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Mike Nichols surveys 20 years of men trying to understand women and their own complicated relationship to romance, desire and sex in an acerbic and, in many ways, dispiriting portrait of masculinity and male sexuality in the post-World War II culture. Carnal Knowledge (1971) opens in the late 1940s with buddies and college roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson, who is well past his youth and shows it) and Sandy (singer-turned-actor Art Garfunkel, whose boyish face makes him slightly more convincing as a college boy) discussing their ideal woman. Sandy is looking for a sensitive, supportive woman, he says, a partner in life. But he'd also like to fool around along the way, if he could only master his seduction technique. When he sees Susan (Candice Bergen), a smart, pretty co-ed, at a college mixer, he can't even muster the courage to speak to her. Luckily for him she breaks the ice and, as they start dating, reluctantly gives in to his pleading requests to go further with a look of pity and a little roll of her eyes. Jonathan is more physically driven (his primary requirement for the perfect woman is directly related to cup size) and treats romance as competition: as Sandy's relationship gets more serious, Jonathan stars dating Susan behind Sandy's back and is determined to bed her first. Meanwhile, their conversations about women and sex continue unabated.
After college, we drop in on the men still friends, still comparing notes about love, life and women, still fumbling through failing relationships as young professionals in New York City in the sixties and finally as forty-somethings at the turn of the seventies. Sandy divorces and grows a mustache and Jonathan just bastes in his own bitterness at broken relationships and the women of his past. Cartoonist-turned-playwright Jules Feiffer, who turned his own unproduced play into this original screenplay, scripts an unflattering portrait of American men who are not so much in love as in lust, looking for what they think they want and coming up unfulfilled, angry or simply bored. Sandy extols the virtues of married life and a devoted wife, but he sounds more like he's trying to convince himself than share his bliss with Jonathan. "It's not as easy getting laid as it used to be," complains Jonathan, who meets his idea of the perfect woman at a party. Ann-Margret comes on like a tiger as Bobbie, a sassy, sexy woman who is all cleavage when we first meet her (it's all Jonathan can do to tear his leer away from her bosom). "I'd met women like Bobbie Templeton, sensuous and fragile," wrote Ann-Margret in her autobiography. "Bobbie wants to marry and have children, but the man she is obsessed with, Jonathan, turns into a madman at the thought of surrendering his freedom." Their relationship is all sex and fun until Bobbie suggests that they "shack up." All too quickly her confidence evaporates and she becomes passive and starved for affection and affirmation, two things that Jonathan simply can't provide.
The downward spiral of this affair is as raw as they come and the savage verbal attacks and attitude of contempt cut through Nichols' coolly observed style. Shooting in long takes and slow camera moves that follow the rhythms of the performers, with periodic close-ups of the men speaking directly to the audience, as if conversing with the camera, it's a handsome film with subdued color and austere sets and settings. The better for the confusion, the self-delusion, the anger and frustration to jolt the 1971 audience off-balance.
Carnal Knowledge was shot largely in Vancouver, B.C., with some scenes on location in New York City. Nichols, who had come to films from the stage, was very attentive to performers and performances and rehearsed his cast extensively before going in front of the cameras. Off-screen, Nicholson, Garfunkel and Bergen shared a house for the Vancouver shoot, a "tiny utopia," in Bergen's words. "Many of us had been friends before the shooting, and those of us who weren't became friends during it." It was, by all accounts, a generous and supportive group of people and a happy set.
Jack Nicholson had yet to break as a major American star his most notable role to date was in Easy Rider (1969) and his breakthrough film, Five Easy Pieces (1970), was not yet released when Nichols cast him as Jonathan. Writer Jules Feiffer, who was often on set, was dubious that Nicholson was right for the role of a ferociously womanizing Jew from the Bronx but was won over by his intensity and attention. "I remember watching the shacking-up scene," recalled Feiffer. "I couldn't believe Jack's directness and simplicity and intelligence. He got everything." Nicholson, a director in his own right (he was busy editing his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, on weekends), was reportedly very attentive to the other actors and remained the on set to feed lines off-camera.
This was Art Garfunkel's second film as an actor (he had made his acting debut in Nichols' Catch-22, 1970) and his first as a lead. He's dominated by powerhouse Nicholson but it works for their onscreen dynamic: Sandy seems forever to be explaining and justifying himself to Jonathan, who from the beginning acts the role of the wiser, more experienced one. Ann-Margret, still best known as an entertainer, was desperate to break out of her image as a sex-kitten and made the most of this challenging and complex adult role. "I'm not a technical actress," she writes in My Story. "I can't turn it on and off. I'm all raw emotion and nerves. I literally become the person I'm playing." The transformation took its toll. "I spent hours at night pacing the bathroom, depressed, teetering on the brink of a breakdown, and hoping I made it through the movie." She earned rave reviews, an Oscar nomination and recognition as a serious actress, but at a personal cost: "Carnal Knowledge left me in a depressive stupor fueled by pills and alcohol."
The film was a critical hit and a popular success, thanks to strong, unself-conscious performances, the discomforting intimacy and wit of Feiffer's script and the sharp observations in Nichols' direction. And the combination of frank sexual discussions, unnerving portraits of male behavior and (partially obscured) nudity by Ann-Margret made it quite the sensation in 1971. It was briefly banned in Italy. Some American newspapers refused to advertise the film because of the title. In Georgia, the operator of a movie house was convicted of distributing obscene material for showing the film and the case went up to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that the film was not obscene.
While the sexual content is hardly controversial by today's standards, the raw portrait of these two men the fumbling romantic and the aggressive Casanova stumbling through the decades is a startling and unsettling snapshot of the "sexually liberated" sixties and seventies as you'll find.
Producer: Mike Nichols
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Jules Feiffer
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Art Direction: Robert Luthardt
Film Editing: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jonathan Fuerst), Candice Bergen (Susan), Art Garfunkel (Sandy), Ann-Margret (Bobbie), Rita Moreno (Louise), Cynthia O'Neal (Cindy), Carol Kane (Jennifer).
by Sean Axmaker