WGA Awards: How Honoree Paul Mazursky Captured the Culture (Q&A)

Mazursky Clayburgh - H 2014

Mazursky Clayburgh - H 2014

The writer-director, who tracked the winds of social change that swept across America beginning in the '60s with his movies like "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "An Unmarried Woman," talks to THR about the impact of his films and which of his works he thinks was underrated.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

From the late '60s through the '80s, Paul Mazursky, the 84-year-old recipient of this year's Writers Guild of America West's Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, seemed to channel the zeitgeist. First, as a writer, working with the late Larry Tucker, he found humor in the counterculture in 1968's I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, and then as a writer-director, he tackled issues like the sexual revolution in 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the feminist movement in 1978's An Unmarried Woman.

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Looking back, so many of your films dealt directly and immediately with the culture around you. Is that something you consciously set out to do?

I was not too conscious of it. I just went with whatever interested me and tried not to be pretentious, which is something I avoided at all costs.

Why did you make An Unmarried Woman?

A friend of ours, I'll call her Carol X, had just bought her first house after a divorce. She was so excited; she showed us the document, and next to her name, it said "an unmarried woman." I couldn't believe it. I thought it was nonsense, and it got me started. I interviewed many women, probably around 25, and asked what it was like to be single after having been married.

Did you write it with its specific stars in mind?

I wrote for Alan Bates, because I had seen him in a movie he'd done before that, and I thought to make his character British made him all the juicier. I had seen Jill Clayburgh in Gable and Lombard, an ordinary film if you will, but she was delicious in it. I asked her to come in and meet, and I was taken by how effervescent she was. I really liked her, but I was afraid she was too young. I said, "Can you come in tomorrow and be a little older?" "Well," she said, "I'll do the best I can, but who wants to be older?" But she came in again and got the part.

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As a writer-director, would you rewrite on the set?

I would do a lot of cutting. I would say, "We don't need that scene; it's not going to do us any good." It's a big advantage to be the author and the director.

In retrospect, do you feel any of your movies weren't properly appreciated and deserve a second look?

Alex in Wonderland [the 1970 film starring Donald Sutherland as a Hollywood director]. That was one of my favorite movies. It was greeted with great disrespect. Now, I think, it's become a cult film. It really described how hard it is to be married to someone who is obsessed with making a movie and not paying much attention to his marriage.

How autobiographical was it?

Very. My wife, Betsy, was not very happy with me for doing it, and my mother threatened to picket the film because she said I was making fun of her.