Director: Paul Mazursky
Stars: Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould, Robert Culp
I’ve recently been listening to a lot of Talking Heads, which has nothing to do with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The art-pop band came into being some years after Mazursky’s semi-obscure film, the two do not intersect. And yet, it has been through listening to the angular reflections on life presented by David Byrne and co. that I felt moved to revisit this emblem of America in perpetual comedown.
What I think it is is a sense of feeling removed from society, or as though looking at it through a pane of dirty glass. Byrne’s lyrics often fixate on how strange the norms of society are. How fragile the aspirational images that hold it together can be. Paul Mazursky’s film has a similar sense of caution and cynicism. It presents an affluent, privileged wedge of the middle class who are able to indulge themselves, and then smartly fractures the glass.
The late ’60s. Free Love was everywhere. The Beatles grew their hair long and picked up sitars. Psychotherapy boomed as the populous looked inward. Eastern philosophies were in vogue across the West, in part as a reaction or counter to America’s war with Vietnam (itself a thorn in the side of the US’s vision of prosperity). Playboy was one of the biggest brands across the world. Sex was on everyone’s mind, or so it seems. But not everyone was ready for it.
Mazursky’s film, co-written with Larry Tucker, concerns two couples living in the Los Angeles area who give-in to the sexually liberated peer pressures of the cultural climate, without the fully uninhibited mindsets that seem required to enjoy them. They want to be uninhibited, though. We first meet Bob (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) at a spiritual retreat. Group sharing. Primal scream therapy. Nude sunbathing and frank discussions of relationships. They’re actively trying to participate in the new trends sweeping the nation. Culp’s finely tuned performance belies a sense of cynicism from the start. Bob is enthusiastic and participatory, but also slightly blocked – probably the affair he has yet to tell his wife about. He talks the talk but there’s an air of hypocrisy – something that’ll be glaringly exposed an hour later in the movie when Carol has her own liaison. Wittingly or not, Bob applies a slight mocking tone in these early group sessions (which Carol calls him on, pitying him). After the retreat, they meet up with their friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) over dinner.
Ted openly ridicules the new preoccupations of Bob and Carol, but both he and his wife are intrigued… If Bob seems to be pandering to a movement, Carol seems to have wholly accepted her new lifestyle. Alice calls their weekend life-changing, something which seems particularly true for Carol. At this stage in the movie, it’s hard to get a read on Alice, but Mazursky has quickly set up four individuals at different tempos to one another… all about to collide.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a wordy picture made up almost entirely of long scenes of people (combinations of the same four people, mostly) talking in rooms as they maneuver closer and closer to group sex, an act that nobody really wants to go through with, but which they’re coerced into thinking is the endgame of their modern, liberated friendship. The film’s famed final shot of the four of them lined up in bed was used to sell the movie. It’s on the poster. Sex sells, after all. This was a new swingers comedy, right? How racy! How groovy!
But Mazursky’s film challenges its audience by suggesting that the fantasy they’re chasing is actually fraught with difficulties. Who’d have presumed, looking at that poster, they were being shown the very end of the picture and not part of an assumed raucous midsection? Or that the insinuated four-way hadn’t been consummated yet… and would ultimately never happen… that the movie ends on a note of resigned impotence? As on so many other fronts, America is intoxicated with a beautiful lie.
The film’s stance is not that group sex is bad or shouldn’t be experimented with, but rather that – in these cases – the motivations for experimentation are all wrong. The picture shows us four distinctly middle-class individuals, all eyeing middle-age on the horizon, trying to retain a sense of youth through co-opting the younger generation’s liberalism that they’ve seen on TV. Everyone wants to keep the vigor and sense of immortality they felt in their early twenties, keep hold of the spice of life, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is about a certain sense of futility in that notion. A sense of panic. Follow this line of investigation further to its logical conclusion and it’s about death. Fear of death. Groovy huh!?
The last thing it is is heavy. Mazursky and Tucker have poured these anxieties into a warm and giving comedy; great writing that requires performances to match. The central foursome are all superb – sex symbols one and all – so that’s 90% of the picture sealed right there. For modern viewers there’s also extra enjoyment and relish to be found in the costumes and decor, wonderfully capturing the fashions and sensibilities of the times. The movie is extremely colourful. Restaurants and swimming pools. Air travel and resorts. Ted’s bright red jacket… Alice’s yellow summer dress… These characters live in catalogue photos and magazine ads. At one point Bob even covers his face with a magazine ad while talking to Ted.
And yes, Mazursky (in collaboration with DoP Charles Lang) frames it all as gorgeous and aspirational, but annulled by the bitter pill of everyday human complexity. Having everything isn’t the same as happiness. People are uptight, anxious, horny, frustrated and angry. Egos are fragile and talk is frequently cheap. The smiles that Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice wear in bed at the end of the picture are masks worn for each others’ benefit, but by this point we can see through them completely.
In the middle of the picture when Alice refuses Ted sex, what is his immediate response?
“Wanna watch some television?”
David Byrne ruefully smiles.