Monday, 23 November 2015

No.104 - Sexual Boundaries - BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

By the late 1960s, the hippy ethos of creative and sexual freedom had spread through music, art and pop culture, filtering beyond just the very young fringe-dwellers into mainstream society. The psychedelic drug scene had already been dealt with head-on by films such as THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT. It was only a matter of time before someone in Hollywood felt brave enough to represent the new experimentation occurring within sexual politics – and that was writer Paul Mazursky. He’d been to one of the emerging encounter group weekends in L.A. that offered a fully-immersive journey within one’s ‘real self’; an emotionally confrontational yet supportive experience designed to strip you not just of your clothes but your conventional beliefs and limitations amongst fellow truth-seeking strangers in a group setting. It catered for a slightly older demographic than the Haight-Ashbury hippies, appealing to those who’d already made their money and often settled into married life but felt a deep sense of unfulfillment and cosy suburban repression. These affluent people (you had to be to afford the workshop) had sensed enough of the radical challenging of convention in the zeitgeist to seek more in life and the bedroom, often not knowing exactly what or how.

Mazursky was sincerely interested in exploring this new-found desire for self-examination and expression and wrote a satire, a ‘comedy of manners’ as he called it which was also his first time as a director. His background was in stand-up before writing the screenplay for the Peter Sellers comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS, which had previously documented the growing pains of a square person’s embracing of the new ethos, rendering him ultimately absurd and displaced. In BOB & CAROL, Mazursky focused more specifically this time on what happens when traditional bourgeois values of fidelity meet the new pop psychology within established sexual relationships. Columbia studio was scared of the material, judging it ‘too dirty’ to be acceptable. Mazursky seduced them by arguing how palatable it would be if the instigating couple, Bob and Carol, were played by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The studio accepted that wholesome casting would alleviate the taint of sleaze.

Attractive stars Robert Culp and Natalie Wood were brought on board as Bob and Carol, a secure middle-class couple who attend a weekend therapy group. She is open to the possibilities it offers, whereas he as a documentary-maker is initially more cynical and removed – until his reserve cracks and his vulnerabilities are exposed to her and the others. Such is the profound release they gain that on returning to their normal lives, they begin to evangelise the benefits of being honest at all costs to their conventional best friends Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon). This earnest desire for open communication perplexes their friends and even extends to the waiter. Over time though, Ted and Alice are affected by the heady air of freedom without consequences that Bob and Carol espouse and both couples struggle to ‘let it all hang out’.

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE is very funny in the way it sets up a potentially awkward situation and allows the cast to improvise much of how it is resolved. Even though Mazursky did rehearse the actors, there’s a pleasing sense of risk and intimacy in the playing, often achieving that ‘cringe comedy’ atmosphere later mined in THE OFFICE and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.  Whilst Culp and Wood are relaxed and charming even when they negotiate their own inner reactions to his confession of adultery and his inadvertent discovery of hers with her tennis pro, much of the hilarity is courtesy of their opposite numbers. Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould spark off each other superbly, both deserving their Academy Award nominations as they try to accept what Bob and Carol’s new morality is doing to their own. Gould in particular is a revelation, especially if you’ve only seen him in those rumpled-charm confident anti-hero roles that made him such a signature 70’s star such as M*A*S*H and THE LONG GOODBYE. Here, he channels that offbeat charisma into a ball of confused, uncertain anxiety reminiscent of Woody Allen’s yearning nebbish.  It’s a treat to see him desperately attempting to convert his sudden restless energy into negotiating sex with Cannon the night that their friends oh-so-casually drop the bombshell of Bob’s affair. “I’m going for a walk!” he keeps crying with frustration when she wants him to comfort her instead.

The other stand-out scene of Gould’s is in Las Vegas when they now have to swallow Bob’s revelation of Carol’s own affair. Alice is doing her best to be caring and non-judgemental of this new bitter pill of embarrassment when Ted suddenly chips with his own confession of a business trip fling. Mazursky and the ensemble create a great farcical build-up of tension and his blurting-out from the corner is a sublimely shame-faced school-boy in the headmaster’s office – the antithesis of the groovy sharing that their friends aim to exemplify.

The most satisfying aspect of the film is that ultimately we’re shown the values of constancy and respect; sometimes having the permission to explore is enough in itself. This is nicely conveyed in the climactic scene that the poster alludes to - whereby the aftermath of the Vegas soul-sharing is that the foursome tentatively admit they ‘could’ have sex with each other’s partner and consequently end up in bed. However, presented with the forbidden fruit of wife-swapping, the differences in the couples’ permissive attitudes are gently smoothed like the duvet into a level playing field of shared simple comfortability. The hesitant petting turns into a companionable and welcome silence. They realise they have no real desire to cross this territory into an orgy with one another just because it’s possible. They value each other and their own partner just as they are. This tranquil harmony leads them out of bed and into the hotel forecourt where a kind of gentle flashmob happens, drawing strangers together to stare into each other’s souls as in the opening workshop. It is a sweet and mature conclusion to a warm and humorous film.

Natalie Wood gambled her salary on BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE being a hit, and with it becoming the sixth-highest box office grosser of 1969 she made five million dollars as a result. Happily, it wasn’t just the cast whose belief in the project was validated. For Mazursky this was also a landmark film to start his directing career, winning writing awards and going on to explore the lives of wealthy people in such movies as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLEY HILLS. His commitment to reflecting sexual mores as openly as the characters was further vindicated when a TV sitcom version was pulled within two months of being broadcast, most likely due to the kind of ruinous sanitising that the studio would like to have applied to his film…

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