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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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L.A. Film Critics pick a winner: Paul Mazursky gets career achievement award

October 25, 2010 | 12:05 pm

Paul_mazursky I'd been worried that Paul Mazursky had fallen out of favor with critics in recent years, since you rarely see references to a young director as Mazursky-esque, even though Mazursky had the hipster vibe of today's indie filmmakers long before they were even born. But glad tidings are here, with the news that the L.A. Film Critics Assn. is giving Mazursky its career achievement award, which will be presented in January at the organization's annual awards dinner.

"It is impossible to imagine American independent cinema in its current form without Paul Mazursky, in all his mutli-hypenate glory," said Brent Simon, LAFCA president. "Mazursky is a great figure in world cinema as well as an American original."

You could say that again. Mazursky has made his share of duds, especially in recent years, when audiences began to lose interest in his sly satires. But at his peak, from his arrival in 1969 with "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" through 1989's "Enemies: A Love Story," his wonderfully complex morality tale, he was a delightfully acerbic and observant storyteller, as gifted a handler of actors as Robert Altman and a filmmaker full of affection for his characters, no matter how shady or opportunistic they might be.

As a young reporter, I was on the set of his last big hit, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," which was basically an update of "Boudu Saved From Drowning," a 1930s comedy about a Parisian hobo who is adopted by a wealthy couple, which was made by Jean Renoir, one of Mazursky's filmmaking idols. In the updated version, Nick Nolte played the bum, and it was a treat to see Mazursky demonstrate to Nolte the subtleties of how to act like the kind of bum who would appeal to affluent Beverly Hills types. I'm sure Mazursky taught me a lot about the craft of directing, but what I remember the most was the convivial mood on the set -- everyone had a blast, from the caterers to the costars. If any tension ever arose, Mazursky would start telling long, elaborate jokes, which would sweep any dark cloud from the sky. 

Having started as an actor himself, Mazursky clearly felt that having a happy atmosphere on set was conducive to good work. He made filmmaking look like pure pleasure, as if everyone had skipped school and run away with the circus. You'll feel the same watching one of his best films -- I recommend you start with either "Moscow on the Hudson," which features Robin Williams at his peak as a performer, or "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," a quasi-autobiographical film about a young Jewish actor (played by the now forgotten Lenny Baker) eager to conquer the world, which effortlessly captures the era of 1950s boho splendor. It has terrific performances from the young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a star turn from Shelley Winters as the domineering Jewish mother from hell.

"Greenwich Village" feels like a movie from a far, far away time, but it has aged well, as many Mazursky movies have, because unlike so many of today's film, they never stooped to conquer.   

Photo: Nick Nolte, left, with Paul Mazursky during the filming of "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

Credit: Elliot Marks