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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice(1969)

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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is an honest attempt to deal with the 'free love' extremes of the late sixties. It can also be interpreted as a rationalization of reckless irresponsibility on the part of affluent pre-Yuppies infatuated by the new permissiveness regarding sex.

The film's confused characters express the confusion of the times, even as they emancipate their emotions by spouting feel-good rhetoric. Paul Mazursky's film is frequently described as a satire but certainly doesn't play like one. Every scene seems 100% earnest, even if Mazursky leads off with Handel's Messiah playing over shots of sun-worshipping nudists.

Synopsis: Bob and Carol Sanders (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) attend an Esalen-style encounter session and are inspired to attempt full honesty and emotional openness in their lives. This alarms their best friends Ted and Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon), especially when Bob admits to having an affair on a business trip, and Carol openly welcomes his candor. Bob in turn has to accept his wife's freedom to have an affair of her own, and the inaudible but real sound of marital taboos shattering has a strong affect on both couples. Alice, previously the most uptight member of the foursome, eventually challenges them all to be really honest about what they want, and on a weekend trip to Vegas declares that the solution is an all-out orgy.

I've always been suspicious of outside attempts to influence my thinking, and the group encounter methods shown for perhaps the first time in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice provoke the same reaction. By admitting that one is looking for something missing in life, the participant opens up to new experiences that are only as genuine as the personalities involved. Just as my teenaged Tae Kwon Do children thought it hilarious that their martial arts instructors shouted for them to "Meditate!" as if ordering a high kick, telling people to be honest with each other produces not honesty, but instead surrender to the will of the instructor or the peer group. (Personal opinion.)

So it doesn't at all seem like a good thing when the Sanders confront the Hendersons with their "lack of emotional openness" and "unwillingness to be honest." Bob practically bends Ted's arm to his way of thinking. The foursome already has a great fondness for each other but that natural state is seen as inadequate to Bob and Carol, who insist that every bit of "love" be brought out into the open. Each person finds his or her own level of comfortable interaction, and I frankly have little use for Hollywood types that insist on getting all huggy-feely. When casual acquaintances greet each other with profuse expressions of affection, it waters down the currency of affection.

If anything Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice comes off as an honest exploration of the difference between free love and loving relationships. The whole 'revolutionary' concept behind the original Free Love movement was that by having only loving relationships with our neighbors and friends, hostility and aggression would vanish, you know, the flowers-in-the-gun-muzzle thing. That, and by eliminating sexual hang-ups, people would be emancipated from the rules of "the establishment" and free to invent better ways of living. Right on. It all sounds great, but I never saw it work well for young hippies unless they had some outside source of finance. These chain-wearing, Jaguar XKE driving hipsters smoke pot and think they have it all, but they're exactly as Bob describes himself, a middle-aged guy trying to act younger than he is.

1969 audiences were surely fascinated by Bob & Carol's open-minded application of new rules to deal with marital infidelity. Bob and Carol believe that it's cool to have sex outside the relationship so long as the relationship isn't threatened. That's fine and dandy, but who can promise such a thing? Isolating sex from emotional commitment only works for predators and randy youngsters who think they're getting away with something. And it's wrong to assume that the outside partners just want sex as recreation. Most people who claim that are looking for something deeper.

Although I don't think that many picked up on it at the time, it now appears that the Carol character (Dyan Cannon) shows the other three the folly of their ways by proving that she's no prude and bravely calling their bluff. The others are coy and smug about their comfort level with sexual openness, but Carol has the guts to push the hypocrisy to the limit. If sex doesn't mean anything, she says, let's all get naked and have an orgy. I think that's practically the last dialogue in the movie. When the foursome in a bed scene doesn't gel, all must face the fact that total freedom with no strings attached is a hollow goal. The film ends in a limp Fellini-esque scene that uses the Burt Bacharach song "What the World Needs Now (is Love Sweet Love)" as a feel-good crutch and an Easy Out.

There's a lot of honesty in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice - it commendably confronted issues on everyone's mind - but in 1969 it could go only so far. When films like Carnal Knowledge picked up the torch and continued forward with the issue of the sexual revolution, they invariably turned dark and malevolent, eventually coming full circle with the downright punitive Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

The four main actors do a fine job, especially Robert Culp and Dyan Cannon. Both Natalie Wood and Culp are able to deliver the difficult "you cheated but it's okay and I love you" scenes without coming off as total idiots.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice sports a fine enhanced transfer and good color. Quincy Jones' unobtrusive score is nicely presented. Paul Mazursky dominates an audio commentary that reunites all of his stars save the beloved Ms. Wood, who died in 1981. The director also shows up in a lively interview taped at the Strasberg Theater Center West in 1983, plugging a new book.

For more information about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, visit Sony Entertainment. To order Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson