ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) Blu Ray (Arrow)
Flirting with polyamory
Robert Culp plays Bob Sanders, a documentary filmmaker who visits a group encounter retreat with his wife Carol (Natalie Wood). During their gruelling session, they discover a sense of emotional openness that they never previously had in their relationship. One evening, while dining at a fine restaurant, they decide to share their newfound beliefs with their more hung-up best friends: lawyer Ted Henderson (Elliott Gould) and his wife Alice (Dyan Cannon).
When Bob and Carol get back home to go to bed, the former reveals that he had an affair while away on business in San Francisco, albeit just for sex and nothing more. To his surprise, Carol takes this news amazingly well and tells him that she admires his honesty. Moreover, the next evening following a session smoking cannabis, she confesses this to Ted and Alice. While Ted is fairly nonchalant about the revelation, Alice is disgusted. However, the very act plants seeds in their collective minds which spur them to further explore the concept of polyamorous relationships.
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A product of its time?
In many ways, Paul Mazursky’s comedy-drama is a time capsule of a decade when the concepts of New Age self-actualisation and freer forms of adult sexual relationships moved from the fringes to the semi-mainstream. However, while this era has long since fizzled out, the film’s explorations of the emotional ups and downs of non-monogamous relationships are fascinating and often very funny. The 105-minute runtime flies by remarkably quickly despite the fact that most of the scenes consist of talking heads - something which would only be possible if the acting, characterisation and dialogue are as strong as they are here.
One of the best things about the film is the manner in which the four titular central characters are placed at various points on the spectrum of attitudes towards polyamorous relationships. From early on, Natalie Wood’s Carol is clearly the most open towards the idea that people should have more than one sexual partner. Her husband Bob, while clearly a bold and adventurous lion of a man by most standards, has his clear anxieties accepting what he perceives as a social transgression when he sleeps with another woman while away in San Francisco. Ted, meanwhile, being the more reserved beta to Bob’s alpha, nervously and gradually drifts in after him. Carol, despite her evident attraction to Bob, is the most prudish of the lot in terms of attitude - at least for much of the runtime. However, the ultimate dramatic payoff comes later on, when she spectacularly shreds both her inhibitions and her clothing in front of the others.
There are plenty of laughs along the way, a great example being Alice’s visit to a psychiatrist (played by Donald F. Muhich). Some of the dialogue here is tellingly witty, especially when she accidentally mentions Bob’s name instead of Ted’s when discussing sex (pointing it out to be a “Freudian slip”) and when she refers to her vagina as a “tee-tee”. There’s also a classic (if rather incidental) scene where Ted tries to order a water from a drive-through Taco restaurant.
It all concludes with a positive and (in true late-1960s style) transcendental message that the alternative lifestyle which they have been pursuing is part of societal progress and should be embraced. For various reasons (ranging from the 1980s rise of the HIV virus to the numerous inevitable conservative backlashes over the years) this whole notion is one likely to be scoffed at nowadays. However, the drama leading up to then is compelling enough to make the viewer more accepting towards this outcome. If there’s one thing that can be said about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, it’s that it maintains an undeniable capacity for provoking thought and discussion.
Runtime: 105 mins
Dir: Paul Mazursky
Script: Paul Mazursky, Larry Tucker
Starring: Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, Greg Mullavey, Donald F. Muhich, Horst Ebersberg
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Visually, this restoration offers a warm, garish 1960s riot of colours and sparkly gaudiness which is just perfect for its examination of contemporary themes. The soundtrack meanwhile is clean and pleasant on the ear.
There are two commentary tracks available on this disc. The first is with the director and stars Robert Culp, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon (sadly, Natalie Wood was unavailable as she passed away in 1981, at the age of just 43). The second is with film scholar Adrian Martin.
For the purposes of this review, I decided to go for the commentary with the director and actors. Unfortunately, it’s not the most information-packed as their comments are intermittent and, at times, limited to giggling along to the goings-on or complementing the film (albeit not unjustifiably) on how well-made it is. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to provide a bit of a background and a few interesting anecdotes.
The plot setup was developed from experiences which Paul Mazursky and wife Betsy had while visiting a real-life California group encounter retreat centre called the Esalen Institute. Bill Cosby makes a very brief (and not very obvious) appearance during the nightclub sequence; Robert Culp’s character is seen brushing past him. Culp and Cosby had previously starred together in the popular I Spy TV series. While most of the actors had costumes designed for their characters, Culp’s came from his own wardrobe. Natalie Wood’s contract stipulated that she would get 10% of the film’s gross as payment for her participation. It turned out to be a major commercial success and ultimately netted her $5 million, making it the most financially lucrative film of her career. A fantasy scene where Dyan Cannon’s character is jumped upon by hundreds of men was filmed but never made it into any released version.
Bob & Natalie & Elliott & Dyan… & Paul
This decent video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns takes a look at the film’s satire of 1960s cultural excesses, its stellar cast and Mazursky’s directorial aesthetics.
Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
This archival interview with Paul Mazursky was conducted in 2003 by David Strasberg at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in Los Angeles. Mazursky discusses the making of the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as well as touching on some other stages of his career including his early experiences with stand-up comedy and the film Moscow and the Hudson which he made with Robin Williams.
The extras here are completed by a collector’s booklet.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is an intelligent and funny comedy despite its somewhat dated trappings. Well worth a look.