‘Carnal Knowledge’: Mike Nichols’ Expert Demystification of Sex and Relationships

Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel ‘French kissing,’ Carnal Knowledge, Canada, 1970. Still photographer: Mary Ellen Mark

By Sven Mikulec

When it hit the theaters in the early summer of 1971, Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge by all means left a deep impression. The story of two men observed through a period of about twenty years, from their college-roommate days to their mid-forties, is a raw, bitter, honest and completely disarming depiction and a brave, uncompromising study of sex, male psychology, chauvinism and the tragic habit of objectifying one’s potential sexual partners. As such, the film was too much for some to bear: several American newspapers decided not to advertise it and the picture was labeled too controversial to be shown in Italian theaters, but the event most suggestive of the shocking impact of Nichols’ film was the fact that a cinema operator in Georgia had to go to court, convicted of distributing obscene material. Luckily enough, the Supreme Court did not sympathize with the conviction, seeing Carnal Knowledge for what it actually was—an intelligent piece of filmmaking in which camouflaged sex scenes and direct nudity had a function much nobler than being a cheap shortcut to the audience’s attention and commercial success.

Written by playwright Jules Ffeifer, who first envisioned the material as a play, but Nichols convinced him of its cinematic potential, Carnal Knowledge is a highly insightful, wittily penned and capably acted depiction of the sexually liberated sixties and seventies in the American society. The characters of Jack Nicholson, who plays a rough womanizer whose only vital criterion in choosing sexual partners is the size of their breasts, and the celebrated folk-rock singer Art Garfunkel as Nicholson’s shy, intellectual friend romantic to a fault, are representatives of millions of ordinary guys all over the world. Completely different in character, desires and aspirations, these two men are equally miserable, as they stumble through relationships, marriages and intense short-lived affairs (excellent performances from Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen) only to wind up dissatisfied and lonely. As different as they may seem, they both suffer the consequences of objectifying women and being unable to accept their partners as full-blooded persons with their own desires, hopes and interests. Shot by the great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who worked with Fellini on no less than eight occasions, and edited by Nichols’ favorite editor Sam O’Steen (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22, Silkwood), Carnal Knowledge is one of the most important movies of the period and a picture that definitely contributed to the praiseworthy demystification of sex and relationships on the silver screen.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Jules Feiffer’s screenplay for Carnal Knowledge [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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JULES FEIFFER (cartoonist, who wrote the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge): “I was working at a schlock cartoon studio called Terrytoons. I came home one night and had my usual dinner, tuna noodle casserole, and I had (the live television show) Omnibus on, and Alistair Cooke, the M.C., introduced this new young couple, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. I mean, it was as if I had thought this up, except it was funnier and better. I didn’t know there was anybody working this vein except me. At the end of it, I said, I have to meet these guys.

He said, There’s a guy named Nicholson in (the 1969 movie) Easy Rider—have you seen it? I said no. So I went. I didn’t like the movie, and I didn’t like Jack Nicholson. Mike said, Trust me, he’s going to be our most important actor since Brando, and I trusted him. And I worried if Candy Bergen (in Carnal Knowledge) was good enough, and he said, Trust me, and I trusted him. Over and over again I would have my doubts, and over and over again he proved right.” —Mike Nichols’s Life and Career: The Definitive Oral History

Jack Nicholson talks to the BBC in 1982 about Carnal Knowledge and his relationships with women. Originally broadcast in Film ’82 on 18 January 1982.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols took part in a lively conversation with Jason Reitman back in June 2011 at the Walter Reade Theater, discussing his 1971 film Carnal Knowledge and other topics. Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Nichols was very open and willing to share some of the fun anecdotes from the set, a shoot which he described as the most enjoyable he’s had in his career. According to Nichols, the morale on the set was always high and everyone seemed to get along perfectly with one another. Days would end at three or four in the afternoon, and usually included leisurely meals at restaurants. “Jack had some nude scenes,” revealed the director. “They’re not in the film anymore but they were hilarious. He’d go up and say, ‘Alright! Here comes Steve, get ready for him!’ and he’d make such a fool of himself that everyone else would be cool.”

Nichols came upon Carnal Knowledge after a trio of strong films to start his career. The success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Catch 22 gave the filmmaker the opportunity to take more risks with his next film. “It was one of the few films where I knew exactly what I was going to do as soon as I read it.” The result was a film that, according to Reitman, is more controversial today than it was upon its original release. —Jason Reitman and Mike Nichols Discuss Carnal Knowledge

CYNTHIA O’NEAL: “You know, Brando was obsessed with Carnal Knowledge. He watched it over and over. He just was mesmerized by that film.” —Mike Nichols’s Life and Career: The Definitive Oral History

Neil LaBute pays tribute to the precision and boldness of Mike Nichols’ vision in Carnal Knowledge—a film he admits he has borrowed from freely: “I’m seeing again how Nichols’ visual sense is shaped by form, repetition of images, and patterns. I so admire his control in all things—his actors, his color palette, his movements of the camera. His rigorous simplicity rivals Antonioni in this film, and yet he doesn’t feel like the smart, obnoxious kid in the back of film class who knows everything about European cinema. He feels to me like a man who came from the world that spawned him—the theater. I think he found a way to bridge the invisible but yawning gap between the stage and the screen. He created a singular cinema that didn’t look or feel like anybody else’s. The man was a true pioneer.” —Master at Work

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark © Embassy Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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