Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
June 8, 2005
Paul Mazursky’s directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) is a satire of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. The film zeroes in on Hippie New Age philosophy and shows how ridiculous it is in some respects. Mazursky’s film explores the relationships between men and women, married couples and how this dynamic works (and sometimes doesn’t work).
Documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders (Culp) and his wife, Carol (Wood) goes to a New Age health spa that uses all kinds of touchy-feely Hippie philosophies so that people can get in touch with themselves and others. Bob and Carol attend a session where everyone repeatedly hits pillows to work out aggression and walk around the room looking into each other’s eyes. Everyone eventually sits around and confesses their true feelings resulting in a big crying fest and group hug.
Bob and Carol return to planet Earth and have dinner with their close friends Ted (Gould) and Alice Henderson (Cannon). Ted and Alice are a conservative couple with voyeuristic tendencies. It is clash of contrasting views: the Sanders are uninhibited while the Hendersons are uptight and repressed. Who is better off? The way the Sanders act before the health spa and after makes one wonder, have they been brainwashed or are they simply in tune with their feelings and emotions? Ted and Alice might as well be from another planet as far the Sanders are concerned for they represent mainstream or “straight” society to use the parlance of the times.
The health spa sequence sets the tone for the rest of the movie as we watch how the two couples interact with each other and together. One night, in the spirit of being forthcoming and honest, Bob tells Carol about an affair he had with another woman. Instead of getting angry as one would expect, she is relieved that he told her and that it was just about sex and not love. In fact, she gets him to tell her all the details, this turns her on and they end up making love.
And yet, for all of their repressed behaviour, Ted and Alice have a pretty good relationship. They talk things out and share their thoughts with each other without being too touchy-feely about it. In some respects, Bob and Carol’s influence is an unhealthy one as it causes internal strife within Ted and Alice’s marriage. Were these problems always there and it just took the Sanders to bring it out or are they problem? Mazursky leaves it up to the viewer to decide.
The cast is uniformly good with Elliot Gould being a particular stand-out as the nervous and repressed Ted. He was a relative unknown at the time and would go on to play much more laid-back hipsters in Robert Altman’s films (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, California Split). Dyan Cannon is also excellent as Ted’s wife, Alice. She is a bit of prude who doesn’t like to talk about sex or, at one point, even be touched.
There is a lively audio commentary by Paul Mazursky, Robert Culp, Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon. This is a nice reunion of the cast (minus Natalie Wood of course) and it is great to have them together in one room talking about the movie. They speak fondly of working with Wood and tell lots of good stories about making the movie.
“Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is an 18-minute interview with Mazursky in an Inside the Actors Studio kind of setting, only more low-key and not so pretentious. He talks about how the script was considered controversial for its time because of the frank sexuality. There is some repetition from the commentary but the director also recounts a funny story about his short stint as a stand-up comic.
In the end Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the Sanders are truly liberated or merely deluding themselves. The folks at Sony/Columbia should be commended for pulling this obscurity out of the archives. One can’t imagine a high demand for this movie or that it will be flying off the shelves but it is an important film in that, like Easy Rider (1969), it signaled the beginning of a new age of Hollywood cinema where the director was the star and more daring and risky projects started getting green-lighted by executives who had no idea what audiences wanted to see.