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Carnal Knowledge (1971)

R | | Drama | 30 June 1971 (USA)
Chronicling the lifelong sexual development of two men who meet and befriend one another in college.


Mike Nichols


Jules Feiffer
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 2 wins & 4 nominations. See more awards »




Complete credited cast:
Jack Nicholson ... Jonathan
Candice Bergen ... Susan
Art Garfunkel ... Sandy (as Arthur Garfunkel)
Ann-Margret ... Bobbie
Rita Moreno ... Louise
Cynthia O'Neal ... Cindy
Carol Kane ... Jennifer
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The concurrent sexual lives of best friends Jonathan and Sandy are presented, those lives which are affected by the sexual mores of the time and their own temperament, especially in relation to the respective women who end up in their lives. Their story begins in the late 1940s when they are roommates attending Amherst College together. Both virgins, they discuss the type of woman they would each like to end up with. Sandy, the more sensitive of the two, meets Susan at a mixer, she who he believes is going to be the one to who he will lose his virginity. Sandy goes through the process methodically, taking into account what he thinks Susan wants, but without much true passion or romance. Jonathan, the more sexually aggressive of the two, ends up losing his virginity first to "Myrtle", who ends up being a steady but hidden girlfriend. Based on what each knows of the other's relationship, both Jonathan and Sandy strive for a little more of what the other has. These relationships also set... Written by Huggo

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


The United States Supreme Court Has Ruled That "Carnal Knowledge" Is Not Obscene. See It Now!




R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Did You Know?


When Jack Nicholson got ready to do a nude scene, he warned the others by saying "Here comes Big Steve!" See more »


[first lines]
Jonathan: If you had a choice...
Sandy: Yeah?
Jonathan: Would you rather love a girl, or have her love you?
Sandy: I want it mutual.
Jonathan: I mean if you couldn't have it mutual.
Sandy: You mean would I rather be the one who loves, or is loved?
Jonathan: Yeah.
Sandy: It's not that easy a question. But, I think I'd rather be in love.
Jonathan: Me too. I wouldn't want to get hurt, though.
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I'm Getting Sentimental Over You
Written by George Bassman and Ned Washington
Performed by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra
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User Reviews

A Depressing Descent Into The Land Of Sexual Frustration
2 May 2015 | by blakiepetersonSee all my reviews

The men in Carnal Knowledge know that there is a connection between sex and happiness, but they don't know how to grab them and bridge the gap. We first meet them as young collegians, impressionable, horny, and hugely vulnerable. Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) know nothing about how the world of romance works, but Jonathan feels the need to act as though he is wiser than Sandy, a Lothario with a line of invisible women in his wake.

One would expect the brash and shrewdly confident Jonathan to get a girl first, but it is actually Sandy, who finds and wins the attention of the intelligent Susan (Candice Bergen). Susan is perhaps too strong-willed to be tied down to Sandy, who is sensitive and much too lenient on the opinions of his peers. Eventually, Jonathan sets aside the burgeoning feelings of his friend and begins an affair with Susan himself, which doesn't end gracefully.

Carnal Knowledge spans the next few decades, with Sandy and Jonathan's sexual hang-ups rarely changing. Sandy dreams of the girl who has the brains to match the bust, while Jonathan is so focused on t*ts-and-a*s that a great body is the number one priority, an emotional connection a close second. Sandy ends up marrying Susan; Jonathan has a string of affairs that hits its climax when he meets Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a voluptuous but needy redhead.

The film doesn't preach; it studies. There are some people who are able to decipher the needs of the opposite sex with ease, making for blissful unions that last for years. But then there are the rest of the population, who never really get over the kiss-and-tell days of high school and remain to be too obsessed with sex to start and maintain a meaningful relationship. The film is about that unfortunate crowd.

Carnal Knowledge doesn't have the same punchiness it once did in 1971 — today it feels rather tame — and, in some senses, doesn't go as deep and it could. Movies with miserable characters at its center can often times be so good that we don't get depressed along with them: Mike Nichols, who directed the film, earlier turned the anger of a souring marriage into a glowing black comedy with tragic components in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That film managed to be enormously affecting, but it also didn't make you feel like a pile of sh*t by the end. And in John Cassavetes' Love Streams, the dreary existences of Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) and her brother (Cassavetes) were fleshed with such extraordinary performances that their lives remained interesting long after the film ended.

Carnal Knowledge has the ensemble drama characteristic in which the four main characters — Jonathan, Sandy, Susan, and Bobbie — carve out a net of sexual frustration around each other to the point in which life turns into a prison of dissatisfaction. Their world only revolves around each other. The outsiders, found in the other woman archetypes of Rita Moreno, Cynthia O'Neal, and Carol Kane, act as happy little pills, taking the leading men away from their own banal existences, periodically, only to ground them in reality once again. Nicholson and Garfunkel are terrific, and repositioning Margret from sex goddess status to that of a dramatic figure works quite well.

Many say the film is a dark comedy, but I found no humor in its realm, and I looked in every nook and cranny. Some might find Sandy and Jonathan's failures to be melancholily funny, but, throughout the film, I was hopelessly depressed. Carnal Knowledge's components are spotless, but it forgets to do anything besides tell a story of constant grieving — maybe some can take it, but I certainly can't.

Read more reviews at petersonreviews.com

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Release Date:

30 June 1971 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Carnal Knowledge See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:

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Company Credits

Production Co:

Embassy Pictures See more »
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Technical Specs


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Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
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