A film from a time when movies were America’s national theatre; ideas were explored and dramatised in order for the audience, which was then the nation, to have a discussion on how to be, how to love, how to strive for personal freedom without hurting others and in a world where the old certainties no longer held and new ways of being hadn’t yet been codified and entrenched. Bob & Carol is very much a film of its time, a Hollywood film of its time. Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) go to a seminar where they learn that the path to personal freedom is to be honest about their feelings and express them. This leads to their exploring an open relationship, which at first shocks their closest friends, Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) and subsequently disturbs Alice and entices Ted. At the end they all end up in the same bed and the closing song is the Burt Bacharach hit, ‘What the World Needs Now (Is Love Sweet Love)’.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was an enormous success, reportedly grossing over 30 million on a 2 million dollar budget. It was the fifth top grossing film of 1969 and it’s worth mentioning that the films above it were, in order, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Hello, Dolly! Below it were Paint Your Wagon, True Grit, Cactus Flower, Goodbye Columbus, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The struggles between the old dying Hollywood (Hello, Dolly! Paint Your Wagon, True Grit) and the new and emerging one (Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider) playing out in the list itself, with Cactus Flower, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Goodbye, Columbus attempting to manoeuvre new ideas and ways of being into old forms.
Bob &Carol is more adventurous, both formally and thematically. It’s a zeitgeist film that still holds up well today. The opening scene with nude women basking in the sunshine as we hear Handel’s Hallellujah chorus; Robert Culp’s Nehru jackets, frilly collars and cuffs, and multiple beaded necklaces; Elliot Gould, giving a great performance but then seen as ‘ethnic’-looking and with the hairiest back in the history of the movies; the mini-skirts; the pot-smoking scenes, and the final orgy: all speak their time. The glossy cinematography by Charles Lang is lovely to look at and it’s worth saying that Natalie Wood, who is less ‘good’ than Gould or Cannon, is nonetheless filmed as the movie star she was, and there are moments where she seems to glow and refract light; it’s a great pleasure to see. Quincy Jones’ score is a triumphant mix of the classic and the mod or the melding of two types of classic as when Sarah Vaughn sings Handel. Paul Mazursky’s take is always a funny and loving one, and in this instance, made both more pleasurable but less complex by being glitzed up, yet still asking questions pertinent today (see for example the great scene with Ted and Alice discussing consensual sex in marriage) . It’s a film that still holds up, hugely enjoyable and currently on MUBI.