Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees, Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is essentially a comedy of manners, but of the bedroom variety, and its attractive conceit is showing the educated classes’ perverse ability to intellectualise themselves out of accepted societal norms, irrespective of whether that’s in the interest of their emotional or marital wellbeing. Bob and Carol (Natalie Wood) represent those not sprightly enough to be part of a youth movement yet nevertheless desirous to inhale some fumes from the scene (obviously, the actual parameters varied, hence old-timer Dennis Hopper inhaling the entire scene in greedy gulps and failing to come up for air for another decade).
Bob, a documentary filmmaker (a surprisingly affluent one, by the looks of it) attends a group honesty retreat with Carol; it’s the kind of place indulging beautiful nude women meditating as well as not-so-beautiful types attempting to get to grips with not being so beautiful. There’s an abundance of excruciating navel gazing (“Say hello with your eyes”), primal screaming and utterly repellent group hugging, and the couple emerge transformed, eager to impress their newfound wisdom upon bezzie-mates couple Ted and Alice (Dyan Cannon). Both of whom are decidedly more conservative and possessed of concordantly stronger BS detectors.
Even Wiki refers to Bob and Carol’s educational “jaunt” as “an Elsalen-style retreat”. Which should speak volumes. Esalen was, of course, the poster palace of the Human Potential Movement, founded by a couple of Stanford graduates – uh-huh – on the principle that “The divine is incarnate in the world and is present in us and is trying to manifest”. Which may sound all sorts of New Age mah-vellous, but… perhaps not so rosy, all told, what with boosting its patent brand of gestalt therapy, boasting guest lecturers/teachers such as popular eugenicist Aldous Huxley, MKUltra specialist John C Lilly and (reportedly, per Dave McGowan) the Process Church’s Robert DeGrimston, and accepting attendees including Charles Manson (who got very famous the year Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released). The movie doesn’t need to be proselyting for such societal-shifting institutions, mind. It simply needs, by its fact of being, to publicise them.
As they express their very flaky ideas of indulging complete honesty – “That’s what we used to do” says Bob of concealing truths – Bob and Carol reveal an immediately facile understanding of basic human psychology, so it’s very evident we’re this is leading, and the only foolishness of Ted and Alice is indulging their friends as much as they do. Gould sets himself up for the next decade as Ted – although M*A*S*H would be his truly star-making turn – both witty and nursing a perma-daze. Essentially, he’s there to surrogate the average cinemagoer, unconvinced by his pals but too amenable to tell them where to go. He’s sheepish about the prospect of his own indiscretions – “Do you realise you’re here for about ten seconds? For Peter’s sake! It’s a part of life that’s meant to be lived!” scolds Bob at the news of Ted’s non-consummation of a potential fling, owing to a “terrible feeling of ambivalence at my pleasure” – and plagued by guilt when he does indulge them.
Indeed, perhaps the movie’s best scene revolves around Ted’s stoned horniness while Alice, still fuming at the news of Bob’s infidelity – and Carol being okay with it – tells him she isn’t in the mood. It might have been an uncomfortable scene – particularly given the current highly-strung mood of our times – as even though they talk it through, he continually has to be batted away (she doesn’t want him to go for a walk, his only response to being denied passion).
If Ted is a bumbler, Alice is a straight arrow, yet too rigid to invite easy empathy. Kael considered Bob and Carol represented a good marriage, and Ted and Alice a mismatch (she bored to his bewildered). I don’t know if that’s quite right, but Alice’s anxieties are expressed in a much tenser, more bottled manner than Ted’s abject shambles, as evidenced by her meeting with her shrink (Donald F Murch, Mazursky’s actual therapist, which is curious, as he comes across as remote and unsympathetic, absolutely not giving the profession a vote of confidence). This is presumably supposed to explain her sudden demand for an “orgy” after Ted reveals his affair to the quartet, but it isn’t entirely convincing. Kael’s description of Cannon, that she “looks a bit like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bits” is supremely, cattily hilarious.
Kael thought Cannon’s performance was very good, however much she may have poked at her looks. She was much less kind to Wood, who “doesn’t seem to have any substance as a human being, so there’s nothing at stake”. She’s actually fine in the movie, and if anything, the qualities Kael alluded to help congeal someone so shallow and egotistical, she thinks it appropriate to espouse her life-changing doctrine to a poor, confused waiter at a restaurant. Or exude vacuous sincerity when she announces to Alice “I feel very close to you now”. Culp is similarly well cast; generally speaking, you expect him to be the one selling overt cynicism in his roles, so undercutting that born-again zeal is rather effective (Kael: “Robert Cummings crossed with Timothy Leary”). At one point, he can be seen bumping into his I Spy co-star, Rohypnol-fiend Bill Cosby, in a night club (they’d later pair again for Culp’s directorial debut Hickey and Boggs).
The upshot of the foursome is that neither exchange of partners can go through with it, Mazursky and Tucker apparently deciding that, despite their daring, traditional values should/will reassert themselves when it really comes to the crunch. In this regard, having Burt Bacharach poured wholesale over a montage of the leads encountering assorted couples in the casino parking lot is an undignified sop to ’60s idealism. Love will out over sex, they – or Burt – seems to be saying.
Although, who knows how their relationships, both as couples and as friends, fared after this. In theory, there’s a comforting affirmation here, that they can resume their lives and be okay; the aberration has passed. But on a more defining, instrumental level, one has to wonder at the strings Mazursky is pulling. Whether Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’s “innocent” reflection of the circles in which he and Tucker were mingling represented him doing his bit to extend the era’s programming of the population – as they’d already done on a more juvenile level with The Monkees – by spreading California’s peccadilloes to the nation at large. Was Bob normalising swinging – and the fabled key parties of the subsequent decade – and would many of those tempted by the movie’s fantasy lack the discipline to pull back and prevent marital carnage? It was, after all, the sixth most popular movie of the year.
Regardless, Mazursky acutely identifies the pitfalls of mutually condoned impropriety. When Bob walks in on Carol mid-affair – with a tennis coach – he betrays his obliging attitude to his own affair by flying into a rage (earlier, he attempted to get a rise out of Carol, to persuade her she should be infuriated – “I don’t feel jealous” – at his infidelity). Then he rationalises that it meant nothing; she doesn’t love the guy, it’s purely physical, and so he coaxes the reluctant coach out for an awkward drink. There’s a recognition this doesn’t really fly, that it’s going to stew and brew.
Elsewhere, Mazursky is less assured. Ted’s in-flight sex fantasy seems to have strayed in from another, clumsier picture. Gould and Cannon were both nominated in Best Supporting Oscar categories (Ted trapped on the sofa, attempting to escape the self-conscious canoodling of Bob and Carol is first-rate physical comedy, but there’s no way Gould could have beaten Jack in Easy Rider… who was mystifyingly beaten by Gig Young). Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay (not a chance) and cinematography (a rare nom for a comedy, but Charles Lang’s work is terrific). Mazursky rated it his best film, reputedly, and he was probably right. It certainly beats Scenes from a Mall.
First published by Now in Full Color on 26/05/22.