"It's about how much craziness you have to accept"

Director Paul Mazursky on Warren Beatty's relentless charm, Woody Allen's inferiority complex and Peter Sellers' maddening talent.

By Michael Sragow
Published August 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Paul Mazursky's empathic art reminds me of a routine Renee Taylor used
to do on "The Merv Griffin Show." As "Shirley the Wonderful Person," Taylor's motto was "I don't judge." When it comes to his characters, neither does Mazursky.

From the start, he spotted trends but was never chic. What snagged his interest were the human beings caught up in the trends. Whether he was
depicting a lawyer going psychedelic in "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" (1968) or well-heeled married folk sidling toward the Sexual Revolution in "Bob &
Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969), he tested the authenticity and resilience of the
Los Angeles bourgeoisie without trashing or condemning them.

Early on, some critics, including me, accused him of being too soft for
satire. But satire wasn't Mazursky's goal. He was inventing his own loose and
novel form of American social comedy. "Toklas" (which Hy Averback directed from a script by Mazursky and Larry Tucker) and "Bob & Carol" (which Mazursky directed from another Tucker-Mazursky script) have aged well both as period pieces and as inspired entertainment.

The last time I interviewed Mazursky, roughly 11 years ago, he
admitted, "What struck me then -- and as a native New Yorker I feel qualified
to say this -- is that the Eastern heavyweights, so to speak, didn't
understand that what I was portraying was real."

Mazursky gained widespread critical and financial acceptance with
movies like 1978's "An Unmarried Woman" (which I still think is soft) and
his marvelous 1986 remake of Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning": "Down
and Out in Beverly Hills." In "Enemies, A Love Story" (1989) he created a sexual tragicomedy that in its assurance and richness may well be his

But the last 10 years have been erratic ones for Mazursky. He hasn't
been able to launch several of his dream projects -- including a sequel to
"Down and Out in Beverly Hills" -- and the work he has been able to do (including "Scenes From a Mall," with Woody Allen and Bette Midler) lacked
his usual bounce and freshness.

He gets a lot of it back in his just-published memoir, "Show Me the Magic." Indeed, one 27-page chapter chronicling his collaboration with Peter
Sellers on "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" is the most hair-raising account I've ever read of an actor's mingled genius and insanity. The book reveals the kind of balanced, amused temperament a director needs to sustain a career
in contemporary Hollywood. And that's what I started to tell Mazursky when I interviewed him in his Beverly Hills office three weeks ago.

What struck me about "Show Me the Magic" is that, a lot of the time, it's
about a director trying to stay sane -- and in an insane environment, that
becomes hysterically funny.

This is true.

I mean, a lot of it is about how much craziness you have to accept. For
example, the cover has a blurb from Warren Beatty -- "Paul Mazursky knows it
all and makes it funny. Reading this book is like talking about a movie of
his." But in the book itself he does nothing except delay your projects and put you off.

He knew I was going after him for "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" when Jack Nicholson turned it down, so he said, "You don't want me, you want Jack." And
he and Julie Christie were going to do "Blume in Love" and had me waiting for
three months. He blames that on her, he says she didn't like it. What's funny
is that when he told me he should have done two of the movies I offered him,
I sent him something else and he still didn't do it. He asked me to direct a
movie once, and I didn't do it.

Look, he's not an intimate friend, but I consider him a friend. He's one of
the strangest and shrewdest guys I ever met. Strange only in that he's close
to the vest. If you're in a relationship with Warren, he's running it on some
level. But he makes you feel nice. He conducts an intimate conversation; he
can get into anything in a second. And I've been in two of his movies. I was in -- you should pardon the expression -- "Love Affair," and I was in
"Bulworth," which I liked. In "Bulworth," I'm in the fund-raising party the
senator's having. There are these two liberal types: Paul Mazursky and
Stanley Scheinbaum, who is not an actor or a director but an eminent
political humanistic figure in this town. Stanley kept asking me what we were
supposed to be doing in the scene. I told him, "They're probably making fun of
us; do whatever you want to do." So Stanley fell asleep. And I went over to
Warren and said, "Warren, get a shot of him sleeping. It'll be funny." They
did get the shot but didn't use it. Warren deserves credit; that's a daring movie.

A lot of the book is about the kind of give and take you're describing in your friendship with Beatty. It's about how much leeway you give people in show biz because temperament is part of the game, part of the fun.

I accept it more from the perspective that writing the book has given me.
It's almost 50 years since I acted in "Fear and Desire," for Stanley
in 1951. Doing all the things I did since then, I often said, "My
God, what's going on?" And it's not just other personalities that make me say
that. Basically, you get anxious: Will you ever work again? Then it's, "I
have too much work!" Then I'm broke, and I've never borrowed any money before in my life. Then, "I'm rich -- you want to borrow some money?" There's not much in the middle. And I've experienced all of it -- as an actor, a nightclub comic, a writer, a director, a producer. Everyone I know has had a lot of near misses -- movies that were ready to go until something fell out.

But the crazy parts usually have to do with personalities, with human beings behaving in ways you never expect them to do. It's a paradox -- it's
part of what makes this life nuts, and part of what makes it exciting. You don't think it's possible a guy is going to say, "Unless my pants are lined
with silk I can't wear them." I don't think a dauphin would have said that.

You take a guy like Woody Allen. We're shooting in Connecticut, and he says, "Why do you want to do another take? You quit now and I could be on the
bridge, and taking my bubbly at 6 o'clock." And I like Woody. But he wants to
go home and take a bath. It's the last thing on a movie you think you're going to hear.

Fellini was larger than life, but he was so kind and generous that those
things didn't quite happen that way. You'd expect them from somebody with an
imagination so bizarre and wondrous, but he didn't do any of that.

Why do so many directors revere Fellini?

I suspect a lot of people went to Rome over the years and tried to get to see
Federico Fellini or meet him. And he'd find ways to tell them to come over to
the set and he'd have a meal with them, or something. I saw him many times in
my visits to Rome over the years, or when he came to New York or California.
I never wanted to bother him. But when I was living in Rome, he used to call me:
"Paul, you know what you are doing today?"

I'd say, "Well, I think I'll have an argument with my wife, then have some

"After the argument, I pick you up in front of the cafe; I'm going to see my
lawyer today; you can sit, you have nothing to say to him. Then we go to
Cinecitta and meet some nuns."

"Can't wait, Federico." I used to do it. That was a treat. Federico Fellini
goes to a lawyer, and they talk in rapid-fire Italian, then I ask him what it
was about.

"Eh, I have to get money from a moron in Milan who thinks I'm about to make a
movie about a spaghetti factory."

Was part of the closeness people felt for Fellini that he put his own
personality at the center of his movies?

I think you're right. I don't think I would have felt as close to Antonioni,
whom I did meet. Seemed like a nice gentleman, intelligent, but Fellini was
funny. His humor was part of all the films. The least humorous of his films,
in some ways, was "La Dolce Vita," but it still had humor. When Anita Ekberg
and Mastroianni go into the fountain, it's funny. But it's a movie where
there's a suicide and tragic, scary things.

I was more than touched by Fellini; I loved him. I don't think many directors
had the chance to show their first film to Federico Fellini and be in a room
with him when he saw it. I still can't believe I went over there and it
happened, just like that. He must have thought that it was crazy in a nice

Peter Sellers was crazy in not so nice a way. He kept you from directing "I
Love You, Alice B. Toklas" because he thought you had sex with his then-wife,
Britt Ekland; later, he went into a fit because a script girl came on the
set wearing purple.

I want to make a movie of that, but I haven't gotten anyone interested; I
have to forget it or just go ahead and write the script. It was a
nerve-wracking experience. And nerve-wracking things are always good for
comedy. You don't know it at the time, but the higher the stakes, the funnier
a picture will be.

Sellers was one of a kind. I never was with anyone like him. In fact, I never
knew who I was with -- Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. When he was the nice guy he
was charming as hell. But you were always a little nervous in the presence of
the nice guy, because you knew the nice guy could suddenly turn into the
other one. I never saw him take the magic potion and swallow; it just
happened. He'd go crazy, as I wrote in the book, about a purple sweater, or,
really, just a look. But all of this was set up by his talent. If he wasn't a
movie star and brilliantly talented, you'd tell him to fuck himself and walk
away from the whole thing. When I did say that kind of thing to him, several
times, people were shocked. I just lost it. But would I have worked with him
again? Yeah -- he was so gifted. Who could do what he did in "Toklas,"
"Strangelove," "I'm All Right, Jack," "Lolita"?

You describe observing Sellers on the set of a Blake Edwards movie, and
Sellers never talking to Edwards directly, only through an assistant.

I know Blake, and I asked how he could operate like that. And he said, "Easy,
you just get used to it." As if there were never any attempt to say, "Peter,
let's cut through the nonsense." Blake's a smart guy. He told me one or two
stories that were more of the same but fabulous. The thing about Blake is
that he has a very dark side, I would guess; there's been tragedy in his
life, and that movie that he made, "S.O.B."? Dark! He's another example,
along with several others of us, who thank God we made our movies when we
made them, because we couldn't make them now in the studio system. I mean the
Hollywood studio system, in addition to the Inspector Clouseau films,
financed all those other Edwards movies, and some of them are interesting or
daring, even if they're not all successful.

What about the co-financing deals that directors are resorting to these

That generally means more interference. When you see a movie that has nine
producing credits -- three executive producers, four associates, two regulars
-- you know that there's a lot of people looking at your shots through video
monitors on the set. Drives you nuts. I've never had that. I couldn't take
it, couldn't do it. When I did "Winchell" for HBO, I had one video monitor,
and the only one who could look through it was me -- and the actors if I let
them. That was it. I put a cardboard rim around it.

What's always a problem is distribution. When a studio has very little
invested in a film, you have less of a good chance that they will really back
your movie. And they have to back it for it to do well, unless some kind of
miracle happens. Warner Bros. did everything they could for the Kubrick
picture; they spent a fortune on the promotion. And it worked for a week,
that's it.

Were you amazed that, in "Eyes Wide Shut," the picture Kidman is watching on her TV is "Blume in Love"?

What do you think of that?

I wanted to ask you!

Somebody told me about it and I ran out to see the picture. And I had several
reactions. One was: Stanley in some way put that in to reach out to me.
Because nothing happens in a Kubrick film by accident. One reason he chose
those clips was that "Blume in Love" was a Warner Bros. movie, so they were
probably free. And another reason is that "Blume in Love" is about marriage
-- about a man who is in love with his ex-wife. Kubrick uses about four shots
from it: as the man yearns for his wife and dreams of her as he sits in a
cafe in Venice, and later as he and his wife are at the beginning of a
honeymoon in Venice. It can't be an accident. It could just have been an
arbitrary decision to use them, but I don't believe that, because I know
Stanley -- although I hadn't spoken to him since 1971, when I was in England.

You mention in the book that you were going to ask Kubrick about what it was
like to work with Sellers. Did you ever do that?

Never got through to him. Stanley wasn't easy. I always hear about people
talking to him on the phone for hours on end, but I never did. I was very
close to him when we made "Fear and Desire," which means I was around him for
six or seven weeks, then around him for another month when we looped. And
then I'd see him every now and then in the Village, 1954-55. I moved to
California in '60. He was out there making something. And he came to see me
in a Jean Genet play, "Deathwatch." I think he had the new wife, his last
wife, Christiane, who painted all those pictures in the last movie.

Ten years later I was in London -- by then I had made "Bob & Carol & Ted &
Alice," and people knew who I was -- and I got hold of him at Shepperton
Studios. He was very friendly, but he was editing a movie. And I said, "I'd
love to see you, can we have lunch?" And he said, "Not while I'm editing, I
can't see anyone socially while I'm editing." I said, "I'll be in London for
some time." And he said, "Well I'll be editing for about a year." And I said,
"Well, see you again, Stanley," and that was the end of it. Too bad -- in
"Eyes Wide Shut" I could have played the Sydney Pollack part. Anyway, look,
he was a genius, a unique movie director.

He certainly seems to have been able to convince a wide variety of people
that he was a genius.

Stanley was like Woody Allen in the capacity to be shocked that you know
certain things.

One day I was asking Woody about something, and he said, "Oh, I'm going to
screen 'Sunrise.' " And I said, "Oh, yeah, Murnau." And he said, "You know
it?" I said, "I saw it at the Museum of Modern Art when I was 22 years old,
but ..." "Oh, but you know Murnau?" Like how would anyone else know him?

Both Stanley and Woody never went to college. So --
in trying to be Freudian in
my interpretation -- these people hear about a subject they are not familiar
with and do massive comprehensive research to get to know about, say, an
Iranian rug. "I want to know about every Iranian rug ever made, who makes
them, how many stitches, what colors, who buys them -- get me an Iranian
rug." And that's 'cause they never had college, where even if it's not great
you've got an underpinning of subjects. And they missed it.

In Brooklyn College I did what was normal college reading in the early '50s.
The Greeks, Chaucer, Shakespeare, all that stuff. And when I went to
Greenwich Village I was reading people whose books were being carried under
my friends' arms. Anaos Nin, Celine -- who the hell was that? I felt
privileged reading Kafka, all this stuff I didn't know about. And since I
considered myself an actor and was studying acting, I had a part-time job. I
worked four hours a day, and I read every day; I read all of Faulkner in one

Now, Woody and Stanley are both geniuses and geniuses don't need to study
anything. But sometimes I would say, "Jesus, didn't he take American Lit I?
It's no big deal to know X, Y or Z."

By the way, when Woody showed me "Sunrise," the Murnau picture, I had almost
completely forgotten it and was dazzled by it. And he then went and made this
movie that didn't work, "Shadows and Fog." He's got three kinds of movies:
the early "Bananas" movies, which are hilarious; then he's got the Woody Allen
human comedy things, the wonderful "Broadway Danny Rose" or "Husbands and
Wives," whatever they're called; then he's got his Bergman-Kafka period --
and those are difficult. And those are probably his favorites! I wish him
well; he's given me a lot of pleasure.

Stanley was a great chess player. So every now and then I would just say,
"Pawn to king four." I wasn't that good. But those were great days. You see,
when you know somebody before they know who they are, it's a little
different. But I believe things I read about Stanley in the last few months,
that he was in his own way a kind and social person who didn't want to leave
his home. I read that he did get out a little bit. Basically, he made a
choice -- and it's fascinating, because most people I know make the opposite
choice. As much as they like where they live, they want to get out. They want
to go to Bali. I'm a fantastic traveler: I'm thinking of writing a book about
it. In the last 25 years I've been to Nepal, I've been down the Amazon, I've
been to Japan, China, Africa, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Israel.

Cuba is a great trip. The Cubans live real close to the bone. Everything's
old and needs a paint job. But there's real spirit there, something's going
on. And even though there are a lot of problems, it's exciting. Again, the
stakes are high, and the people derive happiness from them more palpably than
they do here. Because of the politics you have a heightened life --
everything is based on clear-cut problems. There's not much time for
laziness, intellectually. And when you get a nice cheeseburger you're glad
you got it. Here, it's all softer.

You can't get what you get from traveling by phone calls. You can only get,
say, "It's cloudy." When I travel I often ask, "Where are the synagogues?"
You know what kind of Jew I am from reading the book, but it always leads to
interesting things. I should have asked where the synagogue was in Nairobi. I
could have met the seven Jewish guys there.

A lot of your book is about your need to maintain a kind of tribal identity
in a world that's pulling away from it; that's why you have coffee every day
with your pals in the Farmer's Market.

As I say, it's an extreme thing to move to California from Brooklyn by way of
Greenwich Village. What I've tried to do is find aspects of the other life
here. So I'm definitely a split personality. I live in a beautiful house in
Beverly Hills and I have an apartment right next to Venice; I try to go
downtown, go places, see things, keep in touch with what is happening in the
streets. Only thing I don't do anymore is go to the clubs; they're too loud.
But I still go to concerts. I loved "The Buena Vista Social Club."

A computer could make a cup of coffee, but who are you going to talk to? What
we do from 8:30 to 9:30 in the morning -- largely make funny critical
putdowns of each other and the world and the reviews of books, movies, TV
shows, life -- you can't do it with e-mail, it's not the same. You do want to
be part of a tribe. When you grow up in New York, it's a given. The streets
of Brooklyn were kingdoms.

My dad went to Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, and then, like you, to Brooklyn

Erasmus Hall was a step up from Thomas Jefferson High -- instead of the
apartment being $20 a month, like it was for my family in Brownsville, his
was probably $29. That $9 was a lot of money. Only one kid on my
block, Donny Goldstein, had a father who had a car. On those days there were
hardly any cars parked on the streets. You used to be able to play punchball,
which you couldn't do now. I show a lot of that in "Next Stop, Greenwich

I came from the real place that Alfred Kazin wrote about so brilliantly in "A
Walker in the City." In retrospect I wish my kids had grown up in that
street. It wasn't dangerous: It was filled with vitality, and every kind of
possible game and news and challenge and excitement. Now you've got to go
find that stuff, you've got to go to a mall. It's a tricky thing. Someone
spoke to me yesterday, just came back from Venice, and there's a McDonald's
right off the Piazza San Marco. That's funny.

There's been all this talk about Jewish cabals running Hollywood. But one of
the best stories in the book is of you trying to get "Enemies" into
production -- a story of a love quadrangle among Holocaust survivors -- and
having Michael Eisner ask if you could update it. You joked that maybe you
could make the characters Cambodians.

It's a constant paradox. You go to these Jews and they read your thing and
they ask, "Does the hero have to be Jewish?" I don't think Eisner was being
mean-spirited, he just wasn't really thinking. It's a miracle that "Enemies"
got made. The money came through Joe Roth, but the money came from Jim
Robinson of Morgan Creek, who didn't know anything about Jews but didn't

It seems to me your manner of dealing with serious matters in matter-of-fact
ways -- whether sexual relations or Russian immigrants -- makes your films
hard to judge immediately.

You need distance. In a lot of those movies, I was a step or two ahead. I was
the first one to make a movie that really dealt with old age, in "Harry and
Tonto." Nobody wanted to do it. "An Unmarried Woman": That was the first
movie I remember in which the woman didn't go off with a guy at the end, and
that's why it was turned down at every studio in town. They were moronic. I
said this is 1977, women are on their own now, they're independent. Jane
Fonda read it and said, "I want to do something political," and I said, "This
is political, Jane." Then she saw the movie and apologized.

When stakes are high, as in "Moscow on the Hudson," where a guy is defecting,
it's easier to have fun. Bloomingdale's was a funny place for my Russian guy
to defect, hiding under the skirt of a pretty girl. "Harry and Tonto" had
high stakes, too: A guy has no place to live, he's in his 70s -- that's high
stakes. "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," leaving home -- that's a classic
coming of age or rite of passage, the stuff that makes a Bildungsroman.

Jules Feiffer could have illustrated your book. Going to Kubrick's apartment
in the village with his arty wife in leotards and her menacing black dog;
trying to make it as a serious actor and a new-style comic. It's a hipster's
progress, which a reader might not have expected from your movies.

The closest I came to putting any of that in my movies is in "Next Stop,
Greenwich Village," where some of the conversations Chris Walken's character
is having are not conversations guys from the neighborhood in Brooklyn would
have had:

Chris Walken asks the kid, "You know Dylan Thomas?"

"Yeah, he's a great outfielder."

Now that is a hip kind of joke. You'd be loath to do it today because the
studios don't fucking know who Dylan Thomas is either, and they're positive
the audience out there doesn't know who he is, so why bother? But we didn't
care then, because Lenny Baker, as the character who was supposed to be me,
was in the act of becoming a hipster.

I had a guy patterned after Joe Gould, the fellow Joseph Mitchell wrote about
in the New Yorker, in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village." Old guy with a white
beard, goes around selling poems, 25 cents a poem. "Buy a poem for your loved
one," he says, so the kid buys it. "In the winter I'm a Buddhist/ In the
summer I'm a nudist -- there you go, good luck, God bless you." That's it.
Today most places where kids go are so noisy you can't hear anyone talking.

It was a matter of luck that I was in my early 20s when the Beat
had already started, post-World War II. I was a little too young
to be an integral part of it, but I was around some of those people. I didn't
know if I was a Beat, but I was anti-bourgeois, that much I knew, and I was
doing everything I could to let people know I was. So I had a beret, I had
blue jeans and I had a black turtleneck sweater; and I smoked a joint at a
party, way back, and I passed out, because I didn't smoke, period. But I
never pushed it in the movies much.

Instead, without knowing I was setting out to do it, I put middle-class
characters into challenging situations. One of the good critics in the news
magazines years ago called me "the Jewish Chekhov." I said in a subsequent
interview that I felt movies weren't dealing with the American middle class.
They dealt with real poverty, the Okies, or they dealt with gangsters, or the
very rich. But you never saw much of the nitty-gritty of middle-class life.

Fellini had trouble raising money after he was 60; so did Billy Wilder, and
many others. Is part of the problem that veteran directors can no longer get
into the frame of reference of the young execs at the studios?

You bring up a point that I think is valid. I was one of the best pitchers in
the business. I could go in a room, tell a story and walk out with a deal. I
did it a lot. I don't think I can do it that well anymore, because you do get
some blank looks. Any reference, if it goes before 1990, you're in some
trouble. Remember Bob Dylan? "Tangerine Man?" "Play a song for me -- you know,
Dylan!" Ah, yeah, yeah, sure, Bob Dylan. But if you say Matt Damon and Ben
Affleck, you're getting close. "This is perfect for Matt Damon." You used to
say, "This is perfect for Dustin, Warren, Jack." These are all old guys now.
Now it's more: Anything for Drew? Ben? And you gotta know the names.

You want to know who's smart? Spielberg. "Saving Private Ryan," except for
Tom Hanks, you don't know anybody, not really. Smart. "Schindler's List,"
Liam Neeson, Irish actor, plays a German. No stars, not in the way we're
talking about. Give Spielberg a lot of credit. He's OK. There's a bourgeois
quality to him, but he's gifted. I don't know what he'd do if he went to that
other zone. I liked "E.T.," that's my favorite. He got something great there.

You also had success with unexpected casting -- Kris Kristofferson in "Blume
in Love," Art Carney winning an Oscar for "Harry and Tonto." And for "Down
and Out in Beverly Hills" you had this trio of stars -- Richard Dreyfuss,
Bette Midler, Nick Nolte -- who, rightly or wrongly, at the time had such
volatile reputations that no one knew what to expect from them.

You never know how it will work until you make the movie, but they brought an
aura of being nouveau riche that was real, so you liked their characters.
There was something about them that was endearing no matter what they did,
and at times they did horrible stuff. I wrote a sequel to "Down and Out in
Beverly Hills," and Disney didn't want to do it. Of all the things I've ever
written that I didn't do, that's the one that baffled me the most. It's
clearly funny on paper, it's clearly commercial and all the actors wanted to
do it. This movie was about how they lose their money. So just imagine the
garage sale, with Bette Midler selling all her shit on her lawn. And Little
Richard coming by and buying a few things. Oh, yeah.

So when you say this business is crazy, I can't explain it. It goes beyond,
like, logic.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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