"Show Me the Magic"

Paul Mazursky's Hollywood memoir skips all that phony show-biz jazz.


Charles Taylor
June 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

No filmmaker has ever combined neurosis with appetite in quite the way Paul Mazursky has. Even in his comedies about the California good life -- "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Blume in Love," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" -- a distinctive New York Jewish show biz energy comes through. Mazursky doesn't regard California with the judgmental superiority of a Woody Allen. He is open to L.A. lifestyles, to whatever new analysis trend everyone is into (even as he satirizes it). But something tells you he doesn't quite believe in Los Angeles. There's a middle-of-the-night moment in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" when the self-made business tycoon Richard Dreyfuss plays is preparing a snack of lox and bagels; you get the feeling that the food he's holding is more real to him than the million-dollar house he's standing in.

Scenes like that may explain the sense of consistency that permeates Mazursky's new memoir, "Show Me the Magic." I don't mean to suggest that Mazursky lays on any of that phony, show biz, "Underneath, I'm still just a guy from Brooklyn" jazz. But the book reveals something reassuringly regular about Mazursky: his neurotic capacity for enjoying life.

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"Show Me the Magic" isn't anything so formal as a memoir. It's a loosely strung-together collection of vignettes with the focus mostly on the people Mazursky has met or worked with. That's a fortunate approach. Mazursky's films have always had a shaggy-dog quality, and the structure of "Show Me the Magic" allows him to go from one story to another without any of the connective filler ("and then I made ...") that's usually the most boring thing in show business memoirs.

Mazursky doesn't pretend to have equal fondness for all of the people who've crossed his path, but there's no meanness here. Even when he's relating experiences that sound like nightmares (working with Peter Sellers, for example), he comes across as more amused than appalled. The section on his tortured relations with his mother, Jean -- imagine a Jewish mother with the soul of a gypsy bohemian -- suggests that he could have gone into much deeper territory. But doing so wouldn't have been true to the tone of the rest of the book.

Mazursky must be a wonderful mimic. Throughout the book he offers sketches (Shelley Winters, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Nicholson) that have the note-perfect feel of the best impersonations, the kind that begin from the inside and work their way out. "Show Me the Magic" is exactly the sort of book you'd hope for from the best American comic filmmaker of the past 30 years -- warm, off the cuff and possessed of an enormous capacity for amused curiosity.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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