Underrated Movie #62: Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Title: Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice
Year: 1969
Director: Paul Mazursky (Next Stop, Greenwich Village)
Writers: Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker
Stars: Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon

The Story: Bob and Carol are a laid-back middle class couple who attend a consciousness-raising seminar and then insist that everyone they know get in touch with their feelings. Their uptight friends Ted and Alice are initially repulsed, but then they begin if maybe they could use a little liberation too.

How it Came to be Underrated: It’s got a great title, but it’s too easy to dismiss this as just “that wife-swapping comedy” when there’s actually a lot more going on here. Retroactive “shockers” like The Ice Storm and “Swingtown” are already more dated than this perceptive and thoughtful satire.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Mazursky and Tucker had written I Love You Alice B. Toklas, which was turned into one of those condescending “Let’s fool around with the hippie generation and then condemn them” comedies that aging Hollywood directors churned out in the late sixties. Mazursky wasn’t happy with the result and decided to start directing his own work. The result was a movie that was the absolute opposite of those clunkers. The satire is wicked but the empathy for everyone and what they’re going through is enormous.
  2. Like Closer, this was an acting showcase that created what was probably the career-best performance for all four stars. The late Culp shows us so much more grit and depth here than he ever did on "I Spy". Cannon gets a rare chance to be much more than a bimbo. But it’s really Wood’s movie. Her vulnerability is intense.
  3. How cutting edge was this movie? It was the greatest satire of America in the 1970s even though it was made in 1969! Southern California has always been ahead of the country in terms of trends, and here they were giving the country a flashforward to the coming of EST and the hi-fi and gazpacho and Acapulco Gold.
  4. Mazursky wrote one of my favorite filmmaking memoirs, “Show Me the Magic”, where he tells a lot of great stories about the journey to make this movie and the rest of his career. He’s one of the few screenwriting memoirists who manages to make his own story just as compelling and funny as anything he put on screen.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Natalie Wood first showed her sexy-sophisticated side in Love With the Proper Stranger. Fun fact: co-writer Tucker played the creepy gun dealer in Blast of Silence.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with commentary and a documentary.

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Underrated Movie #38: Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Title: Next Stop, Greenwich Village
Year: 1976
Director: Paul Mazursky
Writer: Paul Mazursky
Stars: Lenny Baker, Shelly Winters, Ellen Greene, Lois Smith, Chris Walken

The Story: A jokey would-be actor leaves his smothering mother behind in Brooklyn and makes a life for himself in the burgeoning bohemia of 1953 Greenwich Village. (His rent? $25 a month.)

How it Came to be Underrated: I have no idea why Mazursky is no longer a household name, or how his half-dozen masterpieces have come to be forgotten. Discovering his work is like finding a lost treasure trove of collaborations between Woody Allen and Robert Altman.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Mazursky is lovingly recreating his own coming-of-age here. People are wary of autobiographical films with good reason. Most filmmakers can’t resist the temptation to settle old scores and/or live out their fantasies of what should have happened. Mazursky does nothing of the sort. Baker-as-Mazursky is portrayed neither as a heroic martyr nor a misunderstood genius, just a sympathetic schmuck learning his lessons in the school of hard knocks.
  2. The movie is fueled by a star-making lead performance from the great Lenny Baker. Unfortunately, he died a few years later from cancer without ever reaping the benefits. Every performance is great, including a very young-looking Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum.
  3. The period art direction is all-enveloping and sumptuous. This is a very believable lost world of coffeehouses, rent parties, and method-acting workshops. Adding to the hundreds of period details is a great jazz score largely lifted from Dave Brubeck records.
  4. Mazursky’s comedy is so sly that it almost slips by you. He quietly gets away with some outrageous things, like when Baker, at his deli job, finds out his girlfriend is pregnant while he’s cramming a carrot into a juicer.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Mazursky wrote and directed a lot of great movies during this period. You can’t go wrong with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice or Harry and Tonto.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to Watch Instantly, though the instant version seems slightly distorted.

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