Paul Mazursky's Tempest (1982)
Getting her goat
Stanley Cavell argued in his 1981 monograph Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage that a group of 1930s and early 40s romantic comedies constitute a reemergence of the philosophical and human wisdom of Shakespearean comedy. It seems unlikely that Paul Mazursky read Cavell’s book that year while he was making his movie Tempest, released in 1982. Nor would he need to, since Mazursky knows both his Shakespeare and his classic Hollywood comedies.
Moreover, he had been kicking around the idea for a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for decades before he made his film. Mazursky acted in Stanley Kubrick’s execrable first film Fear and Desire (1952), and recites lines from the Shakespeare play in it. In Sam Wasson’s wonderful book of interviews with Mazursky, the director says that he initially conceived of doing a “Marx Brothers version” of The Tempest and that, at one point in the 1970s, he was hoping to do a musical version with Mick Jagger as Ariel.
That last doesn’t sound remotely appealing to me, and I’m grateful it never happened. And that instead we have Tempest, a film I have loved for many years. The casting is wonderful. (The casting director is Juliet Taylor.) Among many other things, the film is an 80s milestone, with the first film role of Molly Ringwald, all of thirteen years old, with sun-kissed freckles and what would become the great pout of my generation. She tells her father in the movie: “I dreamt I was smoking pot at a Go-Gos concert.”
Italian actor Vittorio Gassman brings an older version of the bullying energy he showed in the unforgettable 1962 movie Il Sorpasso. Raul Julia’s performance grows warmer and more layered each time one sees it. Susan Sarandon glows as she never has elsewhere, even in Atlantic City.
And then there are the two central characters, a husband and wife, played by real-life husband and wife, actor-director John Cassavetes and acclaimed actress Gena Rowlands. Their scenes together are marvels of depth, antagonism, intimacy.
Husband and wife? Yes, Mazursky changes the exiled wizard Prospero and his usurping brother Antonio to New York City architect Philip (Cassavetes) and his wife Antonia (Rowlands). When Philip goes through a mid-life crisis, of which his wife bears the brunt, she begins an affair with Philip’s boss, a real estate mogul named Alonzo (Gassman) who builds casinos. (The movie went into production the same year Donald Trump created Trump Plaza.) Just like Alonso, the king of Naples in Shakspeare’s play, Mazursky’s Alonzo has an entourage of loyal flunkies, including Borsht Belt stand-up comic Jackie Gayle as Arnie Trinc (corresponding to a jester named Trinculo in the play).
When Philip discovers the affair he takes his daughter Miranda (Ringwald) and runs off to Athens, where he beds the luminous Aretha (Sarandon), an American vagabond who, like Prospero’s Ariel, is a free spirit now chained to a self-involved man who wants to leave the world behind and rule his own kingdom. Which he does when they decamp to a ramshackle villa on an anonymous Greek island, whose only inhabitant is the ridiculous, sad-eyed Kalibanos (Julia), who lusts after Miranda but lives in terror of his new boss Philip. As in The Tempest there is a shipwreck and Prospero’s past catches up with him on the island: his ex-wife Antonia, his former boss Alonzo, the whole troupe.
Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mazursky’s film is structured around song, dance, and pageant as much as drama and dialogue. Ringwald and Sarandon break out in a duet of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”; Julia leads an unsuspecting herd of goats in a joyous dance accompanied by the track of Liza Minelli’s “New York, New York”; and the movie culminates in a brilliant extended shot of the various characters pairing off in a sweet, woozy tango.
That last is the form that forgiveness takes in the movie, the film’s central concern, and particularly the forgiveness between husband and wife. It is, in the end, a surprisingly simple thing, which is part of the film’s wisdom, and takes a lot of mutually- and self-inflicted pain to get there, which is also part.
And, in the hermetic spirit of the play, forgiveness in the film is preceded by a ritual sacrifice. “Your lives were spared,” Philip tells the castaways. “That’s a miracle. On this island we honor a miracle with a sacrifice.” Then he slaughters a goat.
This, Mazursky relates, was the cause of—excuse for?—its own ritual of marital rupture-and-reconciliation:
Gena said to me, “Paul, we have a real problem. When we shoot the scene, John said he’s going to kill the goat.” I said, “You’re not going to kill the goat. It’s fake! John holds the knife to the goat’s throat, I cut to you watching, we hear the slashing sound, and I cut back and we see blood all over. It’s a fake dead goat.” “No,” she said, “he’s really going to kill it.” I said, “He’s not going to kill it. I don’t kill animals on movies.” She said, “I’m just telling you what he said.” So I go to John and I say to him, “Stop this. Tell her you’re kidding.” He says, “I’m not kidding. I’m going to kill that measly fucking runt goat and I’m going to kill it real good.” I said, “John, I know you’re kidding. You’re just doing this to rile her, to get her angry.” But he wouldn’t stop. Finally, on the day before we were to shoot the scene I took them to an Italian restaurant and said, “It’s time to stop the game because I’m getting exhausted. I can’t sleep at night because of what you’re doing to me.” John says, “I’m sorry, Paul. I’m killing the goat.” Gena says, “Please excuse me, I have to go to the restroom.” She’s gone for fifteen minutes when John gets up and goes to the ladies room and knocks on the door. “I’m going to kill the goat!” he shouts. “You hear me, Gena? I’m going to fucking murder it!” But no answer. He quickly peeks inside and sees she’s not there. He calls the hotel. She’s in the room. He says, “Why did you walk out on me? [Listening] Uh-huh . . . Uh-huh . . . Well, I want you to know I will be killing that goat.” He hangs up. The next morning I get there early and try to figure out what I’m going to do. That’s when I see them walking toward the set, arms around each other, deeply in love.
But Cassavetes and Rowlands are not the only real-life spouses playing spouses in the movie. For the first time in his career, Mazursky put himself in his movie along with his wife Betsy, as a theater producer and his wife. Mazursky has had a some brief but memorable acting scenes in his own movies, such as the smarmy Hollywood executive who tries to sweet-talk Donald Sutherland (as Mazursky’s alter ego) in Alex in Wonderland and the very Jewish friend in the Chinese restaurant scene (both characters are named Hal) in An Unmarried Woman. And in Alex in Wonderland he cast his own daughter Meg, then twelve, as Sutherland’s daughter, a demanding role at which she excelled.
But Mazursky, who throughout his career explored the nature and extremes of marriage through the centrifugal forces of the 60s counterculture, the 70s “Me Generation,” and beyond, and who remained married to his wife Betsy for over sixty years until his death, had never put her in a film before Tempest.
Their little scene together is delicious, uncomfortable, and feels improvised. At a small gathering of friends hosted by Rowlands-as-Antonia, Cassavetes-as-Philip enters drunk and ornery, tries to kiss Betsy full on the mouth, and then demands that Mazursky dance with him. Betsy extricates her husband and the guests, embarrassed, all make their exit. Cassavetes falls theatrically to his knees to beg his wife’s forgiveness; disgusted, she pushes him away.
Reviewing Tempest in 1982, Michiko Kakutani made the connection to Shakespeare and Cavell:
Indeed, many of Mr. Mazursky's movies - following in the tradition of such classic Hollywood comedies as ''Bringing Up Baby,'' ''Adam's Rib'' and ''The Awful Truth'' - feature a narrative movement that parallels the structure of Shakespeare's comedies. As the critic Stanley Cavell has observed, such films concern an initially embattled couple who move from conflict through confusion to eventual reconciliation - reconciliation that is achieved after a temporary retreat to a ''green world,'' where perspective and renewal can be achieved.
I’m not sure if Tempest really exemplifies Cavell’s notions, drawn from Northrop Frye, about Shakespeare and the “green world.” But of his kinship with classic Hollywood comedies there can be no doubt. After all, in the first scene after Tempest’s opening credits, Cassavetes wakes up on his island, next to his wire fox terrier—the same breed of dog as “Mr. Smith” in The Awful Truth.
 Sam Wasson, Paul on Mazursky (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011), 163.