Wednesday, 4 December 2013

What the World needs now… Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Everything falls into place right at the end of this film. You get so used to hearing classic popular songs as the background to modern drama (sometimes ironically so…) but when Bacharach and David’s “What the World Needs Now” plays over the closing sequence you know it’s the real – sincere – deal. A sublime song, it acts as the perfect reflective enhancement of the theme of this film and the acting qualities that make its simple message a still resonant one.

Bob, Natalie, Dyan and Elliot
Paul Mazursky directed and co-wrote (with Larry Tucker) this tale of the times in which two established middle-class couples rediscover the truth about the difference between love and sex. In the Autumn of Love cynicism was rapidly crushing the flimsier ideals of the hippy era (some of them) as Vietnam raged on and change was all too slow in coming…

But I don’t feel that this is a reactionary film. It starts off in a new age retreat where a couple have gone to investigate the alternative therapies and ends up tuning in to the main thread of those practices: be open and honest but love the one you’re with.

Group therapy
The couple are a documentary film-maker Bob (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood). Bob is in his early forties and wearing the trappings of the younger generation – great casting of Culp who carries the masculinity of an earlier era even clad in beads and Peter Fonda’s flares.

They start their therapy Bob in confident professional mode and Carol laughing in a friendly way but soon they become lost in the collective emotion. They have their emotional epiphany and tell each other some home truths… is this actually helping them get closer or are they just getting a charge from the liberation from constraint.

Bob, Carol, Alice and Ted
They return home full of the experience much to the bewilderment of their best friends, Ted (Elliot Gould) and his wife Alice (Dyan Cannon). These two can’t take the “new truth” that seriously and cringe with the rest of us when Carol tells their regular waiter how much she loves and respects him. Her compulsion to tell the truth at all times is an addiction: the more truth she tells the more she needs…

But then Bob returns from a work trip to San Francisco and reveals that he has had a fling with a young blonde woman. Carol almost takes it in her stride and quickly compliments her husband on his honesty: it was just sex and meant nothing to their relationship.

Forgiveness is...
Bob, rather than delight at the let off, is mildly put out before getting hip to his wife’s scene: they have freedom because they have love.

But whilst Bob can handle the truth, Alice is less forgiving when, after a post-prandial toke, Carol reveals all.

Dyan Cannon
Now it is Ted and Alice’s turn to explore new feelings as they drive home and then, in one of the film’s most impressively improvised sections, confront each other in their bedroom. Ted is still stoned and very agitated whilst Alice is physically affected by her friend’s news. Ted wants sex but Alice is nowhere near in the mood. She is cross with both Bob and Carol whilst Ted feels his mate’s big mistake was in telling too much truth. Gould and Cannon are superb.

Alice cannot understand and ends up in therapy trying to confront her own feelings alongside a rather detached psychiatrist. Mazursky and cast play it for laughs but everything is so near the knuckle, you have to be on your guard.

Ted talks with his buddy and tells him how he came close to infidelity but couldn’t go through with it. Ted tells him that he’s missing out on an opportunity that may only happen once. It’s all very much self-actualisation for the sake of it: free love with no consequence.

But, when Bob gets another chance to play away, he turns it down so that he can return home. Arriving a day early he finds Carol in the midst of entertaining another man: Horst her tennis coach. Initially angry he soon calms down and is offering the confused young man a drink…

"Hey man, what's good for he goose..." he might have said...
The final section of the film sees the couples off to Las Vegas for the weekend. They get drunk and it’s Ted’s turn to reveal that, on a recent business trip, he too has had an affair. Carol’s initial anger is replaced by her “therapised” rationalisation that the pleasures of the flesh are divided from love and she attempts to initiate an orgy.

Bob considers Alice...
All parties agree to partner-swap but, after a promising start for Bob at least, left alone with Carol and Alice whilst Ted gets ready… everything fizzles out as they come to their senses.

The couples get dressed and walk out to join the throng headed to watch Tony Bennett and, as the Bacharach song plays in you finally get Mazursky’s point. The couples look intently at the other people but they only really have eyes for each other and that is the only truth that should guide their actions. The arc of their experience has only served to take them back where they should have started.

Not a complex story perhaps but an unusual one even now. Naturally some of the situations and fashions look of their time but the film still stands largely because of the performances of its leads. Roger Ebert noted at the time that Dyan Cannon was better than Natalie Wood who was better than he expected. In truth both are excellent as are the slightly uptight Robert Culp and Elliot Gould who plays Elliot Gould wonderfully well.

There’s also a super score from the outrageously talented Quincy Jones and that song from Burt…

Dusty verdict: Doesn’t quite carry the same impact in these jaded times but just imagine if you had to spend the weekend at a Scientology “de-programming” camp with your partner… Worth watching for the fine acting and, let’s be honest, Natalie Wood in skimpies


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