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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) - Review by Dan Geddes
Written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker
Directed by Paul Mazursky
Review by Dan Geddes
Summary: This funny, sexy comedy shows the limits of sexual freedom.
Note: This review contains spoilers.
What do contemporary viewers make of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice more than forty years after it was made?
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice starts with the question: What if a thirty-something couple, Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Nathalie Wood), spends a weekend at an alternative retreat such as the Esalen institute, and come back changed? They see that social interaction in their middle class Southern California environment is often empty, and they long for more meaningful experience. They decide to start responding to other people with complete honesty.
When they share their revelations with their best friends Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon), their friends are a bit skeptical and find them kind of loopy.
Bob pushes their new openness even farther when after returning from a short trip to San Francisco he confesses to Carol that he had an affair there. He was just responding more openly to the other woman as they had taught him during the Esalen-type retreat. Carol replies that she isn't really jealous at all, and that she even loves him all the more for confessing it to her, and even for doing it. She affirms that he is a good husband and father and that he really shouldn't feel guilty about it.
If Esalen is shown to be a bit strange and cult-like, then Carol seems like just the sort of empty vessel that could be filled with the Esalen ideals. She seems to genuinely believe in the "That's beautiful" ethos espoused by the Esalen-type institute. Pauline Kael's 1969 review displayed special venom for Wood as someone who "could benefit from the [Esalen] therapy" and is generally completely "empty." While this may be true, somehow Wood's emptiness works here. Let's face it, this movie might not have gotten made without Nathalie Wood's star power (for which she took 10% of the gross), and empty or not, she looks fantastic strutting around variously in a mini-skirt, bathing suit, or just her underwear. (She also seems like an old hand in the scene where they smoke a marijuana pipe.)
Anyway, Bob is amazed at her tolerance of his infidelity. Carol is so imbued with the spirit of openness that she even tells Ted and Alice about Bob's affair. Alice is shocked. When Ted and Alice are at home in bed after this revelation, Alice is morally affronted by Bob's dalliance, and even suggests that she doesn't want to see them anymore. While Ted agrees that Bob erred, Ted is horny from the grass they smoked at Bob and Carol's, and is very frustrated trying to seduce Alice. She is too repressed or unhappy to do it, and won't even let Ted go out for a walk to get out some of his extra energy. Alice is quite repressed.
Meanwhile, Bob goes on another business trip, but this time he is able to resist the advances of another potential paramour, and to come home early instead. Much to his surprise he finds that Carol has brought another man into their bed. He is very angered by it, but Carol reminds him of her understanding after his affair, and he eventually realizes that if he is really open about it, then he must accept what Carol has done. He decides to have a friendly drink with Horst, Carol's tennis pro paramour. (Horst asks for a Pernod to drink; he must think he's still in Europe).
But what can we really conclude from the ending? Okay, so Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice were not able to actually have an "orgy" together, so there are some limits to their sexual freedom: they are too self-conscious to have an orgy with their best friends. But we don't really see what the other limits are. They have still somewhat changed during the course of the movie. It's probable, as Kael wrote, that they all would have been capable of swapping partners in separate bedrooms. Bob and Carol have still carved out new territory in their relationships; they may well continue to have affairs, though probably not with their best friends (that would be just too weird). Ted has also had an affair (the exact repercussions of which we don't discover, since his confession is followed quickly by the abortive attempt at an orgy). Anyway, it's difficult to draw conclusions other than that even in a time of sexual liberation, for most people there are limits to sexual freedom.
Alice appears to have changed the most in some ways, as she starts out quite sexually conservative, and yet she's the one who drunkenly blurts out in the Vegas hotel at the end: "Orgy! Let's have an orgy!" She appears to have changed, also because she discovers in therapy how repressed she is, but her reaction seems more like a "if you can't beat them, join them," reaction. It's hard to read her. Her heart doesn't really seem too much into it. Maybe she is just using this as a way to get back at Ted, or maybe she really just does want to make sure that Bob is really attracted to her. In the final scene, while Ted is doing his ablutions in the bathroom, Bob kisses Carol a bit with Alice lying next to them. They all four share the same bed briefly, and each man is kissing his best friend's wife. And then in an awkward moment and they are unable to continue. They put on their evening clothes and walk out into the Las Vegas night with a Fellini-esque miscellany of characters. This seems like sort of a cop-out, but it's difficult to know exactly how such a movie should end.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a cultural touchstone. In 1969, Wife-swapping was a theme whose time for movie treatment had come. The MPAA rating system had just been devised a few years earlier and filmmakers were breaking the old taboos.
The opening shots at the Esalen-type institute feature women sitting meditating with their breasts boldly showing. Not that this was the first movie with such nudity, but audiences were shown at the beginning that this was no traditional movie.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a daring premise. Perhaps even more than the wife-swapping aspects, it attempted to address the new moral issues brought about by the upheavals of the Sixties. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice itself is ambivalent. The opening chords of the "Hallelujah" chorus as they are driving toward the Esalen-type retreat should probably be taken more ironically than in earnest. Mazursky and Tucker appear to be hedging their bets by showing the Esalen retreat itself both earnestly in jest. They don't go so far as to make it satirical, which would have cast Bob and Carol's changes in a different light. For many audiences this was their first exposure to Esalen ideas. The scenes at the retreat have a documentary feel to them. So some viewers might have found it funny even without humorous framing by the filmmakers.
Similarly, in the first dinner after Bob and Carol are sharing their revelations with Ted and Alice, all their "That's beautiful" talk is clearly seen with at least some irony by Mazursky. Mazursky is clearly enjoying the awkward situation that his would-be free-loving characters are placed in. They dearly want to be "with it" and to have the sexual freedom of people in their twenties. But nonetheless there are still boundaries--they are not capable of an orgy with their best friends.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice holds up pretty well even more than forty years later. It features fine performances from the four principles. Gould and Cannon won the Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for their roles; Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice put Gould on the map. Culp is quite serviceable as Bob. Even though he looks a little bit out of place (like he belongs more on TV perhaps), this somehow adds to his credibility.
Despite all the sexual permissiveness of contemporary TV and movies, many people are not really as morally licentious as they make themselves out to be. If they were presented with an opportunity to cheat on their spouses, many would not take advantage of it due to their moral sensibilities about trust and fidelity. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice shows them that.
September 24, 2011