Saturday, December 31, 2016


In today's digitized, high-definition world—in which real-life, flesh and blood humans from the most mundane walks of life willingly subject themselves to near-medieval levels of torture in an effort to achieve the burnished, robo-mannequin sheen of Photoshopped magazine covers—I don't think it's possible to lampoon our culture's extreme youth-addiction and obsession with physical perfection. 
Happily, in1992 (ten years before Botox, and back when Cher and Michael Jackson were the reigning poster kids for plastic surgery excess), director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump) made this demented and dark comedy which broadly burlesques contemporary society's two most dominant religions: the worship of beauty and the fear of aging.
"Wrinkled, wrinkled little star...hope they never see the scars."
In the original screenplay, the line was "Wrinkle, wrinkle, go away, come again on Doris Day."
The exact words Elizabeth Taylor said to her reflection in The Mirror Crack'd (1980).

In this self-professed nod to Tales from the Crypt (the comic-book-based HBO anthology series for whom Zemeckis co-produced and occasionally directed), Death Becomes Her is a comedy-of-the-grotesque cartoon that posits the dream of eternal youth as an upscale zombie nightmare. Set in a baroque,  just-barely exaggerated vision of Beverly Hills where the thunderclaps and lightning flashes all hit their marks and know their cues, Death Becomes Her spans 51 years (1978 to 2029) in chronicling the ongoing competition between two college frenemies. A bitter rivalry every bit as combative and twice as deadly as Batman vs. Superman…only with better dialogue.
Meryl Streep as Madeline Ashton
Bruce Willis as Dr. Ernest Menville
Goldie Hawn as Helen Sharp
Isabella Rossellini as Lisle Von Rhuman
Former Radcliffe classmates Madeline Ashton (Mad for short) and Helen Sharp (Hel for keeps) are the kind of friends that only a shared alma mater could produce. Though we ultimately come to learn that they are but two antagonistic sides of the same counterfeit coin, when first glimpsed, the artificial Madeline and the apprehensive Helen couldn't be more dissimilar, appearing to be friends in name only. 
Plain-Jane Helen, an aspiring author of diffident, soft-spoken character, unconcerned with appearance, has a history of having her boyfriends stolen by the ostentatiously glamorous Madeline. Madeline, an obscenely shallow, superhumanly self-enchanted actress of questionable talent, is all surface charm and charisma, but otherwise appears totally devoid of a single redeeming character trait. She concerns herself with looks and appearances to the exclusion of all else. 
"Tell me, you think I'm starting to NEED you?"
The women's heated rivalry temporarily assumes the guise of a romantic triangle when beginning-to-show-her-age Madeline sets her sights upon (and effortlessly steals) Helen's fiancé, the bland-but-gifted Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Ernest Menville. Of course, there's no romance to this romantic triangle at all, what with Madeline's interest in the colorless dolt being solely of the self-serving variety (she gets to assert her desirability superiority over Helen while simultaneously securing a lifetime of free nip/tuck services); but this last-straw betrayal by both fiancé and friend proves enough to send poor milquetoast Helen right over the edge. 
What's The Matter With Helen?
Cue the passage of fourteen years. Everybody is miserable, and nobody winds up with what they thought they wanted. Madeline, career and looks in decline, is blatantly unfaithful to husband Ernest, and goes to Norma Desmond extremes to stay young. Meanwhile, emasculated Ernest has succumbed to alcoholism and is reduced to plying his surgical skills on corpses. 
But it's Helen who rises like an Avenging Angel from the doughnut-crumbed, canned-frosting ruins of her nervous breakdown. Magnificently svelte, newly glamorized, channeling her inner Madeline, and, after several years of therapy, imbued with a Dolly Levi-esque sense of purpose ("For I've got a goal again! I've got a drive again! I'm gonna feel my heart coming alive again!"). Naturally, Helen's goals aren't near as lofty or honorable as those of that musical matchmaker: Helen's newfound purpose is to reclaim her life by eradicating Madeline's.
Hel Goes Mad and Dedicates Her Life To Making Mad's Life Hell
Alas, Helen's strength of resolve is all well and good, but homicidally speaking, the best-laid plans of mice and men are doomed to failure when the man in question (Ernest) is an indisputable mouse. By the same token, it's not the best idea to wage a to-the-death battle when both combatants, thanks to the supernatural intervention of a raven-haired sorceress and her immortality potion, can't really die.
I saw Death Becomes Her for the first time on cable TV in the mid-'90s, and I immediately regretted never having seen it in a theater. I thought it was outrageously funny, and I imagined seeing it with an audience would have been an experience similar to my first time seeing What's Up, Doc?: the laughter being so loud and continuous, you have to see the film twice to pick up all the lost dialogue. I've no idea if public response to Death Becomes Her was anywhere near as vociferous (it's a weird little film), but I found it to be one of the most consistently funny comedies I'd seen since the '70s heyday of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, & Madeline Kahn.

Incorporating comic book sensibilities and B-horror movie tropes into a dark satire of those frozen-in-time animatronic waxworks endemic to the environs of Beverly Hills, Death Becomes Her provides director Robert Zemeckis an ideal vehicle to indulge his fondness for absurdist special effects. The screenplay, a best-of-both-worlds/Frankenstein collaboration between TV sitcom writer Martin Donovan (That Girl, The MTM Show) and action/adventure writer Martin Koepp- (Jurassic Park, Mission impossible), deftly maintains a balance of broad action (think Tex Avery cartoons or Bugs vs. Daffy Looney Tunes) and oversized characterizations.  
Late-director Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)
contributes a hilarious unbilled cameo 

Which brings me to Death Becomes Her's most vital attribute: its cast. Streep, Hawn, and Willis—talented professionals all—had, at this stage in their careers, fallen into that movie star rut of delivering precisely what was expected of them, nothing more. A look back at their film output during this time reveals each actor contributing reliable-but-unexceptional performances in so-so films. Professional, journeyman-like performances devoid of either spark or surprise.
But Death Becomes Her—in casting against type—taps into something fresh in each of them. With abandon, they lose themselves in the outlandish, outsized characters they're called on to play, blowing away the cobwebs of predictability from their individual screen personas. Together they form an unholy trinity of bad behavior while treating us to the liveliest, most unexpected, enjoyably over-the-top emoting of their careers.
Madder' n Hell
(Mad, Ern, & Hel)

When television broadcasts changed from analog to digital, and I purchased my first HDTV, one of my strongest recollections is of how dazzlingly crisp and clear it the images were. Simultaneously, how clinically unforgiving it was to human beings.
Television programs I had grown used to watching in their natural, fuzzy state were suddenly all so clear! The images so sharp I could make out the weave knit twill fibers in Fred Mertz's jacket.
But my lord, the havoc it played with people's faces. It was like you were looking at everyone through a dermatologist's magnifying glass—bringing to mind that line from Cukor's The Women "Good grief! I hate to tell you, dear, but your skin makes the Rocky Mountains look like chiffon velvet!" 
Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep- two longtime favorites of mine,
really come alive as zombies
I don't know what it was like elsewhere, but the cumulative effect HDTV had on local Los Angeles newscasters and even minor TV personalities was to have men and women scrambling to the plastic surgeons in a mad rush reminiscent of the final reel to The Day of the Locust
Over the last decade or so, the already youth and looks-obsessed entertainment industry has seen a normalization of the kind of rampant surgical restructuring that once caused Mickey Rourke and Cher so much tabloid grief. The artificially enhanced appearance has now grown so common, it has become its own aesthetic.
What Price Beauty?
And while everybody seems fine with health-related elective surgeries like dental and Lasik, people still harbor strong opposing opinions about those who turn to medical science in order to turn back the clock, retard the aging process, or sculpt and reconfigure themselves to fit a particular beauty standard.
Death Becomes Her is no serious treatise on our culture's preoccupation with youth and slavish devotion to beauty, but by addressing these hot-button issues in a comical, larger-than-life framework—it manages to be one of the sharpest and to-the-point commentaries committed to film.

Broad, farcical comedy of the sort employed in Death Becomes Her is awfully hard to pull off (1991's Soapdish comes to mind…unfavorably). In fact, the main reason I didn't see Death Becomes Her when it was released was because the trailer so turned me off. Not only did it look far too exaggerated and silly (it recalled Streep's She-Devil, a film I absolutely hated), but in addition: I never much cared for Bruce Willis; Goldie Hawn's post-Private Benjamin output had grown increasingly derivative, and the continued forays into comedy by Streep-the-Serious (Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life) had the effect of subduing her talent, not showcasing it. 
It surprises me a bit to glance over Bruce Willis' long list of credits on IMDB and come to the conclusion that Mortal Thoughts (1991) and Death Becomes Her are the only films of his I like. He's so good here. Funny and touching, he provides a grounded emotional contrast to his co-stars' magnificent maliciousness

But what always brings me back to rewatching Death Becomes Her is how all the elements gel so smoothly. Everyone from composer Alan Silvestri to the film's vast army of FX wizards are all on the same darkly comic book page. Best of all, the actors and their pitch-perfect performances are never dwarfed by the dated but still-impressive special effects.
The comedy is perhaps too dark to be to everyone's taste, likewise the tone of exaggerated non-reality. But for me, all these disparate elements coalesce to create a howlingly funny film that feels like a major studio version of those reveling-in-bad-taste underground/counterculture comedies like Andy Warhol's BAD or John Waters' Female Trouble (which could serve as Death Becomes Her's subtitle).
The arresting Isabella Rossellini is a special effect all unto herself.
Alluring and dangerous, she is a dynamic, indelible force in her brief scenes.

A major highlight of Death Becomes Her is getting to see the great Madeline Ashton in full diva-fabulous mode appearing onstage in a misguided musical version of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. A play, appropriately enough, about an aging star making a comeback. The time is 1978, and, as described in the screenplay, our first glimpse of 40-ish Madeline is of her "Singin' and dancin' up a storm seemingly without benefit of training in singin' or dancin'."
The song she's singing is a riotously vainglorious paean to self, titled "Me," and the accompanying dance production number is a garish compendium of every star-gets-hoisted-about-by-chorus-boys Broadway musical cliché in the book. The number is terrible—from the song itself to the costuming, choreography (they break into "The Hustle" at one uproarious point), and the over-emphasized "stereotypically gay" voices of the chorus boys—and therefore, it's also absolutely brilliant.
What's great about the number is that without benefit of inserting any intentionally comedic elements (save for a ceaselessly shedding feather boa), it manages to be side-splittingly funny and cheesy as all get-out merely by channeling any number of '70s variety shows. As a quick glance at YouTube will attest, this isn't a spoof or parody at all. Nothing about Madeline's dance routine would be out of place on an episode of The Hollywood Palace, The Ed Sullivan Show, or take-your-pick Mitzi Gaynor TV special.
Although Madeline is supposed to be awful, Streep is actually quite marvelous. Her musicality and phrasing are spot on. Her movements are sharp, she never misses a beat with any of her gestures, and there's an effortlessness to the number of small bits of comic business she's able to insert into the performance without ever losing her stride. What really makes the number so hysterically funny is the level of Las Vegas showroom self-satisfaction Madeline radiates throughout. In her mind, she is clearly laying them in the aisles. The joy she takes in her own wonderfulness and sincere obliviousness to just how ridiculous the number is makes for a priceless moment in wince-inducing musical cinema.
The first time I saw Streep perform "Me," what immediately popped into mind was the 1986 Academy Awards telecast. That was the year Teri Garr opened the show with a truly cringe-worthy production number around the song Flying Down To Rio that was every bit as atrocious as Madeline's First Act closer (even down to the same tearaway skirt and hyperactive chorus boys). Further cementing the recollection: Meryl Streep, who was nominated that year for Out of Africa, when interviewed about the show afterward, expressed her enjoyment of Garr's performance and her wish to someday be invited to sing and dance in a production number like it. She got her wish.
Late actress Alaina Reed (Sesame Street, 227) as the psychologist
who inadvertently sets Helen on her murderous course 

Like Sweet Charity, Fatal Attraction, and the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, Death Becomes Her is a film whose original ending was jettisoned due to unfavorable preview response.
Grotesquely disfigured and unable to maintain themselves with any level of precision,
Madeline & Helen attend Ernest's funeral in the year 2029
In the original version, after escaping from Lisle's, Ernest fakes his death. He runs off with Toni (Tracey Ullman, the entirety of whose footage ended up on the cutting room floor), a sympathetic owner of a local bar he frequented. Jump ahead 27 years, Madeline and Helen, still beautiful and perfect, are in the Swiss Alps, bored with life and each other's company. In the distance, they glimpse an old, hunched-over, toddling married couple. Madeline comments on how pathetic they are; Helen, as she watches them walk away, hand in liver-spotted hand, is not so sure. We learn that the couple is Ernest and Toni, now very old, but very much in love. Fade Out.

I absolutely adore that ending! Test audiences claimed the more poignant conclusion didn't fit the more cartoonish flavor of the rest of the film, so rewrites and reshoots resulted in the very good, very funny ending currently in place. It's not a bad ending at all, and based on the success of the film, it is perhaps more in keeping with the tone established at the start; but honestly, I just love the idea of the jettisoned ending. I think it would have provided the perfect coda for a wonderful film.
Helen and Madeline, talons sharpened, have become living gargoyles

Goldie Hawn discusses her preference for the film's original ending HERE

The original theatrical trailer features many scenes that never made it into the final film. HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2016

Thursday, December 8, 2016


“The who, the how, the why…they dish the dirt, it never ends.”
Girl Talk   Neal Hefti/Bobby Troup -1965

“Don’t come any closer. Don’t come any nearer. My vision of you can’t get any clearer.”
Girls Talk    Elvis Costello - 1979

In Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, college buddies Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) engage in an awful lot of girl talk. Or, more to the point, a lot of awful talk about girls. 

Each weighs in on what qualities constitute the “ideal woman." Then, they lay odds on their chances of “getting laid.” They rate women’s body parts to determine their sexual desirability, aka worth. They rate and evaluate intimate physical encounters as though discussing sports statistics...charting the speed of numbered bases reached (1st base, 2nd base, home run) vs. the number of dates logged. They equate a woman’s susceptibility to their seduction ploys as evidence of her virtue: if she succumbs too easily, she’s a slut; if she resists for too long, she’s a ballbuster. And they bemoan the fact that, no matter how perfect, a woman is never beautiful enough, submissive enough, or ANYTHING enough to sustain interest over an extended period of time. 
Jonathan & Sandy: Amherst College, Massachusetts - Late 1940s
The casual dehumanization serving as the sexist throughline in all of Jonathan and Sandy’s incessant girl talk is attributable, at least in part, to the callowness of youth (when introduced, both boys are virginal teens at Massachusetts’s Amherst College) and reflective of the repressed sexual mores of the American middle-class during the late-1940s (their creepy sexual banter is similar to the same kind of talk played for nostalgic/sentimental humor in Summer of '42, released the same year). However, as Carnal Knowledge follows the fault-finding Jonathan and ever-questioning Sandy through some 20 years of friendship, we come to see that neither the passage of time nor America’s evolving sexual landscape does much to alter the content, timbre, and tone of the conversations between these two perennial hard-y boys.
Older, But Not Wiser
Sandy & Jonathan: New York - Early 1960s
As each fumbles and stumbles their way through dating, marriage, “shacking up,” and parenthood—with love and tenderness making only fleeting appearances, and then, more often than not, couched in erotic desire—the overall impression we’re left with is of two men who’ve approached sexual exploration not as a journey of discovery, but as a quest to have already-established ideas about women confirmed or disproved. Self-reflection and introspection play no part, for the male gaze is ever outward and always infallible.

Faced with the option of uncomplicated fantasy over unpredictable reality, men who grow old without benefit of growing up invariably opt for holding onto the wish for the unattainable, unsullied, idealized dreamgirl. Proving that carnal knowledge is perhaps one of the few forms of education one can acquire without ever learning a single thing.
Jack Nicholson as Jonathan Fuerst
Ann-Margret as Bobbie Templeton
Arthur Garfunkel as Sandy
Candice Bergen as Susan
Carnal Knowledge screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Little Murders, Popeye) conceived of his dark comedy of sexual bad manners as a stage play, but director Mike Nichols told the famed cartoonist/author/playwright that he saw it instead as a film. As such, the movie has a stylistically theatrical feel to it, both in the dominance of language (the script is sharp as a razor) and the frequently used device of making it appear as though a character is breaking through the fourth wall and speaking directly to us. In addition, the cramped framing and preponderance of close-ups make the world of Jonathan and Sandy seem strangely underpopulated, isolated, and self-centered (in the way dreams and memories often appear to us) while simultaneously feeling confessional and all too intimate.

Most distinctively, Carnal Knowledge retains a classic theatrical three-act structure that neatly divides the arrested-developmental stages of its two leads into chapters mirroring America’s shifting sexual mores. Each era is designated by the significant woman in the life of Jonathan, the film’s chief chauvinist.
It's Complicated
Susan and Jonathan connect behind Sandy's back
Act I: Susan (Candice Bergen) The late 1940s  * "The Kinsey Report"  Alfred Kinsey 1948
Jonathan and Sandy fall hard for Susan, a neighboring student at Smith College who looks like the WASP dreamgirl: i.e., she superficially embodies the era-specific attributes deemed ideal for assuming the role of girlfriend, wife, and mother. But Susan is no passive male fantasy figure. She's postwar woman emergent. Straining against gender constraints and just as uncertain of how she is supposed to "be" in the uncharted territory of sex and relationships, Susan is intelligent, opinionated, ambitious, and conflicted. In short, an actual complex human being during an era when all that’s expected of her is ornamental perfection. Things between these three get messy in a hurry.
Carnal Knowledge explores how both men and women can feel
pressured into engaging in sexual activity 

Act II: Bobbie (Ann-Margret) Early 1960s * "The Feminine Mystique"  Betty Friedan 1963 
Jonathan is now an accountant of some sort, single, embittered by a string of unsatisfying relationships, and still searching for his “perfect woman” -- that ideal whittled down by this stage to an exacting checklist of physical specifications. Sandy, now a physician, is married to Susan and lives in a passionless suburban rut he takes great pains to justify. Susan, though unseen, sounds as though she has matured into precisely the kind of vaguely dissatisfied Smith-graduate-turned-suburban-housewife Betty Friedan surveyed as the basis for her groundbreaking feminist tome, The Feminine Mystique
Although in the film, 29-year-old Bobbie is an enticing older woman to 20-something Jonathan, in real life, Ann-Margret (who really WAS 29) was four years younger than co-star Jack Nicholson's 33. 

Into Jonathan’s life comes Bobbie, a TV commercial model who is the physical embodiment of the Playboy ideal, and Jonathan’s fantasy girl come to life. Unfortunately, since Playboy magazine failed to disclose just how one goes about living day-to-day with an individual one needs to objectify for sexual arousal, things begin to head south for the pair rather rapidly. The pliant, none-too-bright bombshell who only wants to get married and have kids proves an easy and willing emotional punching bag for Jonathan’s aggression, scorn, and callousness.
"I wouldn't kick her out of bed!"
Jonathan's favorite expression of female endorsement is realized in its most literal, ironic terms with Bobbie, the  sexualized dreamgirl whose depression and willing subjugation results in her rarely getting out of bed 

That the blossoming and eventual disintegration of their relationship plays out almost exclusively within the confines of their bedroom (a playroom turned prison) underscores the realization that Jonathan's and Sandy's quest to align adolescent sexual fantasy with adult reality is a task far beyond either of their capabilities. Easily the most emotionally brutal and devastating section of the film, Act II of Carnal Knowledge lays bare the battle of the sexes in a way that spares no one. As the men approach middle age, wondering whether their teen ideals will ever be realized, it becomes evident that neither has learned any more about women since their days at Amherst.
Divorced, indecisive, and easily bored, Sandy finds temporary solace with Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal), a woman whose self-assurance suits his sly passive-aggressiveness

Act III: Louise (Rita Moreno) Late '60s/'70s * "The Female Eunuch" Germaine Greer 1970 
The college buddies have grown older, but only chronologically. Sandy, sporting sideburns, shaggy mustache, and potbelly over his bell-bottomed jeans, has found a kind of restless peace in his midlife romance with a hippie young enough to be his daughter (Carol Kane). Jonathan, very successful, very alone, and something of a drinker (and looking uncannily like '80s-era Robert Evans), is reduced to regaling guests with a self-narrated slideshow titled “Ballbusters on Parade!” in which the sad spectacle of a lifetime of empty sexual conquests are trotted out and disparaged in escalatingly vulgar terms (sort of like the published autobiographies of Tony Curtis and Eddie Fisher).
As the film nears its conclusion, we’re left with a sense that Sandy’s endless searching (ever external, never within) might eventually lead to some level of fulfillment; after all, he at least concedes that there is a great deal about love he doesn’t know. But Jonathan, firm in the cynic’s resolve to mistake mislearned lessons for wisdom, thinks he has it all figured out. What he has gleaned from twenty-some years of acquired carnal knowledge is revealed in the memorized, methodically recited, misogynist monologue delivered by Louise, the prostitute the now-impotent Jonathan must regularly visit.
The Misogynist's Maxim
Able to achieve arousal under only the most compulsively controlled circumstances, Jonathan has Louise ritualistically recite a carefully prepared (pitiful) speech designed to reassure him of his male dominance. 

If, as Mike Nichols once remarked, Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men just don’t like women very much, I’d say the only thing surprising about that statement would be anybody attempting to refute it. Certainly not in today's world where the crude, dehumanizing sentiments attributed to Jonathan (a character whose woman-hating harangues brand him shallow and contemptible) sound eerily like what America shrugged off during this recent shitstorm of an election as appropriate “locker-room talk” from “boys” well into their sixth decade running for the highest office in the land.
Has "Boys Will Be Boys" always meant
"Boys Will Be Hollowed-Out Husks of Shame & Self-Loathing"?

My strongest memory of Carnal Knowledge when it first came out is how shrouded in secrecy it was. Beyond its provocative title and the prestige implied by the collaboration between highbrow satirist Jules Feiffer and Hollywood wunderkind Mike Nichols (his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -The Graduate winning streak took a hit with the costly flop of Catch-22), little to nothing was known about the film’s content in advance of its release.

Nichols’ reputation for extracting unexpected performances from his actors made Carnal Knowledge’s unusual cast a prime focus of interest. For who but the man who deglamorized Elizabeth Taylor to an Academy Award win would have the nerve to assemble in one film: getting-along-in-years up-and-comer Jack Nicholson; high-pitched pop-singer Art Garfunkel; beautiful but glacially aloof “actress” Candice Bergen, and, most intriguing of all, maturing sex kitten and industry punchline Ann-Margret. 
After having a 1972 obscenity verdict overturned, Carnal Knowledge was re-released in 1974 with new poster artwork. In 2001 Mike Nichol's Closer recreated that ad's quadripartite portrait design

Carnal Knowledge was promoted with a minimalist ad campaign so calculatingly discreet—white text against a stark black background, the title in scarlet letters—it proved tantamount to wrapping the film in a plain brown wrapper. Imaginations ran wild as the public (essentially doing the studio’s work for them) envisioned a film of such sexual explicitness and candor, no advertising dared elaborate. 
I was 14 at the time and desperately wanted to see Carnal Knowledge. Imagining it to be just the kind of cerebral smut my parents would begrudgingly allow me to see (provided I name-dropped a few choice critique sources like Saturday Review or The New York Times), but no such luck. My parents had active imaginations, too, and I’m afraid I underestimated the combined effect Ann-Margret and the word “carnal” would have on their faith in my adolescent maturity. Forbidden from seeing the film, I had to content myself with borrowing a copy of Feiffer’s published screenplay from the local library. I didn't get around to actually seeing Carnal Knowledge until the 1980s.
Carnal Knowledge is not one long misandrist harangue about how terrible men can be. But, as J.W. Whitehead notes in the book "Mike Nichols and the Cinema of Transformation," the women are also prone to exploitation and are often subtly complicit in their objectification.

My oft-expressed fondness for movies that give vent to brutal, blistering, peel-the-wallpaper emotional pyrotechnics places Mike Nichols Carnal Knowledge high on a list of favorite films that include: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Day of the Locust, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Last Summer, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Maps to The Stars, Carnage, and, of course, the Nichols’ own Closer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Taking the position that the ability to lie to oneself is the greatest special effect known to man, and that nothing is more exciting or dramatically compelling as emotional conflict; these films are my action movies, my superhero flicks, my adventure sagas, and (non) CGI thrill rides.
I’m drawn to films of emotional violence because I consider physical violence is mere kid’s stuff by comparison. Americans have always found facing a gun easier than facing themselves. When they are as honest and insightful as Carnal Knowledge, these movies are very humane in their perspective and bracingly insightful in their compassion. And like all good art, they have the potential to lend an air of poetry to what in real life is often merely chaos and banal cruelty.
Never Trust Anyone Who Begins a Sentence with the Words "Believe Me"
In 1971, a line of dialogue branding Jonathan contemptible and superficial. Today (2016), likely a 3am tweet by a 70-year-old cretin occupying the highest office in the nation
What inspired my revisit to Carnal Knowledge is the degree to which the baby-man words and behavior of a prominent celebrity in our recent election (he is no political figure by any stretch of the imagination, and his name will go unmentioned on these pages) exposed and solidified the unassailable reality that America’s misogyny (like its racism) is so systemic, deep-rooted, and essential to the perpetuation of the status quo; we as a culture actually reward men for never growing up. I agree with the assertion by Feiffer and Nichols that Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men don't seem to like women very much. But, to that, I'd also add that, in the end, men clearly dislike themselves even more.
Rita Moreno as Louise
I've met young film fans who, having grown up with the Ann-Margret of TommyThe Return of the Soldier, The Two Mrs.Grenvilles, and A Streetcar Named Desire, were more surprised by her sex-kitten past in Bye Bye Birdie and Kitten With a Whip than by her startling, career-rejuvenating turn in Carnal Knowledge.
She is indeed outstanding and gives a very moving performance that confirms the rightness of her Golden Globe win and Academy Award nomination. But looking at the film today, I'm more surprised that Jack Nicholson's performance escaped Academy notice. He's undoubtedly the oldest-looking college boy on record, but he is electric to watch and plays Jonathan with a naked complexity I can't believe many others could mine so effectively. In truth, everyone in Carnal Knowledge shines brightly, and the performances have only grown richer with time.
Carol Kane as Jennifer

In our heteronormative culture, we've devised names for men who hate women (misogynists) and women who hate men (misandrists); but I've yet to come across a suitable word for the parallel cultural phenomenon of gay men who hate other gay men (the word homophobe doesn't cut it for me). I bring this up because, as a gay man, I only see Carnal Knowledge as being partially about the battle between the sexes.
Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) reunited Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret   

When I can listen to Jonathan and Sandy talk in derogatory terms about women and associate those exact same dehumanizing phrases with experiences I've had listening to gay men talk about other gay men in locker rooms, dance studios, bars, gyms, and supermarkets; I recognize toxic masculinity is not limited to straights. While definitely one of cinema's most acerbic visions of male-female sexual politics, the ragingly heterosexual Carnal Knowledge also has a lot to say to the gay male viewer about the ways our culture teaches ALL men that sex, masculinity, and "maleness" has to do with dominance, objectification, and a disdain for vulnerability.
But that's for another essay at another time.

In 2001, Vanity Fair reunited the cast and director of Carnal Knowledge 
for this spectacular group portrait by photographer Annie Leibovitz 

In November of 1988, at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, Jules Feiffer revived his theatrical version of Carnal Knowledge

YouTube: Mike Nichols talks about Carnal Knowledge: 2011 Film Society of Lincoln Center

"You want perfection."

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016