First Mover: Paul Mazursky

A Hollywood legend takes a crack at the one thing he hasn't done yet: film criticism

Why did you decide to do this?
Graydon Carter sent me an email out of the blue saying, “Paul, I have a crazy idea. It would mean a lot to us,” something like that. I mean, it was very complimentary: “Would you be interested in being the film critic? Badabing, badaboom, we’ll treat you like a king.” I’m growing a beard while I write these reviews. It looks more promising. [Laughs]

How has your experience with critics been until now?
I hated them. Despised them. And had good luck with a lot of them. I was very close with a couple of important ones. Pauline Kael. She did some great stuff for me. She was special—I mean, very different.

What critics do you like today?
A.O. Scott, I like. Anthony Lane. I don’t always agree with everybody, but Anthony Lane is special. Joe Morgenstern is good. There’s about six of them. But then there are about 106 who, well, you know. Peter Travers is quoted in everything. He must live for quotes. Not that he’s stupid, but it’s too much almost.

Do you feel like you can be emotionally honest as a critic with the people that you worked with?
Yeah, I actually do, because lately I haven’t worked with anybody. So I can be very honest. I never met Lars von Trier; I don’t know Steve McQueen, both people I’ve given good reviews to. I know Clint Eastwood. He might kill me. I wasn’t crazy about [J. Edgar], but I like him.

Do you have another movie in you?
I’m 81 years old. I mean, I could, but I don’t think I could deal with the new group of producers that are out there. They give notes. The only time I got a note was on Down and Out in Beverly Hills. [Jeffrey] Katzenberg gave me some notes, so I marked them C-minus. I gave [them] to him, and I never got notes again. I do have scripts that I have written that I’ve tried to get going in the last few years, but nothing has happened.

At 81, is it hard to stay culturally relevant or even on top of it?
My knowledge of the new social media world is probably superficial. I liked that movie, Social Contract, or whatever it was called. I’m a big reader; I have a few very smart friends. I know what’s going on. But I don’t go to the clubs. For example, I saw Shame, which I am ashamed to say I liked. I’m pretty fun, but I’d never been to those clubs. The clubs I’ve been to were in Greenwich Village in the Beat generation. And you would walk down the streets and run into Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac. I knew some of them. Henry Miller. It was a different time.

Does criticism matter anymore?
For a small percentage; generally for people who go to art houses or are less inclined to go see whatever those things are, Transformers. In 1969, I had just made Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and it opened at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The audience went crazy; they were laughing, punching each other, falling on the floor. We went to the party afterwards and my ego was flying. Jack Atlas, the PR guy for Columbia Pictures, walks across the floor of this ballroom with The New York Times under his arm, with a very depressed look on his face. I said, “Jack, you OK?” He said, “The Times bombed the picture; [Vincent] Canby didn’t like it.” And suddenly, I went from flying high to the sewer. Why did I make this movie? Why did I bother? Why did I waste my life? So I go home to my wife, tried to sleep. It was very difficult. At 8 a.m., the phone rings and a woman says, “Is this Paul Mazursky?” I say, “Yeah,” figuring it’s another bad review from someone who works at Columbia. She says, “It’s Pauline Kael, I loved your movie. Forget him, he’s a moron.”