A Couple of Three

Paul Mazursky’s new movie, Willie and Phil, is the story of a romantic triangle involving two men who fall in love with the same woman. This situation, of course, recognizably belongs to François Truffaut. His Jules et Jim (1961) has already spawned several variations, including Alain Tanner’s Le Salamandre and, more recently, John Byrum’s Heart Beat and Rob Cohen’s A Small Circle of Friends. It’s appropriate, then, that Mazursky has Willie (Michael Ontkean) and Phil (Ray Sharkey) meet for the first, time in the lobby of the Eighth Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where they’ve both just seen Jules et Jim—a shared passion, they discover, and the beginning of their friendship.

Willie, a Jew from Brooklyn, is a high school teacher who wants to be a jazz pianist. Phil, an Italian, is a struggling fashion photographer who “wants to be a Jewish intellectual.” The year is 1970. Willie and Phil are both in their twenties, both draft-dodgers from the tail end of the sixties. They become friends, like Jules and Jim, wander New York in search of girls, and talk, always talk. These opening scenes, a series of whimsical vignettes, are narrated —again, like Jules et Jim—by a voice-over. The tribute to Truffaut is forthright, and dangerous, for it invites comparison. By the time Willie and Phil meet Jeannette (Margot Kidder), we’re waiting for Jeanne Moreau, that mysterious woman “half in love with easeful death.” Instead, we get a healthy, open, disarmingly unmysterious southern girl who has come to New York to see Life and finds herself, six months later, so broke she can’t pay her rent. Jeannette is likable, all right, and pretty, but hardly a femme fatale. Willie and Phil, however, are smitten.

A flip of the coin decides that Jeannette will live with Willie. She moves into his apartment on the understanding that there will be no sex, then changes her mind, fearing that no sex will make sex too important. This down-to-earth practicality is her determining characteristic. As she herself says, “Fin not an intellectual. I just follow my feelings.” Her feelings, decidedly guiltless, intrigue Willie and Phil, for they’re both mired in guilt, Willie because he can’t find a satisfactory solution to the mysteries of existence, Phil because he can’t imagine not being judged. Jeannette’s feelings say go with the flow, and Willie and Phil take to it with charming enthusiasm, two uptight boys liberated by this wholesome girl. They become a team, a family unit, a couple of three, and together discover a playfulness, a loose happiness, that neither Willie nor Phil could know alone. They even drop acid, and in that libidoless atmosphere end up in bed together. Whimsy here becomes a quietly jolting fact: Willie and Phil not only share Jeannette, they share each other, or at least touch and kiss each other, not exactly erotically, but tenderly, without shame.

The rest of the movie is the story of their intertwined fates over the next nine years. Willie and Jeannette have a baby and get married, in that order, and move to the country, at Willie’s insistence, for a life of pastoral poverty. Phil goes to Hollywood and quickly becomes a successful director of commercials. He lives in a house in Malibu, every New Yorker’s secret dream, while 3000 miles away Willie—bearded now and looking oddly out of place in the mid-seventies, the last hippie in a blissful trance—happily plants corn and weaves ponchos. Willie is looking for the peaceful life as much as Phil is looking for the good life, a quest for psychological freedom and wholeness that eventually takes him all the way to India. Jeannette, still following her feelings, settles in Malibu with Phil and gets on with her new career, film editing. Phil is happy that she and the child are with him, yet guilt continues to plague him, as it will, we’re beginning to understand, the rest of his life. For that’s his character, just as it’s Willie’s character to go off in search of enlightenment, just as it’s Jeannette’s character to be practical.

Mazursky’s greatest strength as a director has always been his ability to get good psychological performances out of his actors, from Elliot Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to Art Carney in Harry & Tonto to Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman. Willie and Phil is no exception. Small scenes, such as the one in which Helen Hanft plays a used car salesperson, are lit by an exuberant, perfectly controlled acting. And larger scenes, such as the one in which Phil’s parents visit him in Malibu for the first time, become true drama, almost Chekhovian in the way they slip quickly and unexpectedly into tragedy. There Phil is, living in sin with his best friend’s wife, moiling in fear and guilt. His father (Tom Brennan) is evasively sympathetic, but his mother (Jan Miner) is outraged. At first this conflict is funny, the kind of graceful, shtiky patter that can make you feel Mazursky’s being too easy on himself. But Phil’s mother won’t let up. She has brought this outrage all the way from New York and it certainly isn’t dissipated by meeting Jeannette. Her anger, her own pain, force her way beyond the last laugh. She slaps Phil, hard, and for a moment we’re all shocked, like Phil. This is real. Phil’s father in tow, she makes Phil drive them back to the airport, where they catch the first plane to New York.

Finally Willie returns from India. He stays with Phil and Jeannette in Malibu, not sure what to do next. Phil tries to find happiness in compulsive work and success, but can’t. Only Jeannette seems to have any faith in what she’s doing, and so, in the end, it’s she who breaks their nine-year bond by returning to New York with the child and dedicating herself to filmmaking. Her practicality sees her through. Willie and Phil, on the other hand, remain vacillating dreamers. When they follow Jeannette back to New York and return to the Eighth Street Playhouse to see Jules et Jim again, they come out to find a crowd of costumed kids waiting for the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Things have changed, and they feel the distance between themselves and this latest middle-class fad. But they can smile, indulgently, because they understand the impulse. They too lead their lives by it.

Couples, and all their possible permutations, have played a large part in most of Mazursky’s movies, from the tentative wife-swappers in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to the manic George Segal trying to get his wife back in Blume in Love. Interviewed at his Twentieth Century-Fox office in Los Angeles, Mazursky, an articulate, longhaired fifty-year-old, smiled and allowed as how that was his primary fascination. “I’ve been married twentyseven years,” he said. “And that malefemale couple, whatever you want to call it, which has also now become male-male and female-female, that’s the reality I see in front of me. I didn’t make that up. That’s my obsession. Fellini is obsessed by his erotic fantasies. I’m obsessed with the fact that two people actually live together. How is that possible? Who made that up? My movies are fantasies about what it would be like if certain things happened, like switching couples in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. In Willie and Phil, I was wondering what it would be like to be young in the seventies, when there are no more rules and regulations. In the fifties, when I was that age, very few people lived together. They certainly didn’t invite their parents over on Sunday. It’s completely different now. Young people have seen, in the last twenty-five years, since the second world war, an incredible divorce rate. They say, ‘What’s the point in getting married when you’re going to get divorced anyway?’ ”

Born in Brooklyn in 1930, Mazursky started acting as a teenager, and by the time he was a senior in college he was appearing in an off-Broadway production of He Who Gets Slapped. Then he won a role in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire, and in 1955 appeared as a juvenile delinquent in The Blackboard Jungle. Stardom evaded him, however, and he soon found himself doing a nightclub routine in New York. This was followed by four years as a writer for the Danny Kaye show. All the while he was writing screenplays, and finally, in 1968, sold I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, co-authored by Larry Tucker. He made his directorial debut in 1969 with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and since then has made a string of uniquely unpretentious movies about average, middle-class people: Alex in Wonderland (1970), Blume in Love (1973), Harry & Tonto (1974), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), and now, Willie and Phil.

“The first time I saw Jules et Jim,” he told me, “I just thought, ‘Ah, what a masterpiece.’ The next time around, I thought, ‘How funny, how sad, how funny, how sad.’ With Willie and Phil I wanted to deal with young people, people in their twenties and thirties, and I wanted it to be funny and sad. I know there are some wonderful filmmakers with really tragic views of life. But for me, absurdity is always just around the corner. I see it all the time. I think life is a combination of awesome joy and a lot of pain, no matter how well adjusted you are, no matter how well organized. You’re born and you know you’re going to die, and so you start with an absurdity. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I remember having crazy arguments with my mother, really intense, and she’d suddenly say something so funny, so bright, so sharp, that I’d start to laugh.”

Mazursky’s vision, like Truffaut’s, is rooted in this humorous love for his fickle wanderers. He sees life as a series of quixotic adventures. His heroes are all slightly confused and well-meaning innocents looking for happiness. This disease, rightly identified by Mazursky as a middle-class affliction, is both painful and funny, for the quest, like Willie’s in Willie and Phil, can lead nowhere but home. Willie really thinks he’s going to find something when he heads for India, but when he gets back he’s more interested in hot dogs and the New York Times than he is in spiritual enlightenment. That discrepancy, between what the characters want at any given moment and what we know they’re capable of, provides the humor. But it also often makes it difficult to take them very seriously.

“I’ve been accused of being sentimental,” Mazursky said when I mentioned this problem. “I’ve always defended myself by saying my movies aren’t sentimental, they just have sentiment. I feel pity for my characters. But maybe that’s self-pity. Maybe I have it in me, too. I don’t know. When I went to Esalen to research Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, I’m sure part of me was saying, ‘Well, look, I’m here to do research for my movie.’ But after two or three hours I think another part of me was saying, ‘I could be a better person.’ ” He grinned. “The absurdity’s there. It’s there. That’s what I think life is, personally. You do eight million things to try to figure out why you’re here and how to make it better. Americans are unique—and I try to get this with my movies—because we’re willing to try almost anything. If you tell an American that there’s a guy who sells shoes but is in fact the greatest masseur in the world, and not only that, but when he touches the top of your head with his finger you feel great for two days, I’ll find you some people who will go to this guy, and not just in California.”

I asked Mazursky if, in his mind, Willie and Phil were obsessed by Jeannette.

“I don’t think they’re as obsessed by her as Jules and Jim were obsessed by the Jeanne Moreau figure. But I do think they’re unable, for whatever reason, to understand their lives, and that Jeannette becomes a substitute for answering questions about themselves. They’re confused. Willie and Phil are definitely confused. I love them. They aren’t great or tragic figures. They’re real Americana. Jeannette simply has more confidence, less fear. She’s not a perfect creature. Nor is her mystery the mystery of a Jeanne Moreau. That woman wanted to die. Jeannette wants to live. She just says, ‘Look, I’m doing the best I can.’ I guess she’s representative of my perception that if anybody is starting to see things a little more clearly now, it’s women.”

Most small movies are treated with a certain suspicion, as if they weren’t quite American. The recent Head Over Heels and Foxes and Wise Blood, for example, died an early death at the box office. It’s harder to escape into a small movie, perhaps. And small movies tend to be about small, unspectacular lives. Who wants to see himself? Big movies, like Homeric myths, offer big fantasies. The greater the stimulation, the more overwhelming the Otherness, the greater the fantasy.

Small movies about everyday domestic problems usually come from Europe, intimate, subtle stories that get shown in city art houses such as the Eighth Street Playhouse but rarely penetrate the heartland, to say nothing of the consciousness, of America. Yet Mazursky has had two commercial hits—Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman—and so has been able to go on making the kind of movie he likes, modest, personal, filled with a sly, forgiving wit and an autobiographical affection for the urban middle class of New York and Los Angeles, those two polar versions of the American Dream, one rooted in the Old World, a confusion of immigrants and intellectuals, the other a baffling, intoxicating, brave new world where displaced citizens pursue their ever-illusive pleasures.

The flip side of Mazursky’s sympathetic optimism is that nothing, finally, is radically serious. His middle-class kids may wander out for adventures in the world, but they always come home to the Jacuzzi, Happiness, knowledge, and enlightenment are commodities, and Mazursky’s characters look for them the way they might browse through a store, hoping for a bargain. This strikes me as a particularly American attitude, a strange mixture of innocence and lassitude. Even Jeannette’s final transformation to self-reliance, which breaks the nine-year love affair with Willie and Phil, is portrayed by Mazursky with the same gentle irony he has used to convince us that Willie and Phil are hopelessly lovable, average guys. That’s Mazursky’s angle on things, the way he sees his own middle class. And that’s why he treats Willie and Phil and Jeannette humorously, why he never takes their desires too seriously. They’re children, really. As he himself said, they’ll try anything once—drugs, cults, ideas—and then quickly discard it, moving on to the next possibility. In the end, they’re silly, and in Mazursky’s view, that’s their saving grace. For the more disenchanted, that’s their downfall.