The Arty Semite

Paul Mazursky Showed the Surface, and Went Deeper

By Eitan Kensky

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Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

“It’s all Ralphie’s fault.” That was my macabre thought when I heard the news that Paul Mazursky passed away — or “disappeared” as our Yiddish ancestors would have said. Then my mind flashed to Mazursky lurched over the card table, his powder blue shirt stained by patches of make-believe red, the residue of the ketchup canon that off-ed his character.

Mazursky’s character was named Sunshine. He dealt poker on “The Sopranos.” He was an associate of Uncle Junior’s, though I don’t think that we ever saw the two together. Sunshine was only on two episodes: one to establish that he existed; a second to un-exist him. He spoke lines, but his main job was to look like Paul Mazursky. He was there for that big, beautiful ethnic face — a face equally at home in card rooms and strip clubs, around highballs and cigarettes, in the backroom of a pork store eating bulging Italian sandwiches with thick men, in a back booth at Fine & Schapiro and nursing a Cel-Ray under a framed, oversized portrait of a deli platter. Sunshine was a silent movie part in a spoken world, but Mazursky read the lines well.

Mazursky wouldn’t have found his own voice as a director without the ability to cast people who looked like Paul Mazursky. For years, even the extras in Hollywood pictures were the lithe, tanned evidence of the California dream. But a new ethos in casting and a new vision of realism changed that practice. Casting agents now sought out “The New York Look;” frames were filled with expressive faces, gangly limbs, and grotesque features. Of the actors in “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” (1976) Mazursky’s most autobiographical film, only Christopher Walken can be called handsome — spooky and ethereal, but handsome.

Mazursky understood looks and how image set the mood and created his world. All his films hinge on a palate, perhaps none more than “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986). From the first frames, we’re bombarded with pastels and pinks. If you want to understand “How to Appreciate Paul Mazursky” or “Where to Start with Paul Mazursky” or see “Proof that Paul Mazursky Had a Style All His Own,” open Netflix and stream “Down and Out.”

In “Down and Out,” self-made industrialist Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) is in an unhappy marriage to Barbara Whiteman (Bette Midler). They have an anorexic daughter. She looks like she may have had a nose job. Their son is tormented. He is a hidden cross dresser, afraid of revealing the truth to either himself or his parents. A homeless man, Jerry (Nick Nolte), tries to commit suicide in the Whiteman’s pool. Dave Whiteman saves the homeless man’s life and quasi-adopts him. (He is their pet more than he is their child.) There is a makeover scene.

“Down and Out” is a blockbuster only in the sense that it made a lot of money. Tonally, the movie panders to no one. It builds and builds nervous energy, but it somehow rockets passed “screwball” and “madcap” and lands on “odd Vietnam echo,” which was not a stage I previously knew existed. It’s a comedy, but it’s more savage than funny. Big laugh lines are followed by subtle cues that undercut them. One moment, Dave Whiteman has an epiphany: not working, hanging at the beach getting drunk and smoking pot all day – it’s like the ‘60s! The next moment, Whiteman and Jerry ride in Whiteman’s convertible. “California Girls” plays on the radio. The music reinforces Whiteman’s new-found freedom — until the second you realize that it’s the David Lee Roth version. In place of exhilarating multi-part harmony there is the corporate image of sex. Substance was drained. Nothing is more soulless than ‘80s hair metal.

Indeed, selfishness, and the contrast between image and reality, are the movie’s major themes. The Whitemans sleep under an absurd portrait of the two of them cuddling; in real life they lie far apart from each other. They are Jewish, and speak a Yiddish-peppered English, though their name obscures everything. (“Paul” Mazursky was born the more ethnic “Irwin.”) Jerry, too, is forced to play a role. Nolte’s hair is still shaggy and he’s still scruffy after the makeover, but now it’s chic, pricey scruffy. Yet the haircut is also a constant reminder that he was once down and out. He can’t escape the role. Whiteman won’t let him.

Everyone in the family, meanwhile, looks to Jerry to save them. He does, but only to an extent. Once they learn that he’s helped another member of the family, they forget what they’ve learned and grow to hate Jerry. Selfishness forbids anyone else to be happy.

Mazursky beautifully revealed these themes in a single, glorious sequence. Dave Whiteman drives around Beverly Hills, alone. There are scattered cars on the road, but no people on the streets. As he drives along glass-fronted office towers, he listens to a psychology call-in show on the radio. His wife is explaining to the host that Dave has taken in a homeless man. The radio host explains that the husband is jealous of the man’s freedom. Then she asks about the Whiteman’s sex life and Mrs. Whiteman says it’s non-existent. Dreyfuss’s Whiteman can barely restrain his hatred. But who is he actually angry at? His wife for calling into the show, or himself for being so predictable and mundane that a radio host can diagnose his psychosis in a minute? It’s horrifying and hilarious all at once. A cartoonish gut-punch of the fear that we are as hollow and two-dimensional as the panes of the buildings we pass by every day.

“Down and Out in Beverly Hills” was an accidental blockbuster. Mazurksy’s art was building an image and a surface and filling it with something a lot more cryptic.


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