Robert Culp and Natalie Wood in 1969's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice March 26, 2020  

DIRECTED BY

Paul Mazursky

 

STARRING

Natalie Wood

Robert Culp

Elliott Gould

Dyan Cannon

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1969

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 45 Mins.

ffectively doing away with the old and replacing it with the new is, at least on an individual basis, easier said than done. The eponymous characters of Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) 

understand this almost as soon as they start to seriously attempt to imbue their lives with the “new.” Still, they push forward. What I’m talking about when I’m talking about “the new” is the the sexual-

E

revolution ethos of the late 1960s, which among a litany of things extolled the virtues of candor and openness in one’s relationships. That with increasing ubiquity naturally, and with increasing force, challenged the more conservative domestic mores internalized by the generation before and the generation before that. So it always goes.

 

The couples who drive the movie — superficially happy Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) and their best friends, more neurotic pair Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) — got married in the 1950s. For years they have understandably tried to make real for themselves the marital customs they became familiar with as kids. They’re now in their mid-to-late 30s; they 

have at least a child each. Lately, though, they've been feeling more and more ideologically and sexually old-hat in comparison to the generation below them. Disaffection has started to simmer.

 

The simmering has been going on for a while now but gets particularly aggressive as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice opens. The first few scenes see Bob and Carol at a weekend retreat in the California hills — a clear imitation of the stuff going on at the Esalen Institute at the time. The couple, alongside a motley crew of other white upper-to-middle-class malcontents, participate in a number of “cathartic” exercises led by a serene guide. This includes pillow-beating, “healing” hard eye-contact-based activities, sitting in circles and expressing what you honestly “feel” rather than think or are simply curious about. The takeaway from the weekend, for Bob and Carol, is not only that they should be more truthful with one another and their loved ones but also that they should be freer sexually. If they can agree that at the end of the day all other encounters are purely physical, and that a transgression isn't actually a transgression if it's immediately revealed, then why not reconsider their personal limits? 

 

They share all this with Ted and Alice over an Italian dinner a little after 

returning. Ted and Alice think it’s all very silly; they give each other “the look” a few times, which the newly frank Bob feels the need to acknowledge. Carol is so serious about it all that she asks their waiter at one point how he really feels about his service tonight. (Later, she grabs his hands and kisses them.) Will this enlightenment last? At least for a while, apparently: a few evenings later, following a hearty dinner at Bob and Carol's, the latter relays (very blissfully) to Ted and Alice that she’s just found out that filmmaker Bob had an affair recently with a blonde in San Francisco while he was working on a documentary. That’s supposed to be a good thing? Alice bays on the car ride home.

 

Even if Bob and Carol’s attempts to parrot the “freedoms” of the supposedly uninhibited youths a generation under them strike them as contrived, Ted and Alice do soon start to reexamine themselves and their marriage. Alice tells her therapist one session that she just isn’t in the mood to do "it” these days. At another point the therapist notes that Alice said she “liked” Ted and “loved” their child. Ted divulges past infidelities in private. In the middle of the movie, mostly because I think he wonders if he could do it with Bob and Carol’s same nonchalance (he hasn’t struck any sort of deal with Alice, though), Ted 

sleeps with a woman sitting in the row next to him on a flight home from a business trip. 

 

Bob and Carol are only public beacons of sexual liberation. Privately they're pretty gawky when it comes to actually putting into practice the things they tout to Ted and Alice. When Bob confesses to the affair with the blonde in San Francisco, Carol goes from being upset (she tries to cover up her shock and hurt with forced equanimity) to being outwardly, enthusiastically accepting. She talks of feeling closer than ever to her husband, though her demeanor is contradictory. When Bob returns home from a work trip early and discovers that Carol had her European tennis instructor sleep over, at first he instinctually starts to go down the I’ll-kill-this-son-of-a-bitch route. But then he realizes, once Carol points it out, that she was OK with his reveal of infidelity, so he should probably be reacting similarly. The sequence concludes with Bob and Carol’s obviously unsettled one-night stand sharing a drink together. Bob unconvincingly pretends that he isn’t feeling knocked over. 

 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice climaxes with its central quartet, shortly after their pre-planned Las Vegas vacation has begun, attempting to have a foursome in a hotel suite before heading downstairs to a Tony Bennett show. The initial suggestion, which results in some gasps of disbelief, eventually gives way to a for the most part successful first few steps. Then it all anticlimactically concludes with a what-the-hell-are-we-doing halt. It’s the first time in the movie — which is primarily made up of long scenes during which we alternately watch these couples experience various shades of discontent — where the what-the-hell-are-we-doing question really makes them stop what they’re doing. Before then, the what-the-hell-are-we-doing question, which is so inextricable from Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’s feeling out of time and out of place, is what leads them to commit open infidelity, say unwise things to their therapist, question their existences. But here, the reevaluation is weightier. The center of this self-delusion will not hold. 

B

ob & Carol & Ted & Alice humorously and unambiguously dramatizes the sexual and domestic unease experienced by many members of the Silent Generation by the late 1960s. More broadly, though, the film is a fairly universal one about dissatisfaction and the lengths to which one might go to hold it off. In Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Bob can grow his har out to imitate the shag of a British mod;

he can wear beads and groovy jackets to make himself feel more in stride with hipper Woodstockers. Hillside retreats can be visited; foursomes can potentially be had. But how much any of this can really do to blot out existential fears is limited. 

 

The four leads of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice are excellent — Culp just right as someone masking his clear insecurity with ersatz with-the-times confidence, Wood better than usual as the housewife without much of an inner life and as a result is much better at giving herself over to all this liberation stuff. Cannon and Gould particularly make an impression. Cannon, the most reasonable of the bunch, gets more compelling the more she starts to notice that she isn’t as happy as she thought she was. I dug Gould as the neurotic who is so uncomfortable around Bob and Carol’s newfound libertine qualities that the discomfort also invites some intrigue. 

 

The funniest (and best) scene in the movie isn't the infamous orgy-focused finale, though a bed is still a major part of it. Ted and Alice are in bed, preparing to turn in for the night, and are on opposite ends of the energy spectrum. Ted is “in the mood” whereas Alice really isn’t and would rather sleep. It climaxes when Alice half-seriously jokes that she’ll just take some sleeping pills and Ted can do what he will with her body. Then she bursts into laughter when she realizes the bottle's empty. The other “best” scene is the one where Alice is attending therapy. Cannon exquisitely oscillates between good humor to despair to gnawing discomfort. It's like she's stuck in a progressively awkward conversation with an in-law. Cannon's performance is peppered with clever detail throughout the feature but I especially liked the details in this particular stretch. The way her hands scratched at her knee and legs as she confessed — it was like an attempt to blame the truths she didn't want to admit to herself on body parts rather than herself. Alice doesn't resolve anything that afternoon.

 

Nothing is resolved in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Its two couples will keep looking for a “resolution,” whatever that means; they'll try myriad things to try

to artificially make one happen and last. Mazursky slyly instills in the film the eternal idea that as long as we’re alive, this search will never end. Actualizing satisfaction is Sisyphean. The events in the movie are, for the characters, just one of the failed, ultimately futile attempts to try to disprove that. A