Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Paul Mazursky Dies At 84

Paul Mazursky earned his first Oscar nomination for his debut feature film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, in 1969. His An Unmarried Woman was nominated for Best Picture.

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Filmmaker Paul Mazursky was known for movies that reflected the rapidly changing values in contemporary American life. Whether telling the story of a young person leaving home or a wife getting left by a cheating husband, Mazursky managed to make moviegoers laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. Mazursky died late Monday here in Los Angeles. He was 84 years old. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

GRIGSBY BATES: Paul Mazursky might have been the only person in the world who could get Woody Allen out of his khakis and black nerd glasses into double pleats, owlish tortoiseshell specs, and a ponytail. Although as Mazursky told the film website DP/30 in 2011, when he cast Allen in his 1991 movie, "Scenes From A Mall," he had to plead about the hair.

PAUL MAZURSKY: I said, would you wear a ponytail? No. There's no way I'll wear a ponytail. Come on Woody, please? Well, if you really want it. Maybe. I don't know.

BATES: In the end, Allen wore the ponytail for his role as a trendy Angeleno who takes his wife, played by Bette Midler, to an upscale mall to buy an expensive anniversary present.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCENES FROM A MALL")

BETTE MIDLER: (As Deborah Fifer) Oh boy, I hope you didn't spend a fortune.

WOODY ALLEN: (As Nick Fifer) Hey, how many 16th anniversaries does a person have in a lifetime? One, maybe two.

BATES: Eventually, we're left to wonder if there will be a 17th. In 1969's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Mazursky examined the issues of fidelity and emotional honesty. Bob and Carol decide to try an open marriage after going to an encounter group. Remember those? They believe their closest friends, Ted and Alice, need to come to grips with the sexual tension that exists between the four. That gets easier after Alice, played by Dyan Cannon, learns Ted has cheated on her. Furious, she begins to remove her mini-dress before the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE")

ELLIOTT GOULD: (As Ted Henderson) What are you doing, Alice?

DYAN CANNON: (As Alice Henderson) I'm getting undressed.

NATALIE WOOD: (As Carol Sanders) Alice, relax.

CANNON: (As Alice Henderson) Oh, relax?

GOULD: (As Ted Henderson) Stop it, Alice.

CANNON: (As Alice Henderson) I am being honest. I am doing what I feel like doing.

WOOD: (As Carol Sanders) Well, what do you feel like doing?

CANNON: (As Alice Henderson) I feel like doing what we came up here to do.

WOOD: (As Carol Sanders) And what is that?

CANNON: (As Alice Henderson) Orgy. Have an orgy. Orgy. Orgy. (Laughing) Orgy.

BATES: It was a big hit, but that didn't mean getting a studio to pick up the film was a sure thing. As Mazursky told an audience at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in 2003, back then, studio heads were uncomfortable with even implying group sex on the big screen.

MAZURSKY: The first guy from some studio said, it's too dirty. It's filthy. I said, well, what if I get Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to play one couple? He said, that would be clean. That would be clean.

(LAUGHTER)

MAZURSKY: It's true.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Said with a comedian's timing, which is how Mazursky started out. He did stand up and was an actor as well as a screenwriter and director. The late film critic Roger Ebert once said, Mazursky has a way of making comedies that are more intelligent and relevant than most of the serious films around. Mazursky hit his peak a decade later when he made a young actress named Jill Clayburgh a star in "An Unmarried Woman." Clayburgh's character seems to have a wonderful life until her husband, played by Michael Murphy, makes a sickening confession.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN UNMARRIED WOMAN")

JILL CLAYBURGH: (As Erica) What? Tell me.

BATES: (As Saul) I'm in love with somebody else. (Crying) Seeing another woman for over a year. At first, you know, I thought it was just a thing. But it isn't. I love her.

BATES: Eventually, Clayburgh's character learns how to be unmarried for a hauntingly bittersweet ending that leaves the viewer thinking about what might happen next. No tidy conclusions, which is just the way Paul Mazursky liked it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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