Paul Mazursky’s big directorial debut (and wonderfully co-scripted by producer Larry Tucker) is basically in the same league as GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, also produced by Columbia, and other quintessential good-if-not-great crowd pleasers of the sixties that tapped into what moviegoers were most curious to see at the time. It may end a bit too abruptly and not milk its subject matter for all it is worth, but I still enjoy it after multiple viewings. Even today, it has plenty to say about relationships and honesty, fidelity versus infidelity.
Although three of the names in the title commit…gasp!…adultery (more of a no-no back then than today), this is a surprisingly chaste film that lies somewhere in-between a Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy (Dyan Cannon wears as much eye liner and lip gloss as Doris under the sheets) and a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie with just enough bare tops on display, but not involving our star actresses, to warrant an R-rating. As with a number of box office successes, there was a feeble attempt to create a TV series out of it years later.
TB: Yes, I think the TV series was pretty much a flop. Definitely “tamer” since it had to contend with broadcast standards censorship. It aired around a dozen episodes in 1973. A young Robert Urich and Anne Archer played the main couple. Archer obviously was cast on the strength of her resemblance to Natalie Wood.
We should point out that the cast of the original movie features Robert Culp, who had made films, typically in supporting roles. But he was known more to audiences as a television performer in the late 1960s.
JL: Robert Culp, who was famous at the time due to I Spy but less familiar today than his co-stars, and Natalie Wood, who needs no introduction, play the liberal-minded Sanders, Bob and Carol; he being a documentary filmmaker and she a rather bored, but pampered, housewife. They spend a weekend at a place resembling (and maybe is) the famous Esalem, a California retreat for new age yoga, relaxation, nude sun bathing and psychological therapy.
TB: You gotta love how they fit all the therapies in. It’s a one stop place for bourgeoisie healing.
JL: Bob is a trifle skeptical at first but Carol is more open to this getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings that starts out with the soft spoken leader (Greg Mullavey) getting them all to look at each other directly in the face and display total honesty about everything.
Meanwhile, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould play the Sanders’ more earthbound (read: uptight) friends, Ted and Alice Henderson.
At first they merely are amused by this great weekend transformation during a discussion at an Italian restaurant, especially after Carol demonstrates “total honesty” with the waiter (Lee Bergere) by asking if he “genuinely” hopes that their food is satisfactory and even later tries to re-explain herself and apologize to him in the kitchen.
By the way, I absolutely adore Natalie Wood in her blue denim mini-skirt. Not to mention Dyan in her solid yellow with matching hair ribbon, repeated in red/black combo, virginal white, sky blue and as pink as a Playboy bunny in her later scenes.
All continues hunky dory until after a late after-party get-together involving a bit of marijuana smoking and stirred libidos. As the Hendersons leave, Carol bounces out with some all important information. She recently learned Bob had an affair, he was totally honest about it, she forgave him and she thinks it is all “beautiful” and worth sharing with her best friends!
TB: To be honest, this part of the plot seems rather absurd to me. In fact it seems like a sitcom plot, where the main character promises not to lie for a week and is honest to the point of being painful. We’ve seen it on dozens of shows with Lucille Ball and John Ritter. In this case, Mazursky is doing it as a bit of a device to draw the Hendersons more into the story…so that they are now part of the Sanders’ process of “truth” and “discovery.”
JL: Ted is amused, but Alice is disgusted beyond belief. I think Alice represents roughly 75% of the moviegoers seeing this in 1969 since most at them were well beyond their thirties and couldn’t quite grasp all of the new “freedoms.”
JL: Back in the bedroom, it is obvious that Alice is no longer In The Mood while Ted is feeling frisky. After all, Bob’s affair and Carol being so candid and comfortable about it is as traumatic to Alice as her own mother’s death! Oh pleeeeeeeze.
Actually I greatly enjoy this lengthy bedroom conversation between these two (a key reason both were nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles) with her at first not wanting him to touch her, then they negotiate about whether or not to “do it” despite all of her rage over Bob and finally culminating with his telling her to not touch him!
TB: I agree the scene works rather well. But one of the problems I have with this set-up is that the filmmakers are not quite sure at times which couple should be most in focus. Or if the two couples deserve equal prominence since they may be reverse images of each other. Despite the “confusion” over which two are the main characters, or if all four are main characters, we do get some satiric moments and the comic potential of the storyline is exploited rather well.
JL: Later Alice tries to get things out of her system with her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich). He displays a rather stoic reaction as she talks about “my” (instead of “our”) five year son whom she “loves.” Meanwhile she only “likes” her husband. She can’t handle sex and body parts, using nicknames instead of medical terms. When she has her “Freudian slip” mentioning Bob instead of Ted, it becomes apparent that she is worried her husband will do a no-no like Bob’s despite always being faithful to her.
TB: When I watched this particular scene I couldn’t help but think of Otto Preminger’s SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971) which came out a few years later. Again Dyan Cannon is submerged in an upper class melange of psychological and sexual dysfunction. I guess Preminger was a fan of her performance here in Mazursky’s film, causing him to cast her later in his film which covers some of the same “issues.”
JL: On a plane bound for Miami, Bob makes the mistake of suggesting to Ted that his affair was no big deal and, heck, you might as well take advantage of golden opportunities. Intriguingly, Bob himself decides NOT to have a second affair when given the opportunity on another trip at home, but he later confronts Carol herself having one of her own with a much younger and hunkier tennis instructor named Horst (Horst Ebersberg).
TB: The old “what’s good for the goose” routine…! The tennis instructor is a soapy stereotype and since he’s so much better looking than Bob, you have to wonder why Carol would even look twice at Bob again.
JL: What I like best about this movie is that it puts the shoe on the other foot so that the man, who takes such things for granted, must now reconsider his own feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. We get Culp’s best acting scene but, of course, you know he is a dedicated liberal type who “does not use violence in this house” so he invites Horst to stay for a drink.
TB: I guess this keeps the tone light and prevents the film from descending into histrionics, which is what happens in THE GRADUATE when Elaine learns Benjamin’s been having an affair with her mother. But that’s another story!
JL: In Las Vegas, where everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Alice has had plenty of time with her shrink and is no longer judging her best friends by “my morals” and the foursome enjoy themselves in the executive suite.
TB: This of course leads to the film’s most “celebrated” and “liberating” image of the four of them in bed together. If you do a Google search of the film, nearly 80% of the images come from this portion of the movie. It’s quite the identifier.
JL: Everybody is now more amused than shocked to learn about Carol being even with Bob with her sex-capade, but then Ted decides to confess to his affair with a mouthful of yummy nuts! This sends Alice through the roof and she instantly starts undressing and demanding to swap hubbies with Carol, insisting that Bob must find her attractive enough to go to the sack with her. The great O word is expressed, which I can’t print here.
When they finally all decide to go to the next level, we gets some great comic scenes with Elliot Gould in particular.
I find him much more more likable in this movie than in M*A*S*H. He fusses in the bathroom in preparation and takes way too long getting his undergarments off… under the covers. He is even more modest about his body than his own wife!
TB: This is where I think the film becomes a very immature thesis on sexual relationships. Yes, this is a comedy and we’re supposed to find some of it tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately it’s just a bunch of overgrown “kids” who don’t know the first thing about real adult interactions.
And the fact that Ted’s confession forces Alice, who has been rather reserved up to this point, to suddenly want to get it on with Bob– that seems very contrived to me. Like Mazursky and fellow screenwriter Larry Tucker couldn’t actually come with a realistic way for them all to copulate together.
And then, ultimately, because they cannot venture into X-rated territory and remain commercially marketable, we don’t see them having sex with each other. Plus, I think in this situation, with everyone relaxed, there’d be some bisexuality playing out. But this film, as you said earlier, is chaste. It’s timid. And adolescent. Not as frank or grown up or adult as it could have been. It is an American film trying to do what provocative European films do, and not being able to pull it off, pun intended.
JL: So did they “do it” or not? A little video segment on YouTube has Quentin Tarantino suggesting that maybe they all all “did it,” but I kinda think they “didn’t.”
TB: Yeah, they didn’t do it. The film leads up to the promise of sexual liberation but then it chickens out and tries to act vague and clever about it.
JL: We get a questionable scene of Bob looking up at the camera as he kisses Alice, which Quentin thinks is him shooing away the audience for more privacy. I think Bob’s expression is more along the lines of “maybe I should not go through with this since the concept was more exciting than the reality.”
TB: Yep. I’m with you on this interpretation. Ultimately the film needed to have a moral ending for American audiences. Where the two marriages remain intact and their foursome goes nowhere.
JL: In the end, it is all about the Jackie DeShannon song. What the world needs now is love sweet love. Likely these couples won’t stray further in the future, but if they do, they will always be honest in true Me Decade fashion (and this does feel more like a seventies film in the end rather than a sixties film). The surreal parade scene is every liberal’s dream of a world united in multiple races and genders.
TB: Sorry to burst your bubble, but I still don’t think this film measured up like it should have. It often takes the easy way out. It doesn’t allow the characters to become fully fleshed out, faults and all. The characters aspire to nothing basically and become amoral in a glib sort of cute way. What these four individuals are going through, is not presented in a meaningful treatise, examining possible consequences in a realistic light.
It’s clear to me they had to keep the characters likable at the end, or else these stars’ careers might have come to a screeching halt. I think one of the couples should have gone too far, should have reached the end of their marriage; while the other couple became more reasonable and saved from the debauchery. That is, if they are meant to be true reverse images of each other. Again I think a more mature European filmmaker would have done justice to the story.
Even though it was filmed in the post-code period, it still seems bound by remnants of the production code. And it seems to be too much in keeping with “good taste” which ironically causes a very dishonest version of what this story is. Anyway, since you obviously enjoyed the picture more than I did, I will let you finish things up with a few positive remarks…
JL: Much of this film’s charm for me personally lies in its time-capsule appeal. So many little things on visual display represent what was so “trendy” back at the time of its principal photography (November-December 1968), but now look like ancient relics of a bygone era. Obviously Las Vegas has changed immensely since then. We get at least two subtle digs at the presidential election with one visitor at the California retreat reading a newspaper lampooning LBJ and Nixon (perhaps this scene was shot just after the latter defeated Humphrey and Wallace), followed later by two minor characters discussing whether or not they should have bothered voting (a question expanded upon later in Hal Ashby’s SHAMPOO, set during this exact same time period but filmed post-Watergate).
Meanwhile, a trio of possibly (oh…heck, any modern viewer can see that they definitely are) gay men listen in on a conversation about love and honesty at the restaurant pre-Stonewall. We even get a bit part by Daniel Striped Tiger at a time when Fred Rogers was among the newest faces on TV.
The fashion show is especially impressive, with the false eyelashes and Nehru sweatshirts (not jackets anymore) going out of style between the time cameras stopped rolling and the time it finally hit theaters in September 1969.
Of course, Bob must make sure his love beads are on, shirt or no shirt. However everything that Natalie Wood wears is hip and ahead of its time, especially the plaid pants in our early scenes that would not take the nation by storm for another two years or so. Plus Bob and Carol’s swinging California pad is pretty groovy with a huge dictionary (!?) opened up in the living room. I am guessing that Natalie says “groovy” at least five times on screen, but I will let the experts analyze that specific detail further.
The movie always leaves me with this warm afterglow that is hard to define. I guess it has to do with the wide-eyed innocence of the characters and the movie’s intentions, especially in that final scene of solidarity among all kinds of people. What could be worse to watch on screen?