"I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives...," Amanda says in the sublime Noel Coward play Private Lives, "If all the various cosmic thingummies fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one might do."
I've been musing about "thingummies" and "Private Lives" since last month after Oscar nominated writer-director Paul Mazursky died at age 84; and when I saw a fabulous production of the Coward classic at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Why are "thingummies" swirling around like word worms in my brain? Because though very different, Coward and Mazursky, often through comedy – sometimes blending satire, sadness and wit – illuminated and probed beneath the surface of private lives in their art.
Of the two, Coward, without question, was the more talented. I don't say this to cast Mazursky in a negative light. Few mere mortals would be expected to have Coward's many gifts. "There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians,...greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars," Lord Louis Mountbatten said of Coward, "If there are, they are twelve different people. Only one man combined all twelve...labels–The Master."
Coward, an early adapter of the humble-brag, pooh-poohed such effusive praise. "The most I've had is just a talent to amuse," he famously said.
Yet, Coward's work was far more than mere amusing superficial ephemera. "Private Lives may be a frivolous play, but it is seriously frivolous," Drew Lichtenberg, Shakespeare Theatre Company literary consultant, wrote in the playbill for the play, "much like The Importance of Being Earnest, which Oscar Wilde subtitled a 'trivial comedy for serious people.' "
But Coward wasn't just writing in the tradition of Wilde, Lichtenberg noted. "It (Private Lives) is a comedy less about plot and more about behavior..."
As I wrote in a recent piece for The Washington Blade, Coward's life wasn't all glam and glitz. Unknown except to a very few at the time, Coward served as a spy for the United Kingdom in World War II. Because the information was classified for nearly thirty years after the War, Coward couldn't reveal his wartime activities until just before his death at age 73 in 1973. "My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot–a merry playboy," Coward wrote at the time of the War.
The Nazis had a "blacklist" of celebs, artists and writers who they would have killed if they could have. "My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with," said Rebecca West, who, like Coward, was on the list.
It's a safe bet that most people in the 1930s weren't, and most of us today, aren't like Amanda and Elyot or Sibyl and Victor in Private Lives. Much as we might long to, we don't exchange bon mots with rich swells over champagne cocktails in Paris. Yet, through his artistry, Coward draws us into his characters lives. Reading or seeing his plays (or films of them), we identify with them, even though we'll never be rich, famous or that witty. Whether through Private Lives, Brief Encounter, or many of his other works, we learn about his characters. Coward's serious frivolity is a lens into his time.
Mazursky was no Noel Coward. Yet, in the (now classic) films which he wrote and directed, from "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" in 1969 to "Harry and Tonto" in 1974 to "An Unmarried Woman" in 1978, Mazursky, through satire and poignancy, drew back the curtain on lives of middle to upper-middle class urban and suburbanites (especially women). In doing so, he opened a window into the hearts and minds of generations from my generation, the boomers – to the "greatest generation."
In "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Mazursky both satirized and empathized with the counter cultural generation. The movie, which grew out of his wife's experiences with an encounter group, takes us along as two couples try to find meaning and love through touchy-feely "therapy," and wife-swapping during a time of changing mores. The film was "the liveliest American comedy so far this year," wrote Pauline Kael in the "New Yorker."
Mazursky sometimes gets a bad rap. It's easy to dismiss him because his characters frequently are affluent, and his movies often not only make you laugh, but end happily. But to sweep Mazursky's work under the superficial rug would be to overlook the substance and poignancy of his films. Art Carney won a well-deserved Oscar for his role in "Harry and Tonto," a sometimes, comic, often serious movie about a 72-year-old man, who gets kicked out of his apartment in New York.
As an emerging feminist in the 1970's, I, along with many of my women friends, loved Mazursky's movies. We especially identified with the character played by Jill Clayburgh in "An Unmarried Woman." Clayburgh played a married woman who thinks she's been in a perfect marriage for over 15 years until she finds that her husband has been having an affair. Suddenly, left a divorcee with her teenage daughter, she has to make a life for herself as a single woman. Like many of us at that time, she turns to her "sisters" – her women's conscious-raising group for support. True, most of us didn't have her resources or connections (she has a job at a gallery and her husband pays for her psychiatrist visits). But, we knew then (and still know now) what it was like to deal with sexism – what it was like to make a life for oneself as an unmarried woman.
Mazursky, who often acted in his movies, was known for his sensitivity in bringing out performances in actors – especially actresses. "They allow his camera to seek out and find subtleties of expression and echoes of a complex, sensual intelligence that never surface in their work for other directors," Molly Haskell said of him.
When criticized for the sentimentality of his movies, Mazursky responded in the Atlantic, "My movies aren't sentimental, they just have sentiment."
A noble, life-giving sentiment in this age of breaking bad and the walking dead.