If you’re looking for some good movies to watch this three-day holiday weekend, I’d like to suggest a double shot of Paul Mazursky, the under-appreciated filmmaker who died Monday. A whole marathon of his work is in order, really, especially if you’ve never seen Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or Harry and Tonto or Next Stop, Greenwich Village (come at least for Bill Murray’s first film appearance and a great early Christopher Walken) or An Unmarried Woman (a terrific feminist classic) or the crazy Alex in Wonderland (come at least for the Fellini scene). But two of my favorites are his big releases in the mid-80s, Moscow on the Hudson and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and I think they make a perfect double feature for Independence Day.
First up is Moscow on the Hudson, which in early 1984 led the wave of comedies involving immigration and migration to New York City (see Crocodile Dundee, Coming to America, Splash, Muppets Take Manhattan, Jason Takes Manhattan, Short Circuit 2, Brother From Another Planet). Despite starring Robin Williams and being a fish out of water story, this isn’t quite a laugh-out-loud sorta movie. Mazursky takes the idea of defecting from the Soviet Union rather seriously, for a story that celebrates the American Dream less fantastically than most Hollywood features. We start out in Russia and see it as a relatively miserable place to live, yet it’s not depicted as a total nightmare. Nor is the United States presented as an absolute utopia. At the climax of the movie, Williams’s character, Vladimir, even questions the freedom of a country where he could be mugged at anytime.
“At least in Russia I knew who the enemy was,” he tells his Cuban refugee lawyer friend.
The biggest joke in the movie is having Vladimir escape his life under communism in one of the most blatant representations of capitalism, the upscale department store Bloomingdales. There’s also humor in little things, like the parallels between his home life in Moscow and that of his new African-American friend (Cleavant Derricks). Unlike most movies of the time about visitors to the U.S., here the hero isn’t welcomed in by wealthy whites. Moscow on the Hudson is almost entirely populated by ethnic New Yorkers, representing the melting pot of the city and the nation as a whole, noting that they’ve all had hard times here. But there is a lot of patriotism spouted, perfect for your 4th of July, some of it in the form of Vladimir’s Italian girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) studying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen while surrounded by Stars and Stripes shower curtains.
(Interestingly enough, Alonso, who is in fact Cuban by way of Venezuela, is today very public in her denouncement of her communist and socialist homelands, so much that it’s hard not to consider her conservative politics while watching her in the context of this movie.)
Mazursky’s next movie, 1986’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills is an excellent companion piece that is for ’80s Los Angeles what Moscow on the Hudson is for ’80s New York. It’s a very different angle on the American Dream, too, more of a fantasy. Instead of a foreigner assimilating via fellow immigrants and refugees, here we have Nick Nolte as a privileged white man who fell on hard times assimilating back into society via fellow privileged white people. Literally named Whiteman. It opens, like Moscow on the Hudson, in the main character’s miserable world. Homeless America is to Beverly Hills mansions as the Soviet Union is to the United States. The time is Thanksgiving, the most American holiday next to Independence Day. And the movie ends on New Year’s, with fireworks shot off as some do for the occasion yet is more often associated with the 4th of July.
Plus, in Southern California, it always looks like summer, especially when everyone is lounging by the pool or swimming in the pool or falling into the pool or attempting suicide in the pool. Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 film Boudu Saved From Drowning, which itself was based on the 1919 play by Rene Fauchois. Renoir’s version is a satire and ultimately a rejection of the bourgeois middle class in Paris, with the ending changed from the Fauchois to have its tramp return to his old life. Mazursky does lampoon the ’80s Beverly Hills nouveau riche in the family of Richard Dreyfuss (preparing well for the similar What About Bob?) and Bette Midler, the former character having grown up poor in Brooklyn with a communist father. They’re hardly happy, and it takes taking in a bum for them to be shown how to relax and be free from their own freedom, as it were. Yet in the very Hollywood ending, they’re still forgiven as the preferential alternative to a life of “true freedom” in a way that would have annoyed Renoir.
In addition to Dreyfuss’s character mentioning his communist father, highlighting his definitely American upward mobility, and the fact that he hosts a delegation from China in hopes of expanding his business there, there’s also a hint at a potential revolution on the part of his maid and former lover (Elizabeth Pena). Nolte’s bum pushes communist literature on her and convinces her that she’s being oppressed by her capitalist boss. But this nothing subplot is never brought back up. For Mazursky, America is a place, in spite of being born out of revolution itself, to which people flee revolutions. The Whiteman’s Iranian neighbors are an example of a family who left following the overthrow of the Shah. This is a country where not only the poor can rise in class but where the already wealthy choose to live in the expectation that there will never be a takedown of the capitalist system (funny enough, his next, disappointing movie, Moon Over Parador, deals directly with South American communist revolutionaries trying to overthrow a dictator).
The two movies have some complex ideas about what America and freedom are all about, and together they offer up a picture of our nation and its culture, specifically during the Reagan era yet still somewhat relevant today. Mazursky was one of our best directors for capturing the truth about people and class in this country, whether he was making fun or being progressive in, say, his depictions of women and sexuality. Unlike most of his peers from his generation, he wasn’t a New York filmmaker (even while hailing from Brooklyn) nor a Hollywood filmmaker. He was an American filmmaker, and it’s fitting to honor him on America’s birthday.