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Paul Mazursky, 1930-2014: Master of the ‘70s

Above: A young Christopher Walken starred in Paul Mazursky's 1976 film "Next Stop, Greenwich Village."

Paul Mazursky died on Monday.

That likely doesn’t mean much to contemporary moviegoers. No disrespect, but Mazursky – one of the major American filmmakers of the 1970s and ’80s – didn’t make movies that blew stuff up real good. His best movies were explorations of middle-class, often urban life in an era that saw U.S. culture breaking free from 1950s-era “Mad Men” conventions.

More to the point, the 84-year-old Mazursky hadn’t worked much as a movie director since the mid-’90s, choosing instead to act on such television shows as “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

So anyone who didn’t grow up watching Mazursky’s films, as I did, can be forgiven for not recognizing his name.

But if it’s true that artists come along when the time is right, Mazursky was certainly right for the ’70s in particular. That was, most critics would agree, a golden time for American film. And Mazursky’s contributions, as a writer-director, were many.

His first film, 1969’s “Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice” explored the era’s changing sexual mores. His next year’s follow-up, "Alex in Wonderland," featured Donald Sutherland as a director, fresh off a hit film, who struggles to find either a follow-up project or a larger sense of meaning to his comfortable life.

For Mazursky, in real life, the movie projects kept coming. “Blume in Love” (1973) used the rising popularity of George Segal to tell the story of a guy who, try as he might, can’t let go of his failing marriage. “Harry and Tonto,” a year later, gave us an aging guy going on the road with his cat (and it won a Best Actor Oscar for Art Carney).

“Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976) followed a group of young New Yorkers (and features a memorable turn by a young Christopher Walken), while “An Unmarried Woman” (1978) focused on Jill Clayburgh as a privileged New Yorker whose life gets turned upside down when her husband leaves her for a younger woman.

Mazursky worked all through the ’80s, though his work became less and less original. “Tempest” (1982) was heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” was a remake of the 1932 French film “Boudu Saved From Drowning.” In a decade that featured an American president who was a former actor, “Moon Over Parador” (1988) gave Richard Dreyfuss the chance to play an actor doubling for a South American dictator.

That’s only natural. Most filmmakers have a fertile period of creation. Mazursky’s time passed soon enough, but he managed to make a mark on American film.

It’s one that deserves to be remembered.