Carnal Knowledge is about sex. No, actually, that’s not entirely right. Carnal Knowledge is really about sex without relationships, and sex without eroticism—these are the subjects of Jules Feiffer’s screenplay, and all that the four main characters, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret, ever interact over. In 1971, when the newly liberated cinema was reveling in idyllic coital and near-coital interludes, Carnal Knowledge was an incredibly daring, prophetic, successful and controversial film, no mean feat when one considers that both A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs were in release that same year. Those movies stirred widespread debate about violence, but Mike Nichols hit closer to home with Carnal Knowledge. It upset people about their lives, loves, and lovers—women hated it and Carnal Knowledge made men more defensive about sexuality than any movie in memory.The movie’s success was reminiscent of Nichols’ The Graduate, on a more sophisticated level.
Indeed, Carnal Knowledge owed something to the earlier film—Jules Feiffer’s script seemed to draw from a single, haunting nuance of The Graduate’s final scene: Ben and Elaine, united and riding off together, their expressions suffused with agonizing loneliness and doubt. If The Graduate encapsulated the sexual ethos of the 1960s, Carnal Knowledge was a film for the 1970s, the rude awakening following sexual awakening.In place of Ben Braddock, Carnal Knowledge gives us Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), two Amherst students from the 1940s, whose sexual exploits and ineptitudes mask deeper problems: Jonathan’s inability to relate to women as anything other than sex objects, and Sandy’s incapability of relating to women on anything other than an intellectual level. Into their midst comes Susan (Candice Bergen), a coed who fulfills their limited but ferocious sexual needs and eventually marries Sandy. Twenty years go by, and Sandy is divorced, while Jonathan marries Bobbie (Ann-Margret), an actress whose sole attraction for him is physical. Ultimately, Sandy is left with a teenaged companion (Carol Kane) with whom he can barely communicate, while Jonathan finds solace in reviewing his conquests in between trysts with a prostitute (Rita Moreno), finally arriving at a self-deriding conclusion about life and love: “Maybe schmuckdom is what you need to stay young and open.” Nichols’ treatment of the script is stagey, but also extremely cinematic.
The action is depicted almost entirely in tight and medium shots, but also makes use of some very sophisticated sound and visual edits, overlapping dialogue and picture from adjoining sections in a manner reminiscent of the best moments of The Graduate. In his first major film following his rise to stardom in the relatively modestly conceived Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson gives a ferocious performance as the sexually obsessed, erotically vapid Jonathan, seeking out, using, and casting aside his sexual partners with an abandon that anticipates his devil in The Witches of Eastwick and his Joker in Batman.
Art Garfunkel’s affecting performance as Sandy was one of the movie’s most unexpected virtues. Garfunkel was trying to prove himself as an actor, after six years as one half of the most successful singing duet in music history. His first contact with Nichols had been through the Simon and Garfunkel music used in The Graduate, and he had played Nately, the innocent Air Force officer in Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. His Sandy is a perfect foil for Nicholson’s Jonathan, an all-too-aware and conflicted male presence.Despite the anger with which many feminists greeted Carnal Knowledge, the movie offered two juicy female roles. Candice Bergen had been playing supporting parts in Hollywood beginning with The Group in 1966, but Carnal Knowledge was the first picture in which critics and audiences focused on her acting ability—her gentle, sophisticated-but-conflicted Susan is the most affecting figure in the film, and the one with whom audiences identified the most easily, and very much humanized the movie.
Ann-Margret had started her screen career as a teen sex-kitten, a kind of American Brigitte Bardot, but until Carnal Knowledge she wasn’t taken seriously as an actress. Nichols’ film earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Bobbie, Jonathan’s discarded sexual partner.
None of these accolades shielded Carnal Knowledge from controversy, however—late in 1971, an Athens, Georgia theater owner named Billy Jenkins was convicted of pandering to prurient interest by showing Carnal Knowledge. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the case eventually worked its way up to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the Georgia courts in a landmark 1974 ruling. Carnal Knowledge is a purer work of cinema than The Graduate—without the inclusion of any extraneous detail. Not coincidentally, it was the first film that Nichols produced as well as directed, and it had the added advantage of having been adapted from a play that had never been produced. This left him free to treat it in a manner completely suited to the cinema. In spite of its intense emotional impact, Carnal Knowledge ran a mere 96 minutes, and the only major complaint that critics and audiences alike had was that it was over too quickly. As Vincent Canby of the New York Times put it, in a headline, no less, “I was sorry to see it end.”