Contributor A. C. Miller
For his directorial debut, Paul Mazursky, comes out swinging. Literally. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice isn’t a farce depicting Eisenhower era (1953-1961) couples plodding through rough relationships with affairs; it’s a midcentury story showcasing two thirty-something couples fumbling through societal changes as the decades progress. Whether it’s something they saw coming or not, these couples moved forward not contentiously, but contently with the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The film starts off at a resort in which Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) spend twenty-four hours in a room with a variety of characters trying to understand the hang-ups in their personal lives, and how to deal with them. This twenty-four hour session leads to tears, honesty, lots of hugs, and I assume, sheer exhaustion. It also leads to a change in how the couple emits their responses to anything and everything. Rather than thinking about everything that happens, they express their emotions with a simple, “I feel” response instead of over-thinking thecircumstance.
Once Bob and Carol leave the resort with a new lease on life, their relationship, and individual relationships with others, they start to push these lessons upon their best friends. After an awkward dinner with Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) in which Bob and Carol keep trying to get the other couple to say how they “feel” about every little thing they do, Bob goes on a business trip and comes back to tell Carol that he had an affair. However, it doesn’t bother Carol, but it bothers Alice that Carol is completely okay with her husband’s infidelity. This leads to distrust in their friendship before Alice sees a therapist to let out her feelings because her husband doesn’t seem to care about what’s going on in Bob and Carol’s lives. After one session, Alice starts to think more and more about the changes her friends went through after their time at the resort. Over a series of sequences, the two couples end up at a hotel together in which Ted tells everyone he also had an affair that was inspired by Bob’s, and Carol also admits that she had an affair with her tennis coach. Thus, leaving Alice as the only one who has remained singularly faithful to her husband; so, naturally, things have to change.
After imbibing heavily at the hotel, the group decides to have an orgy to truly culminate what everyone’s learned about themselves throughout the course of the 105-minute film. It’s all because, as Bob says, “The truth is beautiful,” and apparently the truth here is that you just need to love everyone and everything will be okay. You know, the typical hippie slang. However, the orgy doesn’t go exactly as planned and I’ll just leave it at that.
If you want to see what I mean, check out Twilight Time’s recent release of the 1969 classic. In this Blu-ray edition, there’s a booklet containing a summary of the film and the era; you know, like this article, but more in depth. And the disc itself also has audio commentary with the director and three of the four main characters (sadly, no Natalie Wood commentary). So, it’s worth a purchase if you’re intrigued with how the 50s transitioned into the 60s, and how every day people just like us handled it. Really, it was the way these characters were created that piqued my interest because normally, you might not see a film that showcases the social nuances to this extent of growing up in a different era.
I grew up in the 90s, so what I learned was quite different than the decades before me. There wasn’t a sexual revolution. Everyone didn’t have sideburns and offer peace. We had a growth in technology and everyone wore denim. We didn’t know what we were thinking, but in the 60s they always knew what was on their mind and how to express it (at least in this film). And, honestly, I think if we knew how to “feel” more in the 90s, the denim revolution might not have lasted.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice because it felt authentic. I will admit, I was caught off guard by some of what I saw, in terms of how affairs were handled, and some of Mazursky’s shots that seemed to linger on scenes that felt almost too drawn out, but it all worked. It built a cohesive story; one told very well in Twilight Time’s restored edition.