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  • Post last modified:02/04/2024

Carnal Knowledge: A Frank Lesson


Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson. Photo: Embassy Pictures

If you’re a straight young man, in those early years you will probably find out what your relationship with women is going to look like. The question is what will you do with that information? Will you learn something from it? In our times, the danger is that young men will listen to destructive influencers online, like Andrew Tate, and take their poison as a believable message. Carnal Knowledge is a film about misogyny, beginning in the 1940s.

A thing for Susan
Amherst College students Sandy and Jonathan (Arthur Garfunkel, Jack Nicholson) are friends and much of their conversations revolve around the possibility of dating girls. Sandy has a thing for the beautiful Susan (Candice Bergen). They start hanging out, but Susan is soon also pursued by Jonathan, whose tactic is far more aggressive and confident than Sandy’s. They end up in bed together, and Jonathan tries to persuade Susan not to sleep with Sandy. In the end, she does though, and her relationship with Jonathan ends. In fact, Sandy and Susan marry after college, while Jonathan keeps looking for some other ”perfect woman”. He sort of finds that in the gorgeous Bobbie (Ann-Margret)… but there’s no happy end in sight for them.

An unproduced play
In 1971, Mike Nichols was one of Hollywood’s hottest directors. When he was hired for Carnal Knowledge one-fifth of the budget paid for Nichols’s salary. Writer Jules Feiffer had approached him with an unproduced play, but Nichols (who by then had plenty of experience from both theater and cinema) told him that this would make a better movie. Carnal Knowledge is certainly frank, in terms of sexual content and language, but it fit the times well, even if the film was seized under local obscenity laws in Georgia, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which ruled that the state had gone too far). Good advertising for the film, you could say.

Carnal Knowledge is episodic, depicting Sandy and Jonathan’s friendship over a few decades as they go in and out of relationships. By the time we reach the last stage, a dark sense of humor has taken charge. These men may do things differently, but are equally hopeless; their inability to change (and in the last scene the physical limits their pathetic love lives cause) is funny, if you can take it. Less hilarious, but gripping, is the toxic back-and-forth between Jonathan and Bobbie, a voluptuous woman who loves him even though he finds her dull (sexual urges only go so far). Nichols was worried that Ann-Margret may not be able to carry these intense, dialogue-driven scenes with Nicholson, but she delivered. This film landed her an Oscar nomination, and she finds the right way to counter her co-star’s furious performance.

There were critics at the time who found it unsatisfying that we never really learn much about why Jonathan is such a misogynist. It’s true that it’s a character one can’t love… but it’s also one that illustrates this particular male problem in a very effective way.

In the end, Carnal Knowledge got a perfect running time and comes across as well-directed and balanced.

Nichols’s first cut of the film was long, slow and boring – according to Feiffer, who told him as much, giving him some advice on what to cut. Nichols was pissed… but ended up listening to Feiffer. In the end, Carnal Knowledge got a perfect running time and comes across as well-directed and balanced. Even a million-dollar pro like Nichols needed to listen to others at times.

Carnal Knowledge 1971-U.S. 97 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay: Jules Feiffer. Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jonathan Fuerst), Arthur Garfunkel (Sandy), Candice Bergen (Susan), Ann-Margret (Bobbie), Rita Moreno, Carol Kane.

Trivia: Feiffer’s original play finally reached the stage in 1988 when it was produced in both California and Texas.

Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Ann-Margret).

Last word: “Say or think whatever you wish about me as a director, but I thought Jules [Feiffer] had written a blistering and truthful examination of male power and female conformity. I don’t think Jules or I felt we could take a stance other than that of bewildered men, and both of us failed to understand how and why we respond, behave, age. Is it cultural or glandular? I do not know, but I thought a study of two men flailing about and trying to find love—or what had been defined for them as love – was a legitimate topic for a film.” (Nichols, interview by James Grissom)

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