Classic Film: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

In the aftermath of the 1960s tumult, social networks arose, but of a non-virtual sort. People gathered in circles, discussed their feelings and tried to come to a point where true intimacy could exist with their spouses and with others. Paul Mazursky’s comedy of manners, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, is interested in both spouses and the others, studying a pair of married couples racing to the front lines of the sexual revolution before the hand-to-hand ends.

Middle-aged journalist Bob (Robert Culp) and his beautiful wife, Carol (Natalie Wood), leave their kid behind to attend just such a weekend retreat. They’re ostensibly there at this groovy 24-hour crash course in intimacy so that Bob can write an article, but his long hair and mod clothes make it clear that Bob isn’t interested in growing old before he’s had a chance to be young.

Bob and Carol both emerge greatly changed, ready to open their minds and blouses and pants. Bob soon has an affair, and is taken aback when his suddenly non-judgemental wife doesn’t mind. Bob has a much tougher time dealing with his emotions when Carol beds her tennis pro, Horst. But soon he and Horst are drinking and laughing together, and Bob feels liberated from feelings of jealousy. But the acolyte swingers have a difficult time explaining their moral shift to their best friends, the uptight marrieds Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon). Ted and Alice are revolted–and perhaps just a little curious.

When the four friends head to Atlantic City together for a weekend of gambling, they’re soon weighing whether or not to get their group on. Or as one member of the quartet puts it: “First we’ll have an orgy, and then we’ll go see Tony Bennett.”

Mazursky tries to find a balance in the concluding scenes, acknowledging the need to break down walls, but perhaps not every last one. An utter lack of boundaries can’t work, but are we any closer now, with all our connectedness, to finding a middle ground? What are we connected to? An icon? An identity? A “friend”? It brings to mind something uttered in the film’s consciousness-raising circle: “You chat….but you don’t really look at each other.”•

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