Mention the Sixties, and what comes to mind are shaggy-haired hippies in their love beads and tie-dyed shirts, smoking marijuana, holding "love-ins," and chanting "Make Love Not War." Crosby, Stills and Nash sang "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with," and the Sixties were full of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. But the sexual revolution extended well beyond the under-30, anti-establishment crowd. The invention of the birth control pill did for the Sixties what the automobile did for an earlier generation, freeing Americans' inhibitions so much that even a few older stuffed-shirts loosened their ties a bit.
In 1968, John Updike's sensational wife-swapping novel, "Couples," brought graphic sex and "post-pill paradise" adultery into the mainstream of American literature. A year later, Paul Mazursky's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" shocked moviegoers with a visual version of wife-swapping and nudity that TV's "Peyton Place" couldn't even approach. The casual treatment of casual sex (and the then-startling reference to birth control pills) seems tame by today's standards, but in 1969, the establishing shot of a California retreat with sun-worshipping nudes and hot-tubbing therapy groups certainly grabbed the audience's attention. That this Hollywood milestone was Mazursky's directorial debut makes it all the more interesting. But, as it becomes clear in the commentary, maybe he was able to make a film like this because he didn't know any better.
"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" stars Robert Culp and Natalie Wood as Bob and Carol, a well-heeled couple who live the good life in Pasadena with a small son, a maid, a swimming pool, a Jaguar, and an itch to become "liberated" free-thinking people. So they hop in the Jag and drive up to a group encounter at The Institute. Bob is a documentary filmmaker, and Carol accompanies him for no other reason than she's his wife. But that 48-hour touchy-feely therapy session (which is a hilarious satire) produces enough of a change in them that their friends, lawyer Ted (Elliott Gould) and his wife, Alice (Dyan Cannon), can't help but notice . . . and feel suddenly as uncomfortable as if they had to sip cocktails with a pair of Hari Krishnas.
With the missionary zeal of fresh converts, Bob and Carol push their newfound attitudes on their friends, revealing their touchy-feely inner selves in dope-smoking and cocktail drinking sessions, as well as out on the town. But the big bomb comes when Carol gushes, after one of those parties for four, that Bob has had an affair, and that because he trusted her with that intimate information, she's never felt closer to him than she does right now. That crazy declaration tips the balance in the friends' relationships, first unsettling Ted and Alice, then pushing the foursome into new declarations and wilder patterns of behavior.
If "Dr. Strangelove" is the quintessential film about nuclear paranoia in the Sixties, "Woodstock" covers the music, and "Easy Rider" and "The President's Analyst" provide the best glimpses into anti-establishment paranoia, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is the film that best captures the twisted logic and spirit of the drug-induced sexual revolution.
The pacing is slower than many of today's films, but "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" holds up surprisingly well after 35 years. Mazursky complains in the commentary that filmmakers couldn't make a film like this nowadays—though a remake starring Mike Meyers is rumored to be in the works—because MTV has short-circuited everyone's attention spans so that there's little viewer tolerance for the kinds of "silences" that are typical of people's lives and the cinema verité. But the four stars in this ensemble film make those silences and those slowed-down, quiet moments work. Much of the time it's their gestures and facial expressions—the way each actor manages a presence in front of the camera that's both candid and self-conscious at the same time. Wood, for example, seems to flirt with the camera, constantly. Sexual tension is at the core of this film, and Wood, who wears a baby-doll nightie and bikini underwear in several scenes, is at her sexiest. At other times those silences and slow-downs are filled by viewers' inevitable fascination with the clothing and day-to-day props of the Sixties', or the quirky New Age thinking that squeezed the square peg of morality into a round hole . . . so to speak. Some of the clothes that Culp wears are worthy of Austin Powers—and these people went out in PUBLIC dressed that way?
When the couples get tanked up and swerve their convertible across the state line to a casino, the stage is set for a third act finale that I wouldn't dare disclose. In fact, Mazursky said that when the four stars went into the bedroom together and stripped down, they didn't know what was going to happen next because HE didn't know what was going to happen next. In a way, that kind of organic directing perfectly reflected the times and the couples' situation.
The only thing more controversial than the film's frank treatment of casual sex has been, perhaps, the film's ending, which starts out with the couples leaving the casino-hotel followed by other couples, then a parade of couples, and suddenly the director's heavy hand smacks this baby on the bottom and all hell breaks loose, like the ending of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles." Either you're going to love it, or you're going to hate it. But considering the photography, the strong script by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by none other than Quincy Jones (himself a Sixties' icon), and the top-notch performances, the bizarre ending (which, by the way, circles back neatly to form closure) is easy to swallow.
The people who remastered this 1969 film did a fantastic job. It's clearer and sharper than most films from the same period, and the color is bright and rich, even in low or single-light source scenes—as, for example, when Bob tucks his son in bed, or when Bob and Carol talk by the single desk light in their bedroom. The film is a joy to watch in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 ratio).
The sound is nothing special—Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo—but the only time you notice that a 5.1 mix might have been easier on the ears is during the Nevada gambling episode when all the ambient noise of the casino blares right at you from the center speaker, mixed with dialogue. Apart from that single scene, 2.0 works well enough.
Just as water seeks its own level, it's interesting to me how a commentary will sometimes rise (or sink) to the level of a film—perhaps because of the personalities involved, or maybe, as is the case here, because the cast is reunited with the director and watching the film in the same room together for the first time in many years. Mazursky is joined by Culp, Gould, and Cannon—Wood, sadly, was killed in a boating accident. And Cannon brings her dog. Can it get any more California than that? Together, their remarks walk the same fine line between candidness and self-consciousness that informed their performances. And boy, do we get information! We hear stories about how each of the performers came on board, stories about how risqué the film was thought to be, and minutiae that fit right in with the Sixties. During one exterior scene, Gould chimes in with, "This was the night that Nixon beat Humphrey," and starts talking about how he and Culp smoked dope after they finished filming for the day. "That's not true," Culp says, adding that it was during lunch break that he walked in on Gould, who was smoking, and then took one or two "tokes," since he had only had grass once before and it didn't sit well with him. In another scene, when Culp peels off his t-shirt Gould says, "What's that scar from?" and we get the answer. At another point they argue about the name of the little boy who played Bob & Carol's son, with Mazursky betting Gould his Yankees cap that he's right. "Did you know that I started going to that retreat after the movie?" Cannon says, and Mazursky quips, "You mean we ruined you?" They reminisce, they laugh, and they inform, and you get the sense from listening to them that these were and are classy, dedicated people who enjoyed making the film and are delighted to discover that it still plays well. Mazursky says that he made 17 movies, but never made a better on than this. Who's to argue?
The other extra is "Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," a 20-minute featurette filmed at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in September 2003. Mazursky is interviewed onstage by David Strasberg, and while there's some overlapping with the commentary it's good to hear Mazursky explain in more detail than he's able, limited by scene changes as he was. It's more than fascinating to hear that the idea for the film came from a Time magazine article about a Gestalt therapist which showed the doc sitting naked in a hot tub with naked patients. So like Bob and Carol, Mazursky and his wife went there for research, because he thought he could get a movie out of it. He also talks about his failed "career" as a stand-up comic, and what it did for his career as a director. We're told that everybody in Hollywood read for the part of Ted, including Dick Benjamin ("Goodbye, Columbus"). But none of them worked. "When Elliott walked in and said, 'Uh, hello,' Mazursky laughed and gave him the part. Though there's just the commentary and this short feature, both are superior.
"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is one of those films that's so often referenced in American culture that it's a must-see, especially for generations who missed the Sixties. Don't expect graphic lovemaking scenes, because you won't see them. But sex is handled with a frankness that hadn't been approached before on the big screen, and it's fun to see what was shocking in 1969.
Before Mazursky went to London to ask her to play the part of Carol, Natalie Wood was involved in some pretty major movies—"Miracle on 34th Street," "Rebel Without a Cause," and "West Side Story"—but "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" showcases her Marilyn Monroe-like charisma much more than those iconic films. Culp, meanwhile, was riding the wave of popularity that "I Spy" brought him, and it's a tribute to both stars that relative newcomers Gould and Cannon felt comfortable enough on set to carve unique spaces for their own characters. This film works, still, because the ensemble clicks and the characters are believable—even if the free-love mindset may now tax our powers of reason.