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There's a reason why Paul Mazursky arranged the typography as he did in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Those ampersands mash his film's two couples into one undifferentiated clump. They're not four individuals. Nor, although married, are they two couples. They're a would-be group grope, four people confused about sex in 1969 -- as so many of us were. It's launched on a rocket of satire, with documentary filmmaker Bob and his wife, Carol, spending a weekend at one of those nirvanas of confrontational enlightenment dotting the hills around Los Angeles. The air is thick with self-focused confessional arias from people who think they're talking about what they're feeling, but are really mostly just driven by trying to position themselves on the right side of cool.
Writer-director Mazursky was wise enough to resist the temptation to come off as superior to the fatuousness of the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s. It's not about people slipping out of clothes. It's about people slipping into attitudes, usually with snowballingly funny deadpan solemnity as they keep congratulating one another on the honesty and openness in which they think they're trafficking. Far from dealing in sexual uproar, Mazursky and his film realize its motor is its characters' insecurities, seething beneath their sleek exteriors and strained laid-backness. It's a comedy of attitudes and manners, as close as LA gets to Noel Coward not just slick, but graceful in its stylized artifice, sweet, with unconcealed affection for its four titular sexual pilgrims stumbling toward self-awareness through discomfort.
That, and the ability of Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker to rev up the psychobabble and play it against the lack of conviction of the characters gushing it, has, one suspects, kept it from dating as thoroughly as its Southern California Love Generation milieu has. Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon got supporting actor and actress Oscar® nominations (until then he was best known as Barbra Streisand's ex, she as Cary Grant's). They play the square couple Ted & Alice -- led into a mate-changing situation by Natalie Wood's and Robert Culp's self-styled sophisticates, Bob & Carol, after each not only admits an extramarital affair to the other, but expects and gets -- Brownie points for honesty. The hilarity peaks in a scene where Culp's Bob, returning earlier than scheduled from an out-of-town business trip, finds his wife in their bedroom with a tennis pro, and behaves toward the embarrassed guest with a false urbanity that we can't fail to notice is completely at odds with what his face tells us he's really feeling.
We're hot-wired to the rage and betrayal he feels, but he isn't. That's the point. Their will to obtuseness and fear that they are stuck in outmoded behavior eventually proves contagious to their very straight friends until Alice does a 180 in a hotel suite in Las Vegas and flips from dubiousness and resistance to an orgy-ready striptease that leads to the four of them sharing a bed. Gould amusingly takes an inordinately long time brushing his teeth before completing the foursome (and wearing his socks to bed) to bring to an inevitable end the misadventure into which Bob & Carol found themselves swept during their mountaintop weekend where mislabeled feelings were verbalized constantly, but actually felt not at all.
Thus the film that begins with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, as Bob & Carol tool up a mountain road in their open convertible on their way to the Essalen-like institute, ends with the Burt Bachrach-Hal Davis "What the World Needs Now" as aural underpinning to a Fellini-like daisy-chain-of-life procession. More derivative than brilliant, that ending, but it gets them out of that hotel suite and it does preserve the benign worldliness of the writing by Mazursky and Tucker (both of whom appear in cameos, with Tucker looking right into the camera).
Given mostly uneasiness to play, Gould and Cannon play it robustly. She's brittle, he's a paragon of uptightness. Wood and Culp are given an extra layer of complexity, which puts them more at risk, but pays greater dividends. There's a twinkle in the eye of Wood that in fact invites skepticism. Half the time you ask yourself if her Carol is really just pretending to play along, tongue firmly in cheek. She seems a shade too worldly to convince us she really believes the nonsense that's put in Carol's mouth to speak. But her lusty mischievousness overcomes all. It dispels any hint of the pre-shoot anxiety Wood had been feeling after a three-year absence from moviemaking and her general uneasiness about playing comedy, a realm in which she was relatively inexperienced.
Moreover, the script's semi-improvisatory quality (Mazursky and Tucker started out at that legendary temple of improv, The Second City) mitigate the Beverly Hills housewife stereotype and Wood's overall anxiety. In its day, the film stood apart from most other sendups of marital and social mores by the frequent edginess in the writing and by Mazursky's lively, rhythmically steady figurative directorial baton. Today, it's the writing's spirit of tolerance that seems to give the film ongoing life, outweighing what would otherwise be its dated topicality. In a time when the term adult comedy still usually means childish comedy, the humanity behind its sharp-eyed writing still makes Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice seem lastingly adult.
Producer: Larry Tucker
Director: Paul Mazursky
Screenplay: Paul Mazursky, Larry Tucker
Cinematography: Charles F. Lang
Art Direction: Pato Guzman
Music: Quincy Jones
Film Editing: Stuart H. Pappe
Cast: Natalie Wood (Carol Sanders), Robert Culp (Bob Sanders), Elliott Gould (Ted Henderson), Dyan Cannon (Alice Henderson), Horst Ebersberg (Horst), Lee Bergere (Emilio), Donald F. Muhich (psychiatrist), Noble Lee Holderread, Jr. (Sean Sanders), K.T. Stevens (Phyllis), Celeste Yarnall (Susan), Lynn Borden (Cutter).
by Jay Carr