As a director, Mike Nichols was on a roll. His first film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", earned 13 Oscar nominations, including 5 wins. His second film, "The Graduate" garnered 7 Oscar nominations, including all the majors, and brought Nichols the Best Director Oscar. Both of those films are rated 8.0 in IMDb. Next came "Catch-22"---another high profile film, but the result was not as unanimously praised.
Needless to say, when "Carnal Knowledge" was released, all eyes were watching. Could Nichols---who had already won three parts of his EGOT---recapture the magic of his first two efforts? Certainly the casting brought the film plenty of attention.
Jack Nicholson was still in the early stages of his film career, but had already served notice that he was worth watching. Some already saw him as the next Brando. "Easy Rider" in 1969 was followed by the less-than-stellar "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", and "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), in which Roger Ebert said Nicholson returned to the "miraculous offhandedness" of his role in "Easy Rider".
Candice Bergen, the model turned actress, was already high-profile, but past performances gave no indication she might be able to deliver a dramatic performance equal to those Nichols had facilitated from the female stars of his first two films.
Art Garfunkel, the mild-mannered crooner, had received some good reviews from his only film role so far, which was in Nichol's "Catch-22". Could he hold his own as the second male lead opposite Nicholson?
And Ann-Margret was cast in her first film with any gravitas. Known for her sex kitten roles, she was fresh off her performance in "C.C & Company" opposite Joe Namath, of all people. You can see a clip of that film in Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood".
Released during the Sexual Revolution, some might see this film as representative of the entire movement and times, a prognostication of what the future might hold for a generation. As such, the two men who are the focus of the film, Jonathan (Nicholson) and Sandy (Garfunkel), lead lives that would foretell disappointment and malaise. It would be similar to the portent that clouds the future of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the ending to "The Graduate". But this is a film of the two men only, not a broader vision. And these are two very imperfect men.
The easiest access to what makes Jonathan and Sandy what they are and what they become is through their egos. Jonathan has an ego that always needs stroking. Sandy has an ego that he always subordinates, willingly, to others. Because of this, neither can achieve actualization or contentment. Their entire lives are an endless cycle of hang-ups and hook-ups, continuously settling for what they mistakenly believe will give them happiness.
Nichols does, in fact, draw out some great performances here. Ann-Margret won the Oscar for her performance. And Bergen delivers what might be the best performance of her career.
The structure of the film is in three parts. It feels like an adaptation from a 3-act play, but it's not. Part one feels introductory. Part two picks up momentum. And part three is like a coda, a brief glimpse at the fruits of their "labors". Watch for Rita Moreno in the final scenes, which feel climactic and anti-climactic at the same time.
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