Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Fabulous Foursome

"First, we'll have an orgy. Then we'll go see Tony Bennett."

Ted (Elliott Gould)

When I was in college, I remember having the kind of frank conversations that were abundant in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," which premiered on this day in 1969.

Having such conversations when you are 20 is one thing. It is quite another when you have come to occupy that middle earth known as one's 30s — when one is apt to be married, maybe have a house and a car and a kid or two — and such conversations can lead to divvying up such things.

With some people and in some situations, it is possible to be too honest. There are probably some topics that are best left unexplored.

What made "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" funny was that its writers were sensitive to the crisis the 30–somethings of that time faced. They were caught in the no–man's land of the Generation Gap.

Now, there is always a gap between the generations, but it was particularly pronounced at that time when a war half a world away wasn't the only war being waged in America. There was a race war in America in those days, and there was a war between the sexes, which came to include the emerging gay rights movement.

It is no exaggeration to say there were times when the fabric of American society seemed to be coming apart at the seams.

Quite often the conflicts seemed to come down to the Generation Gap. The young were usually on one side, the old were on the other. The couples in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" were too old to be the radicals and too young to be the parents of the radicals.

Most of the time, I guess that isn't so bad. Being in your 30s gives you a unique — but temporary — ability to connect with both extremes. I have never been able to be as honest with both groups as I was when I was in my early 30s. The rest of the time, I've been able to be pretty honest with one side but not so honest with the other.

In the late '60s and early '70s, there was a lot of emphasis on honesty in relationships, and that really was what "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" was about.

It wasn't really about wife swapping although that was the premise for the movie.

"My darling, you did not cheat. You told me about it. If you hadn't told me about it, that would have been cheating!"

Carol (Natalie Wood)

Things really got started when one of the couples (Natalie Wood and Robert Culp) spent a weekend with one of those groups that were so prevalent in those days — dedicated to helping couples get in touch with their feelings and open up to each other and all that. Culp's character got caught up in the moment, and he found himself confessing to infidelity.

Wood's response was that it was wonderful that he could be so honest with her, and she proudly shared the news of his affair with the other couple (Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould), which caused a ripple effect within their relationships.

I thought that was the funniest part of the movie. The four had been spending the evening together, going out for dinner, then getting high back at Bob and Carol's place. Throughout the evening, Bob and Carol ranted about the life–changing experience they had had.

Then Carol dropped the bombshell on Ted and Alice as they were leaving.

Alice was furious with Bob and made it clear on the drive home. My memory is that Ted said little — except that it was clear he was aroused. Alice was not.

After discussing the subject of whether to have sex, Alice, in frustration, suggested that she should just lie back and let him do what he wanted to do with no additional participation from her. "Now," she said triumphantly, for she couldn't imagine anyone wanting to have sex if the partner did not wish to actively participate, "do you wanna do it just like that with no feeling on my part?"

"Yeah," Ted replied.

Well, he was being honest — but it probably wasn't the most diplomatic way he could have done it.

Later, Ted told Bob that he had been tempted to cheat but hadn't gone through with it. Bob's advice to him was to do it if he had another chance. "You've got the guilt, anyway," he advised. "Don't waste it."

Eventually, the couples reached the conclusion that the only way they could be totally honest with each other would be to swap sexual partners.

Some of the reviews I have read criticized director Paul Mazursky's ending, in which the couples did not trade partners after all, but I disagreed. I thought it was consistent with the characters and where they were emotionally at that point in their story. If they had swapped partners, it would have totally obscured the movie's message.

"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" received four Oscar nominations but lost all four.