News and Commentary – Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge

Mid Century Cinema favorite Mike Nichols would have turned eighty-five on November 6.  We have previously celebrated each of his first two films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Graduate (1967), so on this occasion we thought we would take a look at another one of his best—one of the milestones of the New Hollywood, Carnal Knowledge (1971).  Written by Jules Feiffer, Carnal Knowledge was enormously controversial in its time, for two reasons.  First, even though the movie actually doesn’t show much by way of flesh, at one screening in Georgia the film was seized and the theater’s owner arrested.  Charged with (and convicted for) “distributing obscene material,” the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia, a ruling eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974—something to think about these days when the social commitment to freedom of expression seems to be eroding.

Less frightening but of greater interest here, Carnal Knowledge was also a lightning rod for criticism, especially from some feminist scholars, one of whom described the movie as “vicious” and which articulated a “one sided, contemptuous view of female sexuality.”  In Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, I argued that the film was more reflective of New Hollywood sensibilities that challenged the motives and behavior of all of its characters. “Carnal Knowledge may not love its women,” I wrote, “but it hates its men,” a position closer to Pauline Kael’s assessment that there is “an element of punishment in the movie’s social criticism,” and that the picture “never [lets the men] win a round.”  Still, it is a great movie, worth revisiting.

Carnal Knowledge follows the long, evolving friendship of Jonathan and Sandy (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) that begins early in their college years and continues through compromised middle age.  Just as centrally, the film explores how the two friends navigate, together and separately, the changing nature of relations between men and women in that tumulus quarter century from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.  Those women include Susan (Candice Bergen), pursued by both collegiate men in a triangular relationship frought with duplicity, and Bobbie (Ann Margaret, outstanding), whose deeply dysfunctional relationship with Jonathan dominates the middle third of the film.  (Carole Kane makes her big screen debut near the end.)

Candice Bergen’s performance – arguably still her finest – carries the first third of the film, and it is a loss when Nichols and Feiffer send her packing off-screen.  But despite its bracing, ambitious take on gender relations, it is the fraying friendship of Jonathan and Sandy that provides Carnal Knowledge’s center of gravity.  Nichols captures this with a notable stylistic shift in the film’s second movement, where conversations between the two men are presented as detached speeches, which contrasts sharply with the shared-screen banter that previously characterized their more intimate relationship.

Another seventies film to argue about—and not to be missed.

Carnal Triangle

Sandy Makes a Pass at Susan, Jonathan Keeps an Eye on the Action


Carnal Knowledge, J & S

Susan, with Jonathan . . . "I feel like nothing"


Carnal Sight

Love at First Sight . . . As it Were


Carnal Downhill

Happily Ever After?


Carnal Exit

Things Fall Apart


Jonathan and Sandy

Still Friends After all These Years.  More or Less.