Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Paul Mazursky, Who Brought Marijuana to The Movies

Before Easy Rider portrayed marijuana smoking on film, and long before American Beauty, Peter Sellers played an uptight Jewish lawyer whose life is pried open by Leigh-Taylor Young's pot brownies in 1968's I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

It was the breakthrough film for Paul Mazursky, who wrote and nearly directed the cult classic. Mazursky died yesterday, and all his obituaries linked him with marijuana because of that film.

Growing up in New York, Mazursky worked as an actor, appearing in the seminal Blackboard Jungle (1955). Venturing into stand-up comedy and writing, he wrote for Danny Kaye before moving his office to the Sunset Strip, where the hippies he saw inspired his Toklas screenplay. He followed up with his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), based on experiences he had at Esalen. In that film, unlike Easy Rider, the women (Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon) also get in on the pot-smoking fun.

In his 1999 book Show Me the Magic, Mazursky describes going to the jungle to take Ayahuasca, and mentions that a shamanic healer used tobacco smoke, "not weed," during the journey. Although he describes himself as a "Greenwich Village hipster" (and his mother as "a hipster, a gypsy, a beantik, a hippie"), he doesn't mention that he smoked marijuana himself. Perhaps it went without saying.  Or maybe he preferred psychedelics.

In the book, he describes a very interesting exchange with famed director Federico Fellini, when Mazursky was planning a trip to Italy and wanted to know whether to visit Florence or Venice. "Do you want marijuana or LSD?" Fellini asked. "Firenze is like marijuana. You will be very happy there. Venezia is not like any place you have ever experienced. She is like an acid trip." "I think I'll take Venice," Mazursky replied.

George Segal and Kris Kristofferson, playing the new boyfriend of Segal's ex-wife, smoke together and form a goofy bond in Mazursky's 1973 film Blume in Love. In his feminist-minded An Unmarried Woman (1978), a 15-year-old girl (Lisa Lucas) matter-of-factly states, "I smoke pot sometimes" upon meeting her mother's new boyfriend, played by Alan Bates. "I do too," he responds. "Got any?" she asks.

Among the remarkable films Paul Mazursky left us are: Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moscow on the Hudson, Harry and Tonto, Enemies: A Love Story and Moon Over Parador. He even took a stab at Shakespeare in Tempest  (1982).

Mazursky's voice opens the movie Antz (1999), playing the psychiatrist who diagnoses the dissatisfied ant Z (Woody Allen) as the insignificant creature he is. But Paul Mazursky was more like what Z becomes, the little guy who broke the mold. 

The 2019 movie The Last Laugh, wherein Andie McDowell turns Chevy Chase onto marijuana and more, and Richard Dreyfus tokes and jokes his way through, is dedicated to Mazursky.

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