Admittedly, I knew very little about Carnal Knowledge before I saw it. While I thought it had a good cast, it never seemed like a movie that held much interest for me. Since I've made it a mission to see every movie that has been nominated for a major Oscar (Best Picture, Director, or an acting award), Carnal Knowledge fell on the list of films to see because Ann-Margret garnered one of her two nominations for Best Supporting Actress (her other nomination was for 1975's Tommy, the cinematic adaptation of The Who's rock opera!).
I should know by now to never discount movies from the incredibly fertile 1970s. Carnal Knowledge looks as if it could have been a period piece made in 2014 -- it hasn't aged a bit other than we know the primary actors are now senior citizens. It looks terrific, and even though it is a talkie movie, the script is very well-written.
One of the big reasons why 1970s drama was so successful is that so many of the characters in those movies are textured and deeply flawed. I'm not even sure that I would call any of the characters in Carnal Knowledge likeable -- but they are constantly fascinating. Kudos for Jules Feiffer's incisive script. The story goes that Pfeiffer brought the idea to director Mike Nichols with the hopes of mounting a play. Nichols said he saw the story as a movie. To be honest, it feels like a well-done adaptation of a play to me. There are three defined acts, each building on what has transpired before. Nichols has been such an uncommonly successful Broadway director that it is easy to forget about his strong cinematic successes that include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Silkwood, and Working Girl. Carnal Knowledge can comfortably sit amongst the best of Nichols's film accomplishments. It is an intelligent and daring film that is every bit as timely today as it was in 1971.
Carnal Knowledge tracks the changing sexual mores of mid-20th century America as it examines a pair of college roommates from the late 1940s through the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. The result isn't pretty and there are no happy endings here in this dark drama. While the film never judges the choices that the characters make, it certainly never endorses them either. If the viewer passes judgment on the film -- as any respectable viewer should -- it seems to me that the viewer would have to see traditional morality as a viable (and maybe preferable) option.
The story in a nutshell: College roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel, here billed as Arthur Garfunkel) are virginal college roommates obsessed with getting laid. They both have ideals of the type of woman that interests them. At a mixer, Jonathan challenges Sandy to hit on attractive co-ed Susan (Candice Bergen). Susan is intelligent and possesses a detached demeanor. She and Sandy become friends, and she gives in to his feelings of love for her, though she isn't certain that she feels the same. Jonathan, jealous that Sandy is making headway with Susan, begins to date her behind Sandy's back and eventually sleeps with her before she sleeps with Sandy. Susan professes love for Jonathan but is unwilling to end things with her friend Sandy. Frustrated, Jonathan breaks things off with Susan.
The second act finds Jonathan meeting the sexy, voluptuous Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a woman who seems to epitomize Jonathan's fantasies. Jonathan and Bobbie move in together, and Bobbie discovers that she wants marriage. Jonathan becomes impotent at the thought of that, and their relationship deteriorates as Bobbie succumbs to severe depression and Jonathan grows angry with his life. The situation culminates badly when Sandy shows up with the lady he is having an affair with, and the envious Jonathan suggests that two men swap females for the evening.
Years pass. Middle-aged Sandy's latest conquest is a teenager (Carol Kane), and Jonathan can only get aroused by visiting the prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno) who must roleplay to a very specific script. It seems that Jonathan and Sandy may have won a few battles in the Sexual Revolution, but they certainly lost the war.
The four leads are remarkable. Candice Bergen captures the angst of the brainy Susan as she is torn between the two men in her life who happen to be best friends. It's the type of role in which she was practically typecast at the start of her career, but she handles the adult material beautifully. And Art Garfunkel -- well, who knew he could act? Why didn't he have a bigger screen career? He's perfect as the insecure Sandy and his performance never musters a false note. Nichols is a master of casting and his gutsy choice of Garfunkel pays off handsomely. Ann-Margret is a revelation as Bobbie. Having spent the 1960s in mostly bad movies, she is given a chance to shine in this role of an aging sex kitten who wants a traditional marriage. She succeeds admirably; her performance is complex and riveting.
The center of the film is Jack Nicholson's Jonathan. I could make an argument that Nicholson was the movies' greatest actor for 35 years. I've never seen Carnal Knowledge referred to as one of Nicholson's iconic roles, but it is. Jonathan is a beast of a man. and Nicholson doesn't shy from revealing the layers of ugliness within, all barely underneath the devilish grin and twinkling eyes. When I think of my very favorite Nicholson performances in films like Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Reds, Prizzi's Honor, Ironweed, and About Schmidt, I realize that his performance in Carnal Knowledge could easily stand up to his stellar work in these better-known films. Nicholson truly is an actor of the highest order.
Intellectually, I know that great movies can be made about subjects in which I have little interest. (2001's The Piano Teacher springs to mind.) The more I think about Carnal Knowledge, with its cast of irritating characters making bad choice after bad choice -- well how can I recommend this film? Then my mind is drawn to the stylish filmmaking, the flawless dialogue, and the perfection of the performances, and I realize that Carnal Knowledge is a movie that will stay with me for a very long time. Artistically, it flirts with greatness. Grade: A-.
I watched Carnal Knowledge on DVD on Saturday, April 26, 2014.