Are you happy?” the woman asks her husband, to which he replies: “I’m just not miserable.” By the time that scene arrives, around the halfway point of Paul Mazursky’s 1973 tragicomedy of marital manners, Blume in Love, we already know that this man, a divorce lawyer named Blume (George Segal), and his wife, a welfare worker called Nina (Susan Anspach), are not long for the world of holy matrimony. He will have an affair with his stenographer, while she will shack up with one of her clients (Kris Kristofferson). What we are seeing is a flashback to earlier, happier times, and the rest of Blume in Love—like so much of Mazursky’s work screening at Lincoln Center this week—is dedicated to how these people trudge forward in that enduring human pursuit of un-miserableness.
By the time of Blume, which was his third feature film as a writer-director, Mazursky had already hit upon his great subject—namely, the institution of marriage in an age when the divorce rate was ticking up faster than the price of gasoline. Four years earlier, Mazursky had made a splash—and earned the rebuke of some high-culture guardians—with his debut feature, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, about two married couples whose mutual quest for swinger enlightenment ultimately lead them into each other’s beds. An orgy of pot-smoking and on-screen nudity, the movie was undeniably a response to the new cultural permissiveness, but there was nothing glib or opportunistic about it. Rather, Mazursky was reflecting the audience’s own anxieties about the sexual revolution by making a film in which wife-swapping wasn’t the answer to anything, but merely one more unresolved question.
Since then, Mazursky’s best films have coursed with a laissez-faire attitude toward adultery—a feeling that if marriage is indeed a contract, then surely it is one open to renegotiation. This is true not just of Bob & Carol and Blume, but of An Unmarried Woman (1978), in which a Manhattan wife and mother (played by the radiant Jill Clayburgh) sees herself as different from, and perchance superior to, her unhappily married and/or divorced friends-—until her own husband confesses to his affair with a (much) younger woman. And it is also true of Alex in Wonderland (1970), perhaps the most confessional item in the Mazursky canon, and the one key film from his ’70s period curiously absent from Lincoln Center’s retrospective.
Mazursky was born in Brooklyn in 1930, attended Brooklyn College, and got his start as an actor in television, Off-Broadway, and in a low-budget independent film called Fear and Desire, directed by a fellow Brooklyn boy named Stanley Kubrick. He eventually made his way into nightclubs and comedy revues—events effectively summarized in his lyrical memory film, Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)—and so it comes as little surprise that Mazursky excelled at tailoring his movies to the rhythms of his actors’ performances, rather than the other way around. The energy of those early films was loose yet convulsive, and to look back at Mazursky’s career today is to wonder why he isn’t more often mentioned in the same breath as Robert Altman and John Cassavetes (whom Mazursky cast in his 1982 Tempest as—what else?—a man trapped in a rocky marriage).
In fact, Mazursky weathered the grim movie-making decade that was the 1980s more successfully than either of his more lionized contemporaries, developing a commercial style and emerging with two hits-, Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), that still held true to his warm humanism. Moscow, in particular, is an uncommonly touching portrait of the American immigrant experience, rooted in one of Robin Williams’s best and least grandiose performances. Then, in 1989, Mazursky made a small masterpiece out of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story, starring Ron Silver as a Holocaust survivor juggling three spouses. The subject was a reminder that, for all its surface provocations, even Bob & Carol had ultimately seemed a cockeyed endorsement of “for better or for worse.”
Today, Mazursky is acting again, on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, and his recent filmmaking career is (with good reason) not much discussed, though at Lincoln Center he will present the U.S. premiere of Yippee, a docu- mentary on Orthodox Jewish culture in which one can feel the echoes of Moscow and Enemies. The subtitle of that movie is “A Journey to Jewish Joy,” suggesting that, three decades later, Paul Mazursky is still searching for reasons to feel a little less miserable.