‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’: This ’60s Dramedy Shattered Taboos and Went Mainstream

As the 1960s transitioned into the 1970s, America witnessed an unprecedented cultural revolution. The Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, and widespread drug use dramatically transformed the societal norms established in the first half of the 20th century. Hollywood mirrored this upheaval, as aging film moguls handed creative control to young directors eager to reflect contemporary realities. It was in this dynamic climate that Paul Mazursky’s ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ a bold and candid exploration of polyamory, was released by a major studio at the end of the ’60s.

Starring Robert Culp and Natalie Wood as Bob and Carol Sanders, a wealthy couple who embrace openness after a self-help retreat, the film delves into their response to Bob’s affair. Carol’s surprising forgiveness shocks their conservative friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice Henderson (Dyan Cannon). 

Also Read: Kogonada is The Creator of a Top Sci-Fi Film of The 2020s, ‘After Yang’

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Image Courtesy: IMDb

The tension escalates during a vacation in Las Vegas, culminating in a messy group encounter. Despite the passage of time, the film’s insights into midlife crises and marital issues remain strikingly relevant.

Mazursky, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker, made his directorial debut with this film. Before turning to directing, Mazursky had acted in notable films such as Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Fear and Desire’ and Richard Brooks’ ‘Blackboard Jungle.’ By the time he directed ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ Mazursky was nearly 40, married with children, and perfectly poised to examine the adult perspective on the counterculture movement, contrasting with youth-centric films like ‘Easy Rider.’

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Image Courtesy: Prime Videos

‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ uniquely captures its characters navigating personal transitions amidst a nationwide cultural shift. Born in the 1930s, Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice are caught between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. They grapple with their conservative upbringings while trying to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. Their embrace of free love and emotional honesty is a desperate attempt to stave off the encroaching monotony of middle age.

The film addresses the era’s evolving attitudes towards marital infidelity. Unlike traditional secret affairs, the ’60s free love movement saw couples experimenting with open relationships. Mazursky also touches on the Women’s Liberation Movement, highlighting the double standards faced by men and women. 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Image Courtesy: IMDb

Carol’s acceptance of Bob’s infidelity, and her subsequent independence, challenges Bob’s progressive facade. Meanwhile, Alice’s shock at the situation and her proposal of a foursome reveals the complexities of sexual freedom and marital expectations.

‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ was a surprising box office hit, distributed by Columbia Pictures and earning four Oscar nominations. The film’s success was a product of its time, as Hollywood sought relevance with younger audiences. Yet, its themes of gender politics, ageing, and the quest for vitality remain pertinent today. The film ends with the characters wandering Las Vegas to the tune of ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love,’ underscoring the timeless need for love and connection amid societal change.

–Farheen Ali