Mazursky's principal strength has usually lain in giving a filmic voice to contemporary social issues without getting hung up on "art." He makes a commercial product, one the masses can embrace and the critics can enjoy, too. His first film as a writer-director, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, was considered one of the raciest (and funniest) satires of the late 1960s. (It also introduced Mazursky to the festival circuit, opening the New York Film Festival in 1969.) In the same way that The Graduate employed the comfiness of the upper-middle-class as the backdrop that radicalized their children, B&C&T&A used the same cocoon as the jumping-off point for what should radicalize the parents. Mazursky explored their sense of yearning for what they feared they were missing--what a "generation" only 10 years junior to them seemed to be reveling in: sexual liberation, a cozy familiarity with amorality, and a refreshing lack of shame.
Mazursky was poking fun at the sexual revolution as much as celebrating it--B&C&T&A is set in Southern California, so Mazursky has an outsider's contempt for his subjects--and that may clue you in to the key to his ethos as a director. By perpetually turning out films at the cutting edge of topicality, not to say newsworthiness, Mazursky has often sacrificed enduring popularity for the immediate gratification of being "first" at something. Most satires suffer from seeming outdated in the long run, after the issues they skewer gain currency and what was once viewed as scathing seems tame by comparison. (Network is a notable exception, a satire so avant-garde that only now can we accept its cynicism about television programming and the softening of the American mind as almost a documentary.) Such is the life of all journalists--old news is no news, and editorialists like Mazursky depend as much on their subject matter as they do their own talent. When he tackles conspicuous consumerism--as he did in the garish, pastel-intensive Down and Out in Beverly Hills or the immigration comedy Moscow on the Hudson--you see his view of America is not as melting pot, where everyone becomes like everyone else, but stew pot, where people of different backgrounds try to connect but rarely do. Oddly, when he has chosen to mine the fields of his own life for his comic inspiration--either as a young Brooklynite (Next Stop, Greenwich Village) or as a filmmaker (Alex in Wonderland, The Pickle)--he seems self-indulgent, and his reputation suffers. Maybe his style requires a larger dose of objectivity. Surely there are few who would deny the merits of his three best films: Harry & Tonto, An Unmarried Woman, and Enemies, A Love Story.
Harry & Tonto might be characterized as Mazursky's first change-of-pace film, a road picture about an elderly pensioner (Art Carney, in an Oscar-winning turn) and his placid pussycat. Through its episodic format, Mazursky peels away a subtle outrage of modern culture: the alienating effect of growing old in America. The irony is that all the people Harry meets--all much younger--are more screwed up that he is; in Carney's gentle hands, Harry stands in sharp relief to his self-absorbed daughter, his weakling son, and a host of others. Over the course of his cross-country travels, we see Harry as an everyman: father, counselor, lover. Dignity has often acted as an unseen character in Mazursky's movies, from the puppylike desperation of Blume in Love to the treatment of the homeless in Down and Out to the quest for authentic self-respect in An Unmarried Woman, but never before or since has he extolled the virtues of dignity as simply as he did in Harry & Tonto.
Probably Mazursky's most significant contribution to film and society is his groundbreaking comedy-drama An Unmarried Woman. Just as B&C&T&A prefigured the hang-ups that naturally followed the sexual revolution, An Unmarried Woman gave shape to the victims and beneficiaries of women's movement with clarity and depth. Jill Clayburgh played Erica, a comfortable upper-middle-class housewife whose husband (Michael Murphy) leaves her after 15 years of marriage. The breakup of a relationship was one of those topics that was rarely the focus of movies until the late '70s, and An Unmarried Woman changed that--it was The Goodbye Girl with bite. You never doubt for an instant the complexity of all the characters. The scene where the husband confesses his infidelity to Erica still stands as some of the finest acting you'll ever see. Murphy is tearful and pained at having to tell his wife he loves someone else more, and Clayburgh gives the kind of reaction that only a great observer of people could conceive: She's hurt, shocked, and angry, but unsentimental--disgusted as much by his self-absorption as she is mortified by the prospect of being a middle-aged divorcee. (She walks away from him, reeking of contempt, then promptly vomits on a lamppost when she's out of eyeshot.) Erica is one of the great female parts in movies of the past half-century: contemporary, strong, and not wholly a victim. Erica is defensive and abrupt and frequently unlikable--in short, very human. (Long before Waiting to Exhale, Erica destroyed her husband's belongings.) The final image of the film showcases Mazursky at his best: Erica, who has been having a relationship with an artist, turns down his offer to live with him. He leaves her on the sidewalk holding a giant-sized painting, and drives off. Erica, the model of an independent female, grabs the painting between her full armspan and struggles to carry it all the way home through streets of New York. What a perfect metaphor for womanly independence--a surrealistic shot of a woman on the brink of being blown away like a kite, gamely grappling with what life has dealt her. Although nominated for a best picture Oscar, it lost to The Deer Hunter; apparently the Academy was more interested in confronting the demons of Vietnam than the those of daily life.