The fact that Moscow on the Hudson (1984), which opened 34 years ago today and is as wisely observant about the United States as an immigrant nation now as then, is a rather patriotic movie only dawned on director/co-writer Paul Mazursky as he started making it. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing until you do it,” the filmmaker told biographer Sam Wasson for the latter’s 2011 Paul on Mazursky. “It struck me that Moscow was really about the fact that this is a great, great country. It’s openly done in the movie. In this country we take in people from everywhere and they bring the place a juice that if you are lucky enough to absorb and make use of its pleasures, you can have a much better life than if you stayed in the same neighborhood for your entire existence. In New York, you’re within minutes of the Black experience, of the Russian experiences, of the Yiddish experience, of the Italian, German, Swedish … It’s all over the city in restaurants, in music, and shops. The only thing they don’t have is a good Eskimo neighborhood.” The central character of this seriocomic movie gem (co-written with Leon Capetanos) is the visiting Russian circus musician and American jazz aficionado Vladimir Ivanoff (played with utterly enveloping grace and soul by the late, great Robin Williams), who dramatically decides to defect while his closely guarded company of fellow comrades are on a good-will shopping excursion to Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship store. There, Vladimir meets a salesgirl (Maria Conchita Alonso) and a security guard (Cleavant Derricks) who will aid his challenging and heartrending submergence into the American melting pot. Mazursky recalls: “In Leon’s first draft, the girl was American. It seemed too dry to me so I changed her into an Italian. In rewriting it, I saw that I could make a few other changes of ethnicity and before long, they were all immigrants.”
Williams, who in the estimation of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert “disappears so completely into his quirky, lovable, complicated character that he’s quite plausible as a Russian,” was not Mazursky’s first candidate for the part. Dustin Hoffman came to mind first, and he turned it down. Mazursky remembered: “By then I had also met with Dudley Moore, who said ‘Wish I could do it, but I don’t think I could.’ He was such a wonderfully funny guy and sympathetic. He could have played it, but he couldn’t do a Russian accent. He just wasn’t up to that kind of stuff. And then I met once with Bill Murray – a very offbeat idea – it didn’t work. Then came Dustin and then Robin.” Hoffman wanted a second crack at the part and requested one more meeting before a final decision, but by then Mazursky had met Williams and their deal was sealed. “He deserves enormous credit for that character. Watching it now, I see that he understood it better than I thought he did at the time. He’s right in there,” Mazursky remarked. “Robin is smart. He understood the pain. One of the good things that happened was, without me knowing quite why I did it, the teacher who I got to teach him Russian – a guy named David Gunberg – was very familiar with life in Russia. So when Robin worked with him for three months to learn the language, he must have learned a lot of good stuff along the way about how tough life was there. He is a very intelligent man, and as you know, he’s a very humane man. He did Comic Relief. There were times when he might have been difficult to hold own because he’s such a genius. He could do a riff now about anything – about your shirt – that could put you on the floor. We had a good time, though. We genuinely liked each other.” And Mazursky’s affection for America is deep and abiding. “The unabashed patriotism of it, of the ending – the scene in the diner. And a little sentimental too, like [Frank] Capra. I have that rack-focus from the guy’s sparkler to the Empire State Building. It’s the only rack-focus in the movie. I hate rack-focuses, but I did it deliberately because I didn’t want to cut. But yeah, there’s a lot of unabashedly political stuff that we have coming out of the mouth of the Cuban lawyer [Alejandro Rey], you know. And we play the song Freedom in the end. Yeah, it’s Capra-esque. An Italian immigrant, wasn’t he?” Moscow on the Hudson, featuring two Audio Commentaries, a solo by Mazursky and a duet by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, speaks eloquently and movingly to the immigrant in us all on a marvelous Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.