Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) ****

The one with the wife-swapping. Like Easy Rider released earlier the same year, a hymn to freedom, only this time of the sexual kind. Responsible thirtysomethings, well-to-do, married with children, jealous of the younger generation’s counter culture, seek guilt-free irresponsibility. They feel they’ve missed out, despite knocking back cocktails in their heyday, probably remained virgins until marriage. Like the recently-reviewed The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), the problems incurred in marriage appear eternal, and decades later this holds up superbly, not just for taking a measure of its times, but for a screenplay setting up a bold series of reversals, character reaction you would never expect, that will have you in stitches even as it dissects universal truths.

Documentary film-maker Bob (Robert Culp) and housewife Carol (Natalie Wood) “find” themselves at a weekend retreat espousing naked yoga, primal screams, group therapy and emotional intimacy. Carol admits she finds her husband controlling. They return in evangelistic mode, desperate to pass on their new-found knowledge to their stuffier friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).

The advertising campaign focused on the tease of wife-swapping.

The film unfolds in a series of long sequences, each sparked by external incident. Bob confesses to his wife that while away on business he had an affair. To his astonishment she forgives him. Expecting this to be a prelude to some new way of tormenting an unfaithful husband, Bob remains skeptical until Carol convinces him that her world-view has changed following the retreat.

But Ted and Alice find it harder to accept. In a brilliant scene that exposes basic gender differences, he sees the problem as his revelation, she as the act of infidelity itself. High after meeting the other couple, Ted wants sex, but Alice, shocked by what she has heard, cannot contemplate it. He exerts so much pressure that she, deeply insecure, is almost on the verge of giving in. The dialogue not just marvelously encapsulates their marriage but sets out opposing views that, I am sorry to say, would probably be as prevalent today.

But the best scene, a superb reversal, occurs when Bob, spurning another night of illicit passion, returns home from a trip early to find his wife in bed with the tennis coach. Gender equality et al. The sequence turns completely on its head when, according to the couple’s new philosophy, Bob should not only accept and forgive, but help the tennis coach out of his predicament, calming his fears of facing an angry husband, in effect consoling his bedroom rival.

Bob and Carol and the Tennis Coach.

What appears to have been just a Ted fantasy, hooking up with a woman he met on an airplane, turns out to be true, creating a crisis in that marriage and when Alice is pacified, acknowledging a new truth, it is she who calls for an orgy. Now this is a revolution for Alice is by far the most repressed, although attractive almost matronly, and still using a childish word to describe her private parts. Her confessions to a psychiatrist reveal a tormented individual.

It’s a stunning debut from Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman, 1978) who also had a hand in the screenplay with Larry Tucker (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, 1968). He takes a story of endorsed immorality and stamps it as a morality tale. A movie that depended so much on dialogue concludes with a fabulous series of shots where the look on the faces of the characters tells you all you need to know.

Elliott Gould (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) and Dyan Cannon (The Murder Game, 1965) are the pick of the actors, both stepping up to the plate after less than stand-out performances previously. Both were Oscar-nominated but more importantly here created  screen personas that would define their futures. Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), in her first picture in three years, revitalized her career after a string of flops. Robert Culp, in a step-up from the I Spy television series (1965-1968), initially takes center stage but cedes ground to the superior acting of the others.  

Where a whole bundle of films by new directors flopped that year and the next by targeting the younger generation, this was a success by painting a wry picture of a slightly older generation, not yet tipping into middle age, but terrified they might be missing out on something.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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