Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: ridiculous & lovable

Last night’s entry in Paul’s History of Cinema Festival was the 1969 social comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, and directed by Mazursky. It’s a movie I first saw about 8 years ago when I was studying romantic comedies in preparation for starting to write one of my own.

(Curious? Mine was called Monogamy, with this log-line: “A happily married but square biologist, called as an expert witness in a sensational divorce suit involving alleged abuse of a “fidelity hormone”, is dismayed to find he’s fallen in love with the plaintiff’s attorney, who is unconventional, ultramodern—and married.” The idea came to me while reading an intriguing nonfiction book called The Myth of Monogamy by the husband-wife team of David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton.)

Back then I watched it one night while Kimmie was out, sprawled solo on the love-seat, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. But I thought that might have something to do with the scotch I was drinking while also watching a 30-year-old Natalie Wood in a bikini. I wasn’t sure what to expect on a reviewing, but I found that I enjoyed the movie possibly even more this time while watching it with Kimmie. I’ll try to say why.

(Danger: spoiler alert. I’ll be talking about the story’s structure, including its ending, so read on only if you’ve seen the movie or otherwise don’t mind spoilers.)

One interesting thing is that the movie’s IMDb rating is a relatively limp 6.5/10 (with a lowish sample base of 2,371 viewers). Furthermore, all categories of viewers rate it about the same at 6.5, with the interesting exception of viewers under 18 years old, who give it, on average, 8.0. (Not to keep you in suspense, I rated it 8/10.) I’m not sure what to make of this, but Kimmie, when I told her, dismissed the IMDb viewers as “prudes.”

Who knows, she may be right. With this movie we arrived at the first in our festival that deals with sex in a direct, frank way, even as its touch is very light. The movie opens with a hip California couple, Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood), driving to a mountain retreat. Here, guided by a few avant-garde psychologists, a heterogeneous but trippy collection of men and mainly bare-breasted women are doing tai chi, engaging in primal screams, and blissing out in hot tubs. Bob, a documentary filmmaker, is here to do background research for a film project, and Carol is just tagging along. They enter a continuous 24-hour encounter group, bottled in a room with about 10 other men and women and a facilitator to confront each other with their feelings. People challenge each other, break down, cry, engage in group hugs, and Bob and Carol emerge changed: they want to live a life of emotional and verbal honesty from now on.

Back home at their luxurious hacienda in what might be Beverly Hills (not bad for a documentary producer!), they seek to spread the gospel of this new honesty to their best friends, Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon), who are sympathetic but skeptical.

In the normal course of things, the zeal from such a weekend would wear off before long, but before that can happen, Bob decides he’s all in, and will walk the walk, come what may: when he returns from a trip to San Francisco he confesses to Carol that he slept with a production assistant there. In this big scene, which is the turning-point from act 1 to act 2, the “honesty” trip is put to the test, and the development is surprising. For Carol does not do the expected. Encounter-group trained, she examines her feelings in real time: “I don’t feel hostile,” she says, “I don’t feel jealous. I feel . . . strange.” Intriguingly, it is Bob who turns hostile, accusing Carol of suppressing her jealousy. But as the smoke clears, they arrive at a new place in their marriage: an honest rendering of the affair shows that it was only about sex, not love, and so cannot touch their loving marriage. Their commitment to the new honesty is now solidified.

They redouble their efforts to turn their friends Ted and Alice on to this new emotionally honest way of being. For it turns out that Ted and Alice have some sexual hangups, and Ted, spurred by Bob’s blandishments, decides to have a one-night stand of his own, contrary to his hitherto strict faithfulness. Meanwhile Alice, in a telling and excellent scene with her psychiatrist, reveals, via a Freudian slip, her secret attraction to Bob.

Act 3 takes place when the two couples take a trip together to Las Vegas. (Incidentally, this is exactly in keeping with the telling of a well-told, classically structured story: act 3 generally moves the action to a new location not previously seen—the arena of the story climax. The act structure of this story is soft but definitely present. The “inciting incident” of act 1 was the emotionally charged climax of the encounter group.) While the two couples chill in their hotel room, waiting to catch Tony Bennett’s act, Ted blurts out, in his new conversion to emotional honesty, that he’s had a one-night stand, and triggers the release of pent-up tensions between the characters.

Alice, now the only character who has not given in to this new “honesty” (Carol in the meantime has had a fling with her tennis pro Horst, played delightfully by Horst Ebersberg), snaps. Shrugging off her already very revealing outfit, she says something like, “Well, if that’s how things are, then we might as well just have an orgy.” The ensuing action has all four characters heading for the king-size bed, but I won’t say more about that, except to report a line of dialogue that made me guffaw (a rare response for me). Alice says: “First, we’ll have an orgy. Then we’ll go see Tony Bennett.”

Indeed, what could be better? I laugh now as I type it.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is an underrated movie. My first exposure to it at age 10 was via Mad magazine’s satire of it, and in general I think it was viewed as kind of scandalous but also a glimpse of what you would more or less expect from Californians with their laughable narcissism. And indeed the movie is talking about narcissistic Californians in the throes of turning on and tuning in, if not quite dropping out. My impression is that the material is that of a scathing satire, but executed by a gentle, loving heart, which will be that of Paul Mazursky. The result for me is a kind of delicious piquant cocktail composed of these contrary qualities—for I believe that all interest is created by the juxtaposition of opposites or contraries. These people are ridiculous, but they’re lovable—and that about sums it up for all of us, doesn’t it?

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