Carnal Knowledge (1971): Mike Nichols Most Interesting Film, Starring Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret

Mike Nichols’ 1971 Carnal Knowledge, arguably his best film, is based on a scenario by caricaturist-writer Jules Feiffer, who first wrote the text for the stage.

The film attacks sexism–specifically norms of masculinity–in a provocative, funny, and satirical approach that’s ultimately gets deeply depressing.

At the time of its release, “Carnal Knowledge” was dismissed as too nasty, and many reviewers failed to see the satirical-comedic elements of the text.  Decades later, it stands as a testament of the mores of its time, as well as (arguably) Mike Nichols’ most interesting and mot fully realized picture.

Admittedly tough material, which changes tone as the story unfolds, it’s a biting comedy, just like Jules Feiffer’s previous work, “Little Murders,” which was also misunderstood.

As satirists, Feiffer and Nichols make their points by deliberate exaggeration and conscious stereotyping: “Carnal Knowledge” is a candid film, made by men, looking at sex and gender roles from a strictly male POV.

The film depicts a whole gamut of male desires, from outrageous fantasies to self-delusion, from self-aggrandizement and the pursuit of sex as conquest all the way to self-contempt and self-doubt, ending on a sour note by depicting sex as a mechanical and meaningless transaction.

Though sprawling, Feiffer and Nichols’s film maintains a tightly focused look on friendship between two men, played by Jack Nicholson and singer-turned actor Art Garfunkel.  In the process, they offer merciless dissection of the two men’s evolving (and devolving) libido, sexual, and personal lives.

Jonathan (Nicholson) and Sandy (Garfunkel) first meet as undergraduates at Amherst College in the 1940s, and they continue to be in touch for the next three decades, up until the point when they enter a rather bleak middle-age.

Depicting prevalent sex and gender roles in American society during those crucial decades, the film describes their sexual fantasies and how they are contradicted by the realities of post-WWII middle-class America. In the process, we get to see the men’s victories and defeats, confusions, and compromises.

Nicholson plays what could be described as the Don Juan role, a bright but insensitive and selfish macho man, very much a product (and victim) of his socialization and social milieu. He’s contrasted with Sandy, a more sensitive and intellectual type, who talks about Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel, “The Fountainhead” and other books, and likes Bach for music.

The film’s battle of the sexes is a far cry from the Spencer Tracy and  Katharine Hepburn comedies of the 1940s and 1950 (“Woman of the Year,” “Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike,” “Desk Set”), many of which were written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor.

For some critics, such as Andrew Dowdy, the film shows the long-range damage of what could be described as “Tit Culture,” reflected in Jonathan’s monologue of how he almost got married, but the girl gravely lacked 2 inches on her tits and 3 inches on her hips.

Hailing from night clubs and legit theater, Nichols is an expert at staging dialogue scenes, which he often shoots in close-ups to serve his actors.  Lacking a conventional (linear) plot, “Carnal Knowledge” contains many accurate and poignant scenes and just as many that are simply cruel or too brief to make a point.

Good production values evoke the mood of the various decades through set design, music, and wardrobe; Garfunkel wears sandals and sports a more casual look than Jonathan. Irony abounds as in the scene when Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson are fighting in bed, while the TV screen shows “20,000,000 Sweethearts” with Dick Powell singing Ill String Along With You.

The performances of the entire quartet are good. You may argue with the casting Nicholson as a successful tax attorney, and Garfunkel as a physician, but both give creditable performances. Candice Bergen, easily the film’s most sympathetic character, plays a Smith College girl in a plaid skirt and loafers. Too bad that she disappears from the film’s second half.

Giving what’s her best dramatic performance, Ann-Margret, usually seen in musicals and romantic comedies, scores big as Jonathan’s on-and-off mistress, Bobbie Templeton, a coquettish yet insecure woman whose desperate needs to be loved sometimes bring out the worst in her, like aggressive, unappealing neediness.

Also excellent inn smaller roles are Cynthia O’Neal, as an aggressive New York career girl.  Sandy relates how she “gives instructions in bed as if she were a drill sergeant.”

Rita Moreno is cast as a woman who services Jonathan, now reduced to an unfeeling, borderline impotent man, in what may be the film’s harshest scene in terms of critiquing male chauvinism.

It’s noteworthy that “Carnal Knowledge” was released just as the nascent feminist movement began to have some voice in the reality of American life.

Many critics deemed the language too strong, and the film was so controversial that it was argued all the way to the Supreme Court.  In 1974, the Court ruled that the movie is not obscene.

After a great beginning with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) and “The Graduate,” Nichols, Hollywood’s new genius, stumbled with “Catch 22” and “The Fortune,” which were commercial flops.  This might explain why he took time off of the big screen, making a winning comeback in 1983 with the social-issue biopic, “Silkwood,” starring Meryl Streep.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actress: Ann-Margret.

Oscar Context

The winner, however, was vet actress Cloris Leachman for Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.”


Released by Avco Embassy