What do you do for an encore when your directorial film debut becomes a critical and commercial hit? That was the problem Paul Mazursky was facing in 1969 after Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice became the talk of the New York Film Festival where it was the opening night feature. His follow-up film, Alex in Wonderland (1970), expresses this dilemma but, if critics attacked the film for being an overt homage to Federico Fellini, Mazursky took the Italian maestro’s original concept and made it his own in an often absurdist portrait of Hollywood in the late sixties-early seventies and his own role in – and out – of it.
Mazursky was by no means a novice in the film industry in 1969 and had begun his career as an actor (Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire , Blackboard Jungle ) and moved into television screenwriting in the early sixties working on such series as The Rifleman, The Danny Kaye Show, and The Monkees. And when his first feature film screenplay, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968), co-written with Larry Tucker, became a hit for its star, Peter Sellers, Mazursky was given the opportunity to direct a movie by producer Mike Frankovich.
According to Mazursky in his autobiography, Show Me the Magic, “Alex in Wonderland  was a movie about a film director who had just come off a smash hit and didn’t know what to do next. It was precisely the position I was in after Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. The success of that had made Tucker and Mazursky the flavor of the month in Hollywood. But after several months of stops and starts, Larry and I had no follow-up project. We were both blocked. That’s when the idea came: Let’s do a movie about a blocked director. Not only is “Alex” blocked, but he dreams in the style of other directors, including the incomparable Federico Fellini. Of course, Fellini’s 8 1/2  was by now world famous as a movie about a blocked director.”
In today’s Hollywood, Mazursky would probably be urged by his producers to make a sequel to Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice but instead, Frankovich gave the green light to Mazursky and Tucker’s risky concept.
The storyline follows Alex, a recent overnight sensation in Hollywood, through a period of inactivity and creative frustration. He is unable to commit to any studio projects and not fully engaged with his wife and family in day to day living either. His soul-searching is fueled by an active fantasy life in which he meets Fellini in Rome, leads an uprising of Black revolutionaries, stages a Mai Lai-like massacre on Sunset Boulevard and encounters his screen muse, Jeanne Moreau, at Larry Edmunds’ Bookshop.
By the story’s end, Alex proves his commitment to his family by buying a new house and accepting his fate as a director who may only have one good movie in him. Yet, despite the allusions to Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, Mazursky weaves in plenty of behind-the-scenes satire and in-jokes for the astute film buff. For example, when Hal Stern, a manic producer played by Mazursky himself, pitches a Western to Alex, he tells him that Anthony Quinn would be perfect as the Native American hero. It might seem like an absurd idea except that Quinn did play a Native American protagonist that same year in Flap, a box office bomb for Warner Bros.
There is another Anthony Quinn connection to the movie that occurred off screen. During Mazursky’s discussion with Frankovich on the casting, the question of who would play Fellini arose. Although Anthony Quinn, a friend of Frankovich’s, was willing to play the famous Italian director, Mazursky and Tucker thought they should approach Fellini himself and soon found themselves on a plane to Rome to meet him.
Fellini had already indicated that he had no interest in appearing in Alex in Wonderland and proved elusive at first. Yet he eventually met with Tucker and Mazursky and after screening a print of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and several days of socializing with the Americans in his favorite Italian restaurants, he agreed to a cameo appearance in the movie.
The rest of the casting fell into place quickly. Donald Sutherland, who had become a much in-demand actor after his breakthrough role in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970), made an ideal Alex. “Ellen Burstyn played his wife,” Mazursky noted. “She found her inspiration from my wife, Betsy. I don’t think Betsy was thrilled with the idea of my making a “home movie” about our lives. My daughter Meg played one of Alex’s daughters. She was twelve, wore braces, and was very convincing. Viola Spolin, the mother of improvisational techniques in the American theater, played Alex’s mother, who was clearly based on my mother, Jean. (When my mother saw the completed film, she threatened to picket in front of the theatre in New York. “How could you show me like that?” she shouted on the telephone….The least you could have done was get Bette Davis to play me! Who the hell is this Viola Spolin?”).”
Mazursky was also able to get Jeanne Moreau to play herself in a cameo where she sings a song set to the tune of George Delerue’s theme music from the Francois Truffaut film, Jules and Jim (1962); she wrote the lyrics herself.
But when it came time to shoot Fellini’s cameo, the famous director had his assistant tell Mazursky that he was not available. In a panic, Mazursky hopped on a plane with Sutherland and a camera crew and flew to Rome. He basically ambushed Fellini at a restaurant but soon charmed the director into agreeing to appear in a short scene set in an editing room at Cinecitta where Fellini was editing his next feature, The Clowns (1970).
Despite the movie’s numerous virtues including Laszlo Kovacs’ dreamlike cinematography and strong performances by Sutherland and Burstyn, Alex in Wonderland was not as well received as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. “Alex in Wonderland had laid a colossal egg,” Mazursky said, “and I was reeling from this failure. I liked many things in the film and couldn’t understand the terrible hostility toward the picture. But that’s show business, folks.” It is true that the movie was a commercial failure but most critics were more mixed in their reactions than overwhelmingly negative.
In Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker, she pinpointed her main problem with Alex in Wonderland: “Alex’s fantasy life has no intensity – it’s a series of emotionally antiseptic reveries, staged like the big production numbers in a musical. And the film is so loose that one’s attention wanders…But Mazursky and his co-worker, Larry Tucker, have an affectionate, ambivalent way of observing the contradictions in how people live….The film has very funny moments, and at least one satiric triumph: a long revue skit in which Alex goes to lunch with a manic producer (played by Mazursky).”
There were some critics though that championed the film such as Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times: “What makes it so good is the gift Mazursky, Tucker and their actors have of fleshing out the small scenes of human contact that give the movie its almost frightening resonance…beyond these intimate scenes, there are icily observant portraits of the “new Hollywood.” Of aimless “idealistic” arguments on the beach, of luncheon meetings, of idle people trying somehow to be idly committed. These scenes are the 1970 equivalent of Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” or Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust”: Unforgivingly accurate studies of the distance between America and the filmmakers who would be “relevant” about it. The Fellini elements are laid onto the film and don’t quite sink in (although buffs will enjoy them just as parody). But the human story does work, remarkably well, and if the movie doesn’t hold together we’re not disposed to hold that against it.”
Seen today, Alex in Wonderland is a revealing and evocative time capsule of Hollywood and Los Angeles at the dawn of the ‘70s, a time when the old guard was dying out and the new rebel breed represented by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson and others were taking over. Paul Mazursky was a part of this movement and this second film is both intriguing and frustrating for the way it experiments with conventional narrative techniques and audience expectations in what was essentially a mainstream commercial movie of its time.
Donald Sutherland’s Alex may seem like a pretentious, immature narcissist but his behavior and that of his movie industry friends was typical of the young, privileged and mostly white movers and shakers of the new Hollywood.
And despite the film’s frequent flights of fantasy, Alex in Wonderland is grounded in reality by the numerous Los Angeles locations used throughout the movie; among these are Hollywood High, the MGM studio lot where the 1968 musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is being promoted on huge banners, and Hollywood Boulevard, where we glimpse the Musso and Frank Grill, the Vogue Theater (it closed in 1995), the Supply Sergeant, Max Factor and other familiar landmarks.
* This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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