. And instead of worrying about what project to do next, I decided he was in love with his ex-wife. I wrote Blume in Love in six weeks. It just poured out." A critical and commercial success, Blume paved the way at last for Harry and Tonto, which earned Mazursky and Greenfeld 1974 Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay.
Mazursky went on to make An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1978. But those who risk spectacular failure are sometimes doomed to achieve it, and Mazursky's career went facedown again with two eccentric projects: Willie & Phil, a takeoff on François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and The Tempest, a modern comic adaptation of Shakespeare's last play.
Just as his career appeared to be flickering out for a second time, Mazursky was reborn yet again with 1984's Moscow on the Hudson. It was another box office smash, a prelude to Down and Out, which is Mazursky's biggest hit ever, grossing nearly $58 million so far and giving him a place to survey the state of the art. "There is only one problem with the movie business in the last five years," he declares. "It's not videos or VCRs. It's bad movies. Bad movies come from bad scripts, so it all gets back to writing. After enough of that, the public will finally say, 'I don't want to plunk down six bucks and put my feet in the popcorn in the aisles and see this thing where after 20 minutes of scenery, there's no story.' "
So what's next? "I hate to talk about anything before I do it," he says, "but I'm thinking about a story that concerns a Latin American dictator." For the moment, though, Mazursky is living—quite comfortably, it seems—with the widely observed irony that his most recent satire is aimed closer to home. "Don't you live in Beverly Hills?" he is invariably asked. "Sure," he says. "I'm making fun of myself in this movie, too. Dave and Barbara Whiteman are the sort of Beverly Hills nouveaux riches, with the Rolls-Royce and the dog psychiatrist, who simply have too much. I'm a victim of having, too."
In fact, the Mazursky home in Beverly Hills is a tastefully restored Spanish Revival house with a Honda in the driveway and no visible signs of manic consumption. "Paul hates dinner parties. His favorite form of relaxation is poker," says Mazursky, briefly contemplating himself from afar. "Every Wednesday night for 13 years, I have been playing poker with the same half-dozen guys—except when I'm working on a movie. I enjoy it beyond all rational measure. Most of our friends we have known for 20 years, and they are not in show business.
"I find it impossible to spend much time with someone who doesn't have a real sense of humor. Humor is not just a way of looking at life. It's the way you experience things. Nobody lives life free of pain, but you can get past the pain with humor. It's what separates me from some very nice people who simply don't get the joke."