Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is the comedy classic from filmmaker Paul Mazursky (Down and out in Beverly Hills, The Pickle, The Tempest) that hilariously captures the sexual revolution of the late sixties.
Bob (Robert Culp) and Carl (Natalie Wood) are a sophisticated California couple who, after attending a free-thinking group retreat, decide to push the boundaries of their marriage by experimenting with outside affairs. Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) are a more traditional couple who always enjoy hearing about the provocative adventures of their best friends until they are invited to join them – in bed!
eyelights: Natalie Wood. the dialogues about marital fidelity.
eyesores: the ambiguous humour.
‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ is a 1969 motion picture about two couples who explore fidelity and emotional honesty together. It was a smash hit at the time of its release, was nominated for a few awards and even spawned an eponymous television series.
I first saw it 15-20 years ago, when I was consuming just about every videodisc at my local library. Intrigued by its cover, which had the two couples sitting in bed together, I was hoping to watch something a little bit sexy, perhaps even titillating. Sadly, it was a disappointment to me.
‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ is mostly dialogue-driven. As an exploration of a hipster culture that was desperately trying to be “with it” at the crux of some massive cultural changes in North America, it’s normal that it would be – after all, the couples discuss many ideas and values.
But it’s not particularly highbrow; it’s mostly about interpersonal dynamics, about the societal rules that we put in place to govern our various relationships. As the characters question the status quo, we are put in a position of questioning their conclusions and witnessing the outcome of their choices.
Clearly, I wasn’t expecting this the first time I watched it, but I was looking forward to reassessing the picture with a more informed perspective. Although I appreciated it more this time around, what I’ve found is that ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ can be slightly baffling.
The problem lies in its tone. The fact is that it walks a fine line between drama and comedy, and I never knew which side it fell on: were they seriously exploring their subject, or were they trying to satirize it? This left me unsure as to whether I should be respectful of the characters’ attitudes or carefree.
The fact is that the people portrayed in this picture echo the attitudes and lifestyle of a marginal number of people – people who partake in open, non-monogamous relationships. Real people. And I was unsure that it was appropriate to laugh at them – or that the filmmakers even intended us to.
So that was problematic for me, because I watched it as a drama, and there were scenes that were clearly intended to be funny (the endless bedtime argument between Ted and Alice, for instance), but they came off as annoying instead – as they would very well be in real life, in a serious context.
Thankfully, the characters and their exchanges were interesting to me. While I wouldn’t say that I related to any of them, I appreciated that they tried to expand their moral boundaries through reflection and deep introspection, pushing their societal and self-imposed limits to the maximum.
Bob is the instigator of this journey. A documentary filmmaker, he decides to make a film about an institute that is home to groups of naturists, tai chi practitioners and others. It offers workshops, and he and his spouse, Carol (who joins him for the trip), decide to join a 24-hour deep communication class.
Robert Culp brings a middle aged hipster vibe to the part, infusing Bob with a Robert Redford crossed with Peter Fonda quality that made him both appealing and naïve. His take on the character was convincing enough, as was his performance, but he lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
Natalie Wood, however, just floored me as Carol. Although ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ shows little nudity, Wood was incredibly sexy anyway. In fact, she was so devastatingly beautiful that I couldn’t really think clearly whenever she was on screen. And when she was in lingerie? Forget it!
Her performance as Carol was quite good, but I had a difficult time separating the performance from the character, which came off as slightly flakey, being far too eager to meet an artificial ideal that would normally take time to evolve to. In real life, she would grate on my nerves, delicious though she may be.
Elliott Gould plays Ted, one of their closest friends and Alice’s spouse. He’s an emotionally immature individual who tries his best to do the “right thing” and to be proper. Unfortunately, he’s so unsophisticated and inarticulate that he comes off as a bit of a goof, maybe even a lucky loser.
I’ve never been much of a fan of Gould’s because I find that he has a constipated demeanour (for lack of a better term). But he was pitch-perfect in the part because that quality about him that annoys me so much was exactly what the character needed. Still, he’s never entirely credible.
Dyan Cannon plays Carol, Ted’s conventional, and slightly repressed, spouse. She’s equally unsophisticated, but particularly when it comes to sex. For instance, she speaks about it in childish terms, and is caught unawares when her therapist points out that she’s embarrassed by the subject.
Cannon is pretty good in the part, but I was totally taken aback to discover that she was nominated for a bunch of awards, given that she was outshined by Culp and, in particular, Wood. Of course, it’s possible that the standards were very different at the time. Or maybe I just have no taste.
My understanding is that the picture was controversial at the time. The director said that he had a hard time getting studio heads to understand it because they felt it was “dirty”. And yet, aside from some innocuous nudity at the onset, the picture limits itself to the realm of the imaginary.
Perhaps it was the subject matter that was considered offensive. Perhaps 1969 was too early a time to discuss open relationships, fidelity and swinging. That must be it, because the dialogues aren’t exactly explicit or crude, and there is hardly on-screen sexual activity to speak of.
In fact, the one mildly sexy scene in the whole picture is when Bob is in bed with Alice and Carol, kissing them. It’s all done in slow motion and is entirely silent. It’s quite pleasing to the eye, but it’s contrasted with Bob preparing for bed, which is kind of goofy and a mood killer.
‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ is an exploration of the carnal through intellectual exercise and emotional release – fascinating stuff, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. It has a naive take on marital fidelity, but perhaps that was the point all along. I guess you had to be there.
And yet, even though it was made during the sexual revolution, it remains topical. How long can it be before Hollywood remakes it with George, Julia, Brad and Angelina?
Date of viewing: May 30, 2014