BR: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

March 2, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  January 23, 2018

Genre:  Satire / Comedy

Synopsis: After attending a self-growth retreat, Bob & Carol explore the possibilities of having ‘purely physical’ affairs, and soon entice their best friends into joining the new guilt-free movement.

Special Features: Audio Commentary #1 (2004): Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky and stars Elliott Gould, Robert Culp, and Dyan Cannon / Audio Commentary #2 (2017): Film historians  Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman/ Isolated Stereo Mono Track / 2003 Featurette: “Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (17:41) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Starting out as a comedian, then advancing to actor (Fear and Desire, Blackboard Jungle) and writer (The Monkees, The Danny Kaye Show, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!), Paul Mazursky made the leap to director in 1969 with this provocative hit that was perfectly timed for younger audiences wanting bolder, cynical material, and maybe slightly older audiences having a bit of an early mid-life crisis.

The idea stemmed from Mazursky’s own trip to a retreat managed by the Esalen Institute, which offered group therapy for individuals seeking self-betterment without the fetters of traditional medicine and psychology. Mazursky attended a marathon 30+ hour session with his wife and experienced deep hostility from group members, largely because they forced him to confront his domineering personality.

The freedom to express, experiment, and engage in ‘open-mindedness’ included embracing the sexual freedom to explore with one’s formal and alternate partners, and soon after returning from the retreat, Mazursky teamed up with longtime writing partner Larry Tucker and fashioned the genesis of the script that became Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

As he describes in the commentary track and featurette from Sony’s 2004 DVD, most of the studios wanted the project, feeling it too ‘dirty,’ but the fools missed the point: BCTA isn’t about sex nor includes graphic imagery; it’s a part satire, comedy, and drama, with Mazursky and Tucker examining the changes in behaviour as one couple’s newfound freedom seeps into the lives of their best friends.

Columbia’s original and very clever P.R. material inferred a fun, frolicking foursome, from the smiling shot of the four actors in bed to the alternate basic coloured text with the brilliant tagline “consider the possibilities.” To get the production going, Mazursky filmed a bedroom scene with then up & coming actress Dyan Cannon and relatively new Elliott Gould, and the exhibitors reportedly shot back with four words: “You’ve got a hit.”

Nearly 40 years since its release, BCTA is a snapshot of the era and a prescient satire of New Age philosophies that soon multiplied and became big business, but the reason it still holds up so well are the performances, the sharp writing, directing, and Stuart H. Pappé’s clever editing which integrates a mass of quiet reactions, and captures all the performance nuances that make the film so dryly funny.

Mazursky doesn’t put down his variant of the Esalen model – he acknowledges there’s value in embracing the new and to keep exploring – but his quartet aren’t everyday people. In fact they’re more bougie than middle class.

Bob Sanders (Robert Culp, fresh from the hit series I Spy) is a self-described documentary filmmaker who can afford an extraordinary sprawling California home (Who does he think he is, David Wolper?); wife Carol (stunning Natalie Wood, returning to film after a 3 year absence) is a stay-at-home mom to their son Jimmy (future teen heartthrob Leif Garrett); Ted Henderson (Gould) is a relatively successful lawyer; and wife Alice (Cannon) similarly stays home and looks after there son (never seen on film). Too old to be counterculture hippies and too young to be their repressed parents, the couples represent thirtysomethings stuck between movements of freedom, long hair, pot consumption, and loud clothes, plus the responsibilities of career, family, and embracing the luxuries of life, like that Esalen retreat, fine booze, and for the Sanders, a jaguar convertible and a maid.

That thin demographic makes the lead couple ideal for satire: trying to be hip but looking a little silly in the process, especially as Bob and Carol struggle to understand and commit to their new philosophy while the legacy of their pre-WWII parents – a bit of shame, embarrassment, and guilt for assorted pleasures – still percolates within.

Audience takes on both couples will vary – Mazursky seems to have genuine affection and respect for their adventuring, and Twilight Time commentators Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman finds them ultimately successful in their choices. To more cynical minded, though, Bob & Carol could be seen as poisoning Ted and Alice with their Esalen-styled nonsense, pushing the latter couple to join in and similarly purge archaic guilt from their lives with unknown repercussions.

Mazursky’s inexperience as a film director proved a major benefit: as a writer, the conversations epic with sometimes brilliant punchlines and tone-twisting visual and sonic smash-cuts. As a man deeply intrigued by human behaviour, the nascent filmmaker worked the cast for two weeks, refining performances that probably rank among their strongest. Wood was the star, but Cannon steals the film with an exquisitely nuanced performance, and similarly comes off differently to audience members: Kirgo brands Alice a classic Jewish American Princess who complains / throws up whenever she’s feeling left out or ignored, but one can also see Alice as the last moral holdout; the one who consistently provides rational arguments and reacts with unsubtle shock as she sees her beloved friends potentially tearing apart their new family, and slowly poisoning Ted as he succumbs to Bob’s ‘It’s just physical, man, and it’s all beautiful’ mantra.

The cinematography by studio veteran Charles Lang (Death Takes a Holiday, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Big Heat) is gorgeous, straying between docu-drama and studio gloss, with beautiful colours and compositions, plus some fine handheld work, and the set design and wardrobe reveal the incredible ugliness that briefly passed for chic during the late 60s / early 70s: fuzzy velvet wallpaper, dollops of quasi-colonialism with gilded surfaces and shaggy carpet, and goofy hats and chunky necklaces

TT’s disc includes an isolated mono track of Quincy Jones’ previously unreleased and very sparse score, and as Redman points out, Jones, then the midst of a ridiculously busy year (1969 included Mackenna’s Gold, The Italian Job, The Lost Man, John and Mary, and Cactus Flower!), re-recorded the themes for a longer stereo album that still holds up, especially the bouncy variations, the Handel’s “Messiah” segment sung quite beautifully by Ella Fitzgerald, and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” that closes the film on a weird moment.

Now, the big finale is overall satisfying, but unlike what’s inferred by the smiling four stars in the main poster art, the ending is open to interpretation, much like a European art house drama. The last scene is either bold and experimental or a dream (Ted has an obvious dream sequence in a plane, and Mazursky and Cannon discuss a deleted sequence in which Alice is smothered by a mass of men); it’s also a large-scale bookend of the intimate group therapy session that opens the film, and set to Bacharach’s iconic song; what it all means and how it resonates is entirely subjective.

TT’s Blu replicates the extras from Sony’s DVD, making this a very satisfying release. Kirgo and Redman’s contemporary discussion is propelled by Kirgo’s own familiarity with the period, and having worked with co-writer Tucker. The commentators also adds some background details which are left out from the star-studded 2004 track, as the director and three surviving stars gradually get caught up in the film and speak increasingly less. It’s still a treat to hear all four voices coming from the speakers, but the track does lose some momentum.

The making-of featurette is heavily edited from a Lee Strasberg Theater Institute Q&A between David Strasberg and Mazursky – other portions were repurposed for Sony’s The Tempest  (1982) and The Pickle (1993)  DVDs – and the director also skips some aspects of his career as they’re covered in his 1999 autobiography, Show Me The Magic – My Adventures in Life and Hollywood.

Wood followed up with The Candidate (1972) and later Peeper (1975), but soon switched to TV (From Here to Eternity) with occasional film roles, including the ill-fated Brainstorm (1983), her last work. Cannon’s next features as co-star include The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Burglars (1971), and Shamus (1973).

Redman & Kirgo’s takes on Gould and Culp are quite interesting, with Gould seen as an unlikely star whose laid-back persona and knack for surviving absurd circumstances served him well in comedies (M*A*S*H) and straight thrillers (Capricorn One, The Silent Partner); and in spite of Culp’s reserved persona, the actor always managed to deliver a decent performance: he’s very good in BCTA, and was also adept at playing the serious guy trying to make the ridiculous reasonable (TV’s The Greatest American Hero), and in a rare outing as feature film director with the nasty neo-noir Hickey & Boggs (1969).

Weirdly, both Mazursky and Wood’s last credit as actors are in Orson Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. Shot between 1970-1976, the production is supposedly being completed by Netflix this year for an eventual release.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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