by Joshua Ray on Aug 29, 2019

Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1969, a series of six films celebrating their 50th anniversary, runs for three consecutive weekends, Aug. 31-Sept. 15, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library. Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis has featured 50th-anniversary films, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival and QFest St. Louis. Several more 1969 films will appear during the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-17.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice will screen at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 1 at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library auditorium. Joshua Ray, film critic for the Lens, will introduce the film and moderate a post-film Q&A.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: What the World Needs Now

By Joshua Ray

1969 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Paul Mazursky / Premiered Sept. 18, 1969 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Just how did Paul Mazursky’s sexually liberated comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – which Pauline Kael curiously praised as “a slick, whorey movie” after its premiere at the 1969 New York Film Festival – find itself as the sixth-highest-grossing film of that year, positioned between two harbingers of the death of the Hollywood studio system, the wildly expensive and woefully traditional musicals Hello, Dolly! And Paint Your Wagon? The omnipresent marketing image of the two titular married couples (played by Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon), nestled together in bed with only sheets separating potential viewers from their naked bodies, certainly helped. “Consider the possibilities,” the tagline proposed, suggesting the great wife-swap orgy of the century. However, that winking notion preceded what is largely a bait-and-switch proposition. With nudity and, if not prurient sexual explicitness, at least sexually frank conversations on display, Mazursky’s directorial debut isn’t exactly a tease, but who would have expected an acutely observed and socially aware satire of manners as forgiving and loving to its subjects as it is critical of their lives of privilege?

The previous year, Mazursky and his writing and producing partner, Larry Tucker, had a similar stab at dissecting the confluence of the white bourgeoisie and the counterculture with I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! The longtime writing partners’ first film script initially began as Mazursky’s directorial debut, but lead Peter Sellers and Columbia Studios were reticent about handing over an ostensible star vehicle to a newbie filmmaker, so veteran television director Hy Averback took the helm. Sellers is a proto-Ted here, a nebbishy lawyer who tunes in and drops out in what quickly descends into a surface-level survey of SoCal hippie antics – the broadest of era-specific comedies that bears little fruit for a viewer of today.

Mazursky wasn’t necessarily displeased with the result and subsequently stated that it simply wasn’t the vision he would have mounted, explaining, “They just weren’t real hippies.” The incredibly more nuanced Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, with its comedy springing from detailed human behavior within the hip new scene, feels like a corrective to his previous satire. The former actor, comedian, and general showbiz Renaissance man – see his 1976 semi-autobiographical feature, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, for an excellent approximation of his formative years in the business – was in his late 30s and married with children as the counterculture began to take prominence in the mainstream American consciousness. Born squarely between the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation, however, meant that Mazursky could be a distanced participant in the breakdown between the two that helped spur the Sexual Revolution; the short-term fall in cultural conservatism; and the rise in self-awareness, self-care, and women’s liberation. This perfect storm resulted in the birth of the Swinging ’60s and Mazursky and Tucker’s creation of the poster children for it.

At least these are the poster children of a certain kind of 1969 person – not dissimilar to Mazursky himself – white and affluent folks in their late 20s to mid-30s who maybe saw The Graduate two years before and thought Ben Braddock a brat only to turn around and have their own existential, cultural, and political crises. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is utterly representative of this era, especially when it comes to Mazrusky’s sendups of the signposts of the time: the palatial Beverly Hills home of Bob and Carol is complete with a white-shag-carpeted sunken living room stuffed with gaudily excessive fixtures; the Whisky a Go Go-like underground club for LA’s elite features a flower-power fashion rave-up; and the foursome’s own duds are appropriately immodest in their overtly trendy design.

The two couples’ sexual awakenings may also be tied exclusively to the culture of 1969, stemming from Bob and Carol’s weekend trip to a new-age wellness retreat – called “The Institute” here but inspired by Mazursky’s trip to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. – where they participate in a new Gestalt-practice group-therapy session. However, the negotiations they make to seek honest human connections beyond the high status they maintain within their social stratification are timeless. It’s ground Mazursky returned to with two other zeitgeist-tappers that helped define their decades: 1979’s second-wave feminist manifesto An Unmarried Woman, and 1986’s Reagan-era capitalist screwball farce Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

For better or worse, the milieu Mazursky works in is seriously white and, with the loose trilogy of his greatest hits of Bob and the two previously mentioned films, seriously white nouveau riche. No one is asking for the Jewish, Brooklyn-born LA transplant to tell people of color’s stories – his venture into that territory within his next film, Alex in Wonderland (1970), is one of its major flaws – but that the sole speaking role for such a character is given to Bob and Carol’s Latinx servant is alarming. That exact stratification and segregation of lower-class people who don’t resemble the leading quartet could be read as entirely the point, because what’s so striking about this silky souffle is its chef’s recipe mixing the sweet with the salty.

The first 20 minutes make for an excellent example of this careful balance. Set to Quincy Jones’ jazzy update of Handel’s “Messiah,” the opening titles are laid over a montage of the retreat dwellers sunbathing nude and practicing Tai Chi, with one particularly odd duck reading the business section in a hot tub. A tableau of a trio of bare-chested women immediately suggests something far more ribald than what follows, as Bob and Carol are immediately plunked down into a day-and-night session of Gestalt therapy with a large group of strangers – anything but the softcore fun that preceded it. As a documentarian attending for the purpose of observation, Bob is initially resistant to the emotionally open vibes. He even chuckles at a female participant’s admission that her purpose there is to figure out how to have an orgasm. Carol, however, becomes eager to explore quickly, eventually taking the opportunity to confront Bob about their lack of communication and roiling resentments. Their session ends in the film’s first (non-)orgy, except here it’s one of teary embraces.

Laughing at the plight of these privileged few and their ability to take part in such an activity, let alone pay for it, is welcomed by Mazursky, but he’s consistently keen to marry genuine tenderness with his acidity. It’s the crux of the bulk of modern comedy: Should I be laughing, cringing, crying, or all of the above? Credit for the humane farce should likely be paid to his experience in Lee Strasberg’s Method acting classes and other schools of performance and his unfulfilled career as a stand-up, plumbing the depths of his own experience to fully realize dramatic storytelling. Take, for instance, the protracted exchange between Ted and Alice after they’re made aware of their best friends’ extramarital dalliances – Bob’s “purely physical” encounter with a stranger and Carol’s whole-hearted acceptance of it into an open marriage. Twelve full minutes of runtime show a pre-sleep bedroom quarrel between the twitchy husband who can’t decide if he needs sex or a late-night jog and the frustrated woman who, while fighting off her own husband’s sexual coercion, is spiraling out because of her married friends’ newfound sexual openness. If it weren’t for the copious amount of the shots fixated on the female body, clothed and otherwise, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice might join An Unmarried Woman in the small pantheon of acceptable feminist work made by a male cishet director, since the women here are truly the complex beating hearts of this affair. Rohmerian (or at the very least Bergmanesque, since Rohmer was not yet a valued American import until My Night at Maud’s U.S. release in the following year) at its core, this discursively funny second-act cringefest is trademark Mazursky: wittily executed, contradictory to an unsuspecting filmgoer’s expectations, and sharply observed to the point of nauseating recognition.

And so the answer to the question of how Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice became a phenomenon and shorthand for smashing traditional monogamous boundaries is multifold but, in essence, always comes back to its compassion for the human experience. Mazursky freed both Culp, who just finished his run staring on television’s I Spy (1965-68), and Wood, the Hollywood child actor who continued to rise in rank beyond pubescence only to hit a rut shortly before this, from performative constrictions dictated by their studio-influenced backgrounds. Mazursky empowered the new kids on the block, Broadway performers Gould and Cannon, to synthesize their own naiveté with what he and Tucker had written on the page – largely found through their own improvisation. (These four, along with veteran cinematography Charles Lang, would receive Oscar nominations for their respective work here.)

In 1969, the masses began to ask their mainstream art to better reflect their increasingly turbulent existence, and the confluence of the failing Hollywood system and the rise in international film’s influence on makers and viewers allowed for that. Mazursky clearly belongs within this second group, “ripping off” Fellini’s (1963) in Alex in Wonderland (which also features an extended cameo by the Italian master) and with the carnivalesque ending here set to Jackie DeShannon’s version of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Further evidence is Mazursky’s future direct remakes of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) with Willie and Phil (1980) and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) with Down and Out. Even after blue-balling his audience with its infamous anti-climax, Paul Mazursky’s Euro-inflected debut was exactly the filmmaking American audiences were salivating after – the kind woefully missing from today’s popular cinematic landscape. What the world needs now is a new Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Consider the possibilities.