During his last visit to H-Town, Wasson signed copies of his splendidly entertaining and impressively researched Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and The Dawn of the Modern Woman – and hosted an MFAH screening of the classic 1961 Blake Edwards comedy (adapted, of course, from Truman Capote’s acclaimed novella) that was the focus of his elegantly written tome.
After the one-hour program – which bears the cheeky title “First We’ll Have an Orgy, Then We’ll Go See Tony Bennett,” a wink-wink reference to a line of dialogue in Mazursky’s smartly comical Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) – Wasson will gladly sign copies of that brand new volume, Paul on Mazursky, for which he conducted extensive interviews with the Oscar-nominated writer-director.
But wait, there’s more: At 7 p.m. Friday, Wasson will introduce an MFAH revival screening of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Mazursky’s slyly satirical yet engagingly warm-hearted comedy about two L.A. couples – hip Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood, buttoned-down Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) – who grapple with the changing sexual mores of the late ‘60s. To quote the movie’s original advertising tagline: Consider the possibilities.
Much as he did prior to his previous MFAH appearance, Wasson graciously agreed this week to an interview via email. Among the highlights:
CultureMap: Why Paul Mazursky? What is there about his oeuvre that uniquely impressed you?
Sam Wasson: Why Paul Mazursky? The long answer is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice & Alex in Wonderland & Blume & Harry & Tonto & Larry Lipinksy & The Whitemans & An Unmarried Woman & Enemies: A Love Story. And the short answer is: Mazursky's people. I love Mazursky's people; they're funny and crazy and always real. He sees the best in human beings. He forgives.
CM: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was considered quite risqué in its day. And even now, it comes off as sexier — and much more sophisticated — than most contemporary comedies. What is the secret of its enduring appeal? The allure of wife-swapping, perhaps?
SM: The secret to Bob & Carol takes me back to my answer to the first question. It's the people. The wildness of the satire and the far-outness of the ‘60s is grounded in the most basic, granular unit of moment-to-moment truth. It's far sexier than most comedies, I think, for the same reason: it's all credible. When we laugh, we're not laughing at the weirdness — we're not laughing out of alienation —but compassion.
The secret to Bob & Carol takes me back to my answer to the first question. It's the people.
CM: Mazursky’s follow-up film, Alex in Wonderland – a 1970 comedy about, appropriately enough, a director (Donald Sutherland) trying to follow up a major hit — seemed to be struck by the notorious “sophomore jinx.” Indeed, in my hometown of New Orleans, it opened at drive-ins – no kidding – on the bottom half of a double bill with Get Carter. The movie certainly didn’t deserve such a fate. What happened?
SM: What happened to Alex in Wonderland? Well, a lot. First of all, it's a big comedown after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Second of all, parts of it just don't work. (Fellini said to Mazursky: “The realistic scenes are all fabulous, but the dream scenes... well...”) And third of all -- independent of questions of merit and bad timing and everything else that can kill a movie — Americans don't like filmmakers making films about themselves as filmmakers. This is considered narcissistic and European, as in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Blake Edwards' S.O.B., and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, films slammed on their initial release, but now have the respect and serious attention they deserve.
Alex is not at the level of those films I don't think, but it's quite definitely worth another look — I remember reading somewhere it's Scorsese's favorite Mazursky picture.
CM: My favorite moment in a Mazursky film: In Tempest, John Cassavetes looks heavenward and demands of God or Whoever, “Show me the magic!” And then God or Whoever does just that. (It helped that I saw this for the first time on the enormous screen of the old University Theatre at the Toronto Film Festival.) Your favorite Mazursky moment?
SW: Anything with Shelley Winters. Or, the bedroom scene between Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in Bob & Carol. He wants to sleep with her, she's not in the mood, then she's in the mood, and he doesn't want to sleep with her, then he changes his mind... etc. I can't think of another instance of a farcical situation pushed so far without becoming farce. It's a marvelous balancing act, to keep the doors slamming (so to speak), and not compromise plausibility.
CM: Speaking of magic: Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. Why do you think Robert Culp of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice never made it as a movie star?
SW: I love Culp. But he's no movie star. He was a gifted actor and quite funny, but he doesn't fascinate, he doesn't present any puzzles for the brain to obsess over, and he doesn't have any one thing unique to himself. It's impossible to define movie star so it's impossible to define the opposite of movie star, so those would be my best guesses.
CM: Finally: Kris Kristofferson once told me the hardest thing he’s ever had to do as an actor is burst into tears after slugging George Segal in Mazursky’s Blume in Love. Did Mazursky tell you what was the hardest film – or scene – he ever directed.
SW: The hardest scene Mazursky has ever had to shoot? Oh God, who knows? Mazursky did not have much difficulty on set — really —but I think he must have been pretty jealous watching Ron Silver shoot his sex scene with Lena Olin in Enemies: A Love Story. Who could blame him?