Divorcing Paul Mazursky

New Hollywood auteur Paul Mazursky built a career on honest, daringly frank discussions of sex & romance, an ethos he established as early as his 1969 Free Love breakout drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Although that film’s exact themes of marital fidelity & intensive psychotherapy continued throughout his work as his career developed, he did adapt those preoccupations to the changing times as he aged. Our current Movie of the Month, Mazursky’s late 70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, for instance, depicts the fallout of the Free Love movement once lauded in his previous work, demonstrating how the breakdown of traditional marriage & sexual fidelity left many women socially & financially isolated in desperate need for feminist independence in their new sexually “liberated” world. Even that update could only remain fresh for so long, however. As America entered “The Age of Divorce” in the 1990s, the dissolution of the traditional marriage became more of a norm than an anomaly, and Paul Mazursky updated his own ruminations on the subject accordingly. Whereas the jump from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to An Unmarried Woman marked an advancement in Mazurksy’s maturity, though, the next chapter in this reflections on the evolving nature of divorce found him devolving in the opposite direction, both as an artist and as a thinker.

Admittedly, the declining allure of Mazursky’s fidelity dramas is somewhat attributable to the real-time aging of his characters. The turn-on sexual energy of performers like Natalie Wood & Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even the confident adult sexuality of Jill Clayburgh ten years later in An Unmarried Woman only enhance those films’ themes of sexual & romantic experimentation. By the time Mazursky aged along with his characters into the 1990s, his work stopped being a relatably prurient rumination on a tantalizingly taboo topic and started to feel like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. In 1991’s Scenes from a Mall, Mazurksy updates his divorce-drama template with the middle-age players Woody Allen (a known sexual abuser) & Bette Midler (who is always fabulous, but still). Watching Natalie Wood talk her uptight hipster friends into an impromptu orgy or watching Jill Clayburgh dance alone in her underwear to Swan Lake is one thing. Watching Woody Allen go down on Bette Midler in a public movie theater is something else entirely. The only small consolation of this updated dynamic is in finally seeing Allen pursue a romantic partner who is somewhat age-appropriate a concession that’s only soured by watching Midler be degraded by sharing the screen with the monster and the gag-worthy visual of the two performers making out at length in remarkably thin underwear.

Lack of genuine sex appeal is only one small factor in the declining quality of Mazurksy’s divorce-drama ruminations, though it is a glaring one. The larger problem is the broadening of his humor and the erosion of his search for honesty. There’s an impressively subtle, delicate irony to the hipster parody of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that carries over into An Unmarried Woman (although broad caricatures like the sausage-gnawing caveman artist Charlie does test its boundaries). By the time Scenes from a Mall arrives, Mazursky is deploying all the subtlety & restraint of a feature-length All That sketch. Wood Allen’s midlife crisis in the film is signaled by a ponytail, a surfboard prop, and an affair with a 25-year-old. His main comic foil is a recurring mime gag performed by Bill Irwin. Cross-eyed nutshot reactions, a rapping Greek chorus, and Marusky’s own cameo as a Freudian pop psychologist are all distinctly broad & cheap in a way that feels below the director’s stature. That line of easy, goofball humor is also directly at odds with the literary stage play structure of the piece, as Scenes from a Mall is largely a Before Sunrise-style indie drama following a single, complex marital argument over the course of one afternoon, practically in real-time. The result is an incongruous tone one that demands you both take its romantic & sexual conflicts dead seriously but also bust a gut when the LA douchebag punches the mime for being a pest.

For what it’s worth, Mazursky does maintain a sliver of the honest, daring discussion of marital fidelity he established in previous works, even if Scenes from a Mall is an inappropriate vessel for the exercise. Staging one extensive, uncomfortable argument between a long-married couple in a Californian shopping mall is, at least in the abstract, a very promising conceit. Plenty of couples have marriage-ending meltdowns in parking lots, Wal-Marts, Bourbon St. dive bars, and other mundane public spaces that would make for similarly ironic backdrops. Midler’s initial reaction to hearing of Allen’s affair with a younger woman is also disarmingly believable. She starts in a place of quiet acceptance, then erupts into a seething, vengeful anger in a well-written, well-performed estimation of genuine heartbreak. As grotesque as watching Woody Allen go down on her in public feels, the overall back & forth between burning bridges to the past & sexually reconciling in wild passion does feel true to life & the messiness of the human heart. It also says a lot that the frank discussion of sexual infidelity that pushed buttons in Mazursky’s 1960s work was still taboo in the 1990s (not to mention the 2010s), at least enough to justify his continued needling at the topic. It’s just a shame all that honesty couldn’t have been funnelled into more appealing performers & a better considered tone.

It is unclear whether the broadening of the comedy or the compromising of the honesty were a choice of Mazursky’s or a sign of the changing times. It’s entirely possible that it was simply much easier to successfully pitch a broad comedy where mimes get punched & scrotes get kicked by the time that Scenes for a Mall arrived than it was to properly fund the serious, adult dramas of Mazursky’s distant New Hollywood past. Either way, Mazursky has much more rewarding divorce & fidelity dramas in earlier works like An Unmarried Woman, which sustain Scenes from a Mall‘s brief flashes of disarming honesty with confidence & bravery the latter work never fully musters. The only saving graces for Scenes from a Mall, then, are in its value as a novelty: documenting early-90s shopping mall excess; casting Woody Allen as a New Age Los Angeles twerp in tracksuits instead of a nebbish New York twerp in tweed; the aforementioned horrors of public cunnilingus; etc. Of course, those minor pleasures only fade the more unpleasant (if not outright traumatic) it’s becoming to watch Woody Allen onscreen, and Paul Mazursky’s marital fidelity oeuvre would ultimately be much better off if it could somehow divorce itself from Scenes from a Mall entirely.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our profile of its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff, and last week’s look at the director’s most iconic work, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

Paul & Jill & Therapy & Divorce

One of the most immediately apparent virtues of our current Movie of the Month, Paul Mazursky’s late-70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is its verisimilitude. The movie follows Jill Clayburgh as a well-to-do Manhattanite divorcee as she struggles to establish a new identity as an independent woman. Despite the scope of that lens, Mazursky continuously seeks for moments of small, intimate honesty rather than making grand, sweeping statements about Clayburgh’s gender or era. We watch with tender voyeurism as she dances to Swan Lake alone in her underwear, sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, and becomes dizzy to the point of puking when first hearing of her husband’s affair. It’s in this intimate naturalism where the movie finds its strongest voice, a virtue that comes through most clearly in the protagonist’s private therapy sessions with the real-life feminist psychotherapist Dr. Penelope Russianoff. There’s such a dedication to verisimilitude in those therapy sessions that they’re staged in Dr. Russianoff’s own Manhattan apartment where she actually practiced. This tactic of using therapy to tear down the comforting veil of cinematic artificiality to achieve something intimate & true to life was not new to Mazursky in An Unmarried Woman. In fact, it was also an integral part of his most iconic, breakthrough work.

Paul Mazursky first made a name for himself as one of the New Hollywood brats with his Free Love marital drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon as a pair of married couples struggling with monogamy in the swinging ’60s, all of the film’s promotional materials & cultural context promise a steamy, risqué drama about wife-swapping & group sex. I imagine it was something of a shock, then, when Mazurky instead delivered a drama mostly about intensive group therapy. The opening sequence of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is set at a group therapy retreat held at an isolated facility known simply as The Institute. A documentarian filmmaker and his free-spirit wife arrive at The Institute as smirking skeptics, only scoping out the place as a potential film subject. The intensive, performance art-reminiscent therapy session (recalling similarly discomforting methodology in Josephine Decker‘s work) breaks down the couple’s defensive barriers and leaves them dazed, vulnerably open-minded, and radically honest for the remainder of the picture. Dr. Russianoff’s therapy sessions in An Unmarried Woman are much more traditional & subdued, but they similarly challenge the societally-reinforced assumptions & barriers Jill Clayburgh is burdened with when she arrives. Although the style of therapy is wildly different in both films, their common goal is apparent: to challenge the shortcomings of traditional marital structure with a newfound, unflinching emotional honesty.

If there’s any major difference between these two films’ relationship with therapy & New Age Californian self-care, it’s in Mazursky’s deployment of humor & irony. An Unmarried Woman is far from humorless (it does open with a top-volume joke about dogshit, after all), but its therapy sessions with Dr. Russianoff are handled with a quiet, direct intimacy and are characterized as an unquestined good for Jill Clayburgh’s lost-soul divorcee. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is much cheekier in its own approach. The challenges to monogamy & traditional marriage’s pressures for partners to be all things to their husband or wife are treated with appropriate emotional heft. However, this earlier work finds Mazursky more willing to poke fun at his characters for their New Age navel-gazing. Middle age “free souls” dress up like Peter Fonda, smoke ditch weed, and grow their hair long as if they were young radicals. They shamelessly blurt inane dialogue like “That’s gorgeous, man; the truth is always beautiful,” and “The gaspacho was astonishing,” entirely unaware of how silly they sound to eavesdroppers. Yet, Mazursky takes their exploration of the difference between physical & emotional fidelity and the marital benefits of casual sex just as seriously as he takes Jill Clayburgh’s devastating unpreparedness for a husbandless life in An Unmarried Woman. The only difference is that Mazursky was initially more willing to poke fun at his characters for that self-exploration, whether that’s a sign of immaturity on his part or on the part of the more therapy-adverse audiences of the 1960s who would have appreciated the jabs.

In a way, it’s entirely appropriate that An Unmarried Woman is more sober in tone & sentiment than Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, given the varying severity of their subjects. Both films sincerely advocate for the emotional & romantic benefits of therapy, but their respective eras call for drastically different tones. The Free Love 60s vibes of Mazursky’s earlier work invites a more fun, freewheeling tone as the promise of wife-swapping & group therapy loosens up the traditional boundaries of marriage to something more honest & playful. An Unmarried Woman arrives in the grim fallout of Free Love nearly a decade later, even set in the grimy streets of NYC instead of the cheery LA sunshine. Once traditional marriage began to break down and divorce became less taboo, women were much worse off in their newfound freedom than men, as they were socially conditioned to define their personal worth as wives, not individuals. The intimate, naturalistic therapy sessions of An Unmarried Woman can only lead to the subtle, quiet payoff of self-realization, then, while Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice benefits from barreling towards the promise of an orgy. With both films, Mazursky appeared to be making a statement on the nature of romance & autonomy in their respective times. His frank, direct honesty in both films guides their opposing tones, but his seriousness about the benefits of therapy remains constant between them. It says a lot about both films that their respective topics are still relevant to modern marital romance and that (extreme outliers like Josephine Decker aside) the standard approach is still closer to the winking humor of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (which was practically remade recently in The Overnight) than the emotional vulnerability of An Unmarried Woman.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff.

-Brandon Ledet

Dr. Penelope Russianoff: The Secret Auteur of An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1978 divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is not at all an outlier in director Paul Mazursky’s career. With his signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Mazursky established himself as a filmmaker who discusses America’s sexual & romantic taboos in a more direct, honest way than they’re usually handled onscreen. It’s a style that carried through his career all the way until he was making outlandish studio comedies like the Bette Midler & Woody Allen two-fister Scenes from a Mall. An Unmarried Woman fits snugly in the tone of that oeuvre, frankly & assertively challenging the sexual autonomy & newfound independence of the Modern Woman in 1970s New York. In the film, Jill Claybugh plays a well-off Manhattanite who unexpectedly finds himself divorced & heartbroken at middle age, unsure what to do with her newfound singlehood & the scraps of her former life. Her lengthy, unflinchingly honest discussion of her fears & desires within this new paradigm shared with the other women in her life are very familiar to the typical Paul Mazursky narrative, but one of the women in her life in particular may have had an even bigger influence on the tone & messaging of the film than the director did: her therapist.

Tanya, the tall, physically imposing but soft-spoken therapist who helps the titular divorcee piece her life back together, is an incredible show-stealing presence within the film. In scenes where the protagonist shares confessions with friends over cocktails or sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, you can feel Mazursky reaching for a matter-of-fact authenticity to ground his tale of a woman undone by a romantic fallout. None of these moments, engaging as they are, can match the simple, confident authenticity of Tanya’s screen presence. She’s the real deal. Referred to Mazursky by director Claudia Weill, Tanya was played in the film by real life NYC psychotherapist Penelope Russianoff. The therapy sessions in the film were staged in Russianoff’s Manhattan penthouse, where she would regularly see patients in real life. At 6’2” and the only notable non-professional actor in the cast, Russianoff stands out as a striking screen presence, a face & demeanor we are not accustomed to seeing in Hollywood fare. Just her physical presence as the fictional therapist Tanya is enough to change the tone & authenticity of the movie entirely. More importantly, though, it was her life’s work & the specialization within her field that really made an impact on the film, one that nearly matches Mazursky’s own.

When asked about her experience working on An Unmarried Woman, Russianoff chipperly responded “it was great fun, because I could change the lines,” noting that the original script contained dialogue that was “not things a therapist would say.” For instance, “The script called for me to say, ‘If I were you, I’d go out and get laid,’ but I said to Paul, ‘I can’t say that. I’d never say that.’” The collaborators, director & therapist, settled on the compromise line “I’m me and you’re you. But if I were you, I’d go out with my friends a lot the way you’re doing,” a drastically different sentiment. Much of her dialogue was revised & improvised in this way, but her collaboration with Mazursky was earnest, not contentious. When asked what An Unmarried Woman is about, Russianoff explained “A woman doesn’t have to be married to have a life.” That’s as succinct & as accurate a summation of the film’s mission statement as you’ll find, but it also works just as well as a mission statement in Russianoff’s own career as a therapist. Russianoff’s specialty within psychotherapy was in advising women how to assert themselves & shed the helplessness taught to them at an early age, as early socialization makes women feel dependent on male companionship. When considered in that context, An Unmarried Woman feels almost like a feature-length adaptation of her lectures, not a movie she just happened to bolster with an improv-heavy cameo.

When asked whether the feminism inherent to her teachings that women should feel independent of men was an intentional choice, Russianoff explained “I’ve always, without thinking, been a feminist therapist. Both my mother and father were achievement-oriented and intellectually-oriented people, so I was never programmed to be a sex object.” Her goal was never to alienate women from men completely. She was simply alarmed that, “About 95% of my female patients think they are nothing without a man” and made it her life’s work “to get them unfixated on men . . to stop pivoting around men as the core of their security and to learn to pivot around the core of security they build up in themselves.” That’s the exact crisis at the center of An Unmarried Woman: the titular divorcee is panicked that she does not know how to live a life without a husband, that she was socially unprepared for independence. Russianoff herself was married to a respected clarinetist for a large portion of her life but had been socialized early on by her parents to have passions & concerns outside of that relationship. She was horrified by the growing number of divorcees in the 1970s who did not have the same confidence or independence, and she made a life out of helping them find it. Her presence in An Unmarried Woman is more than just as an authentic, real-world therapist then; she’s a ground-floor witness & frontlines fighter to the film’s core themes, an essential part of its DNA.

Although it’s her only onscreen role as an actor, An Unmarried Woman was huge boon for Russianoff’s career. She doesn’t have enough cultural clout to have earned her own Wikipedia page (most information available about her online is hiding in her obituaries from 2000), but she did say that working with Mazursky afforded her “instant celebrityhood.” Much to the annoyance of her colleagues, her appearance in An Unmarried Woman directly led to a book deal, resulting in bestselling titles like When Am I Going to Be Happy? & Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? She also made several in-demand appearances on talk shows & expanded her practice to help patients suffering from stage fright, thanks to her on-camera experience. I have a feeling that Penelope Russianoff would have been just fine without Paul Mazursky’s film, however, that she would have been perfectly successful treating patients in her Manhattan penthouse for her remaining decades of practice. The question, then, is whether the movie would have been just as well off without her or whether her presence & influence had a dramatic impact on the themes & tone of the film. To me, there’s no question at all. An Unmarried Woman is just as much her film as it is the director’s, a remarkable thing to be able to say about a non-professional actor whose screentime practically amounts to a cameo.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet