CARNAL KNOWLEDGE has lost most of what impact it carried in 1971, when its ‘frank’ look at the lifelong friendship of two shallow men ruled by their sexual immaturity seemed to have “something to say” about the emptiness of fantasy and the seductive battlefield of intimate relationships. The 70s hot “new Brando”, 34-year-old Jack Nicholson, had just scored big with Five Easy Pieces and his sly line readings and exciting tantrum displays were fresh. Director Mike Nichols was held in high regard for his precision scalpel steering of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate and to a lesser degree, Catch-22. Writer Jules Feiffer carried a long rap sheet as satiric cartoonist and playwright. Ann-Margret was going to get a chance to actually act.
College pals ‘Jonathan’ (Nicholson) and ‘Sandy’ (Art Garfunkle) get together over two decades, from the late 1940s, when they lost their virginity, to their own 40s in the 1960s. In callous, self-serving chatter, they compare their lives, chiefly through the lens of sex and their parade of discarded girlfriends and wives. It’s a catalog of acid bitterness, self-pity and cringe-inducement from the first minute until the 98th closes it down. One’s a lawyer, one’s a doctor, but all we ever know about either shallow jerk are their playdough attitudes relating to sex and the pursuit of what they assume ought to go with it in terms of emotional satisfaction, stability and fulfillment. None of which they can keep for long when it appears in the guise of the women in the story, those merely discussed (and cruelly dismissed) and the five who appear in different vignettes. It’s slick, glib, offensive and lop-sided. The actors nail moments, but that’s all, there’s no there there, because Feiffer and Nichols didn’t have it to start with. A great first date movie if you want to make sure you won’t have a second, it just amounts to self-punishment, insulting to men who are supposed to be represented by these thinly sketched creeps and to women, both on & off-screen, who have to sit through their fumbling, whining and abuse. Like gargling pepper. Instead of condos, these guys belong in caves.
Garfunkle is okay, Nicholson readily dominates. The women, in order: Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Cynthia O’Neal, Carol Kane, Rita Moreno. Bergen comes off nicely, especially in a scene where she’s laughing hysterically—it looks genuine. She serves her purpose as cypher and then disappears. O’Neal is cool and unsettling, there to be a predator cat. Hippie-girl Kane has no dialogue, just making an appearance as an era signpost.
Moreno’s fadeout cameo as a hooker is particularly degrading, a literal low-blow. Best ingredient in the sour mash is the surprisingly good work from a brave, open-book Ann-Margret (and yes, she has some ‘special-effects’ padding going on), whose poignant ‘Bobbi’ gets the worst of Nicholson’s spite. Part door-prize, part doormat, the decent Bobbi can’t win with a bastard like Jonathan, who can’t get closer to a heart than the chest covering it. She was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, a deserved and welcome bravo after years of dispiriting work in lame projects. Crowds turned up for the blistering arguments, making it the 8th most popular film of the year, earning $28,623,000. It’s hard to see this as a movie that couples bonded over, but rather one where “let’s talk” discussions ended with a succinct two-word finish. *
* 1971 was stuffed with boundary-pushing fare that had audiences shifting uncomfortably in their seats even while their eyes were glued to the screen: The French Connection, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, Death In Venice, The Hospital, The Devils, Klute, The Beguiled, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, Shaft, Straw Dogs, The Last Picture Show.