When Paul Mazursky’s directorial debut Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released 50 years ago, it was a sensation. The tale of two married couples and their sexual and social awakenings was nominated for four Academy Awards, became the fifth-highest grossing film of 1969, inspired a short-lived ABC sitcom of the same name, and led to multiple other films exploring infidelity and sexual experimentation. What Pauline Kael called “a slick, whorey movie” was, at the time, one of American cinema’s most progressive, racy explorations of a nonmonogamous relationship. A half-century later, it clearly reads ahead of its time—and even, perhaps, ahead of ours.
At the beginning of the film, Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol Sanders (Natalie Wood) attend an Esalen-style retreat, learning to embrace radical honesty. When they return, their more conservative friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice Henderson (Dyan Cannon) are flummoxed by their New Age attitudes—especially when Bob admits he had an affair, and Carol is surprisingly OK with it. Something similar happens when Carol has sex with someone else: Bob initially reacts with rage, then realizes the act was purely physical and accepts it. These are the only two infidelities we personally witness in the film, but it’s suggested that Bob and Carol have an understanding now: Anything goes, as long as it’s just physical, and as long as they’re completely honest with each other. They love and trust each other, so why deny what they want?
When Bob & Carol first came out in 1969, it was regarded as a satire at the height of the sexual revolution, meant to lampoon the kind of trendy free-love ethos of the time. Mazursky draws huge laughs from Bob and Carol’s exaggerated acceptance of each other’s affairs—they almost seem to be competing to one-up each other’s enlightenment, as when Bob warmly shares a drink with the terrified man Carol just slept with in their bed. Mazursky likely didn’t intend the film as an explicit endorsement or normalization of nonmonogamous relationships.
Today, though, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice still goes much further than most similar films. Few contemporary studio films feature nonmonogamous relationships, and the ones that do tend to make them a punchline. Movies like the 2012 Paul Rudd–Jennifer Aniston comedy Wanderlust, set at a hippie commune full of cartoonish characters, make practitioners of free love the “other.” Invariably, these movies tease the possibility of their monogamous protagonists becoming more sexually open, but back down before any serious bridges are crossed, returning them to their monogamous comfort zones. Similarly, 2017’s Rough Night features an open married couple played by Ty Burrell and Demi Moore who are full-on clichés: nude sunbathing on the porch, naked bust sculptures on the sideboard, and creepy overstepping at every possible opportunity. These depictions make the idea of finding sexual outlets outside a marriage seem not only kooky but lewd and inappropriate.
What recent films do depict nonmonogamous relationships with heart and nuance are made with smaller budgets, for smaller audiences. Also in 2017, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women told the story of psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their polyamorous life partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). The film follows the beats of a conventional historical biopic but tells a surprisingly blunt and nonjudgmental story. Before the trio’s relationship is outed to the public, the movie luxuriates in the beauty of its unusual but beautiful life: Both women bear children by Marston, and the trio raises their four children together in blissful harmony. The film, unsurprisingly, had a very limited release and earned a fraction of Rough Night’s take at the box office.
Another recent bright spot is the 2015 sex comedy The Overnight, one of the movies most obviously indebted to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Written and directed by Patrick Brice, typically a director of horror films (he helmed the two Creep movies), The Overnight has been referred to as “a horror movie where sex is the monster.” But as Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are slowly persuaded into a foursome with their new friends Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), they learn to open their minds, to embrace adventure in their sex lives. In the process, they become more confident, not just about their marriage but about themselves. The Overnight was seen by even fewer people in theaters than Professor Marston.
No movie since has replicated Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which made tens of millions while also depicting an open marriage as potentially liberating. Mazursky and Larry Tucker’s script may take advantage of the inherent humor that can arise from the scenario, but the film never does anything to suggest Bob and Carol’s arrangement is delusional or harmful to either of them. Even as it pokes fun at its subjects, it never condemns open relationships or suggests Bob and Carol’s openness conceals a deep well of rage and jealousy just waiting to come out. Instead, the movie is realistic about both its male characters’ and its female characters’ extramarital desires, radically suggesting there might be real benefits to an open relationship between unjealous partners.
The film does use Ted and Alice, its other central couple, to show that open marriages wouldn’t work for everyone. When Ted confesses to Bob that he is still haunted by an affair he almost had, Bob replies, “You got the guilt anyway. Don’t waste it.” Bob thinks that since healthy experimentation worked for him and Carol, anyone should be able to take what they want. Of course, Ted learns the wrong lesson and has an affair, perhaps assuming Alice wouldn’t mind just because Carol didn’t. And in the film’s iconic climax, featured on most of its posters, Alice suggests the four of them take this way of thinking to the logical extreme: by having a foursome.
Ultimately, the film keeps its two couples together and backs down from exploring the actual possibility of spouse-swapping, and it ends with a celebration of its two central couples. But the movie never rejects their exploration, its jokes about free love more harmless fun than serious critique. When Carol expresses regret at bringing her lover (her and Alice’s tennis instructor Horst) into their own home earlier in the film, for example, Bob hilariously comforts her, saying, “I didn’t have your kind of courage. I had to do it in a cheap hotel room in San Francisco. You brought him right into your own home.” In any other context, it might read an expression of a cuckolded man’s fury at his wife’s brazen unfaithfulness, but what makes the line funny is that Bob isn’t angry—he genuinely admires his wife’s boldness in sleeping with another man in their bed.
The ending shows that this isn’t some shallow cautionary tale meant to ruthlessly skewer openness and honesty. Rather, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice depicts one of the most successful fictional examples of an open relationship, showing that being open doesn’t make a loving marriage any less real. This is a movie about people trying to connect while still being realistic about what they need from each other—and what one partner can’t always provide. It may be 50 years old, but it still has something to teach us.