“I’m being pressured into it”
When Tony, Grammy, and Oscar winning director Mike Nichols says your play is better suited for the silver screen, you listen. That’s what screenwriter Jules Feiffer did after showing the legend (who’d eventually complete his EGOT with an Emmy in 2001) his latest work Carnal Knowledge. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t still play like it was made for the stage with only two leads and two supporting roles possessing substance, though. Nichols was simply no stranger to adding scope and locale to an already lively script needing neither (see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). So he cast it with movie stars, allowed the sexually frank dialogue and nudity to remain (sparking an obscenity case that made it to the Supreme Court), and delivered yet another cinematic great.
The story surrounds two best friends and college roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel, whose acting debut was Nichols’ Catch-22 the year before). The former carries the air of a ladies’ man lothario while the latter cannot hide his nebbish insecurities to move past an inherent awkwardness when engaged in a chance encounter with the opposite sex. What’s interesting considering this obvious chasm in attitude and demeanor between them is the fact that both are virgins. All the talk about romance, sex, and attraction comes from fantasy rather than real life experience. So anytime Jonathan offers advice, it possesses no evidence or experience behind it. And when Sandy shares his progress with Susan (Candice Bergen), Jonathan wields it as a blueprint to steal her away.
They’re boys pretending to be men in order to get their first taste of love: physical and emotional both. They will do whatever is necessary to acquire it, pushing hard to get what they want as much as they utilize the sympathy card to break down Susan’s defenses. From her perspective she has the perfect man split in two with Sandy’s sensitivity and Jonathan’s confidence. She’s traversing the same landscape as they are, weighing her options as to which is more important in the long run. The result is a series of humorous interactions with certain characters left in the dark as far as certain secrets while others simply know too much. Will this girl get in the way of the boys’ friendship? Will she make them stronger?
This is but the first era of an unevenly timed triptych moving across three decades of love and loss. We go from horny college days of the 1950s to hornier adult days of the 1960s before a brief sojourn in the 1970s as middle age takes over to provide an epilogue with more uncertainty than the start. We meet Jonathan and Sandy as two people wondering when they’ll get to experience the touch of a woman and ultimately watch them become men wondering what else is out there to conquer while the wives stay at home. Anxiety, elation, boredom, and impotence all crop up to expose a time in America ruled by gender stereotypes and the confusion in whether or not to embrace or subvert them.
One gets married too soon while the other fears commitment as a poison ruining a good thing. One feels trapped in love while the other is trapped without it. But the former stepping out to acquire something on the side and the latter allowing himself to fall into a pattern of routine with one woman discover trouble follows you either way. At the end of the day it’s not the person you’re with who has the ability to make you happy. It’s you. Your fear and frustration stems from your refusal to be okay with yourself, so you move from one prop to another and sabotage them all because in your mind they must be the problem. It leads to loneliness, self-pity, and an infinite supply of resentment.
Feiffer’s script lays it all on the line with humor, entitlement, and explosive fireworks while centering upon two privileged men who don’t know what conflict is. To them failure is not having the beautiful woman with big breasts and nice legs by their side—criteria even those with both can’t live up to in the real world. Act One sees Sandy feeling as though he deserves sex with Susan simply because he loves her and she’s pressured to provide it because she doesn’t want to lose him for reasons transcending the physical realm. Act Two shows Jonathan ensnaring the gorgeous Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a woman worthy of his time because she’s equally independent and confident yet also someone he’ll do everything he can to break like his other possessions.
These men like to throw themselves on their swords as though they’re the victims of women pretending to be one thing before revealing they’re another. But we know better. We see how Sandy and Jonathan force ideals upon them, changing them in ways they think they seek only to discover the opposite. Sandy falls in love with Susan because of what she is on the inside, but forces her to be physical only to ultimately grow bored of it. Jonathan falls for Bobbie because she’s as elusive a prize as he believes himself to be, but he quickly bottles her life within his warped ideal of being the “man” of the relationship only to wind up hating her for becoming exactly what he yearned for her to be.
So, despite the title and conversations about sexual conquest, this movie is really about what men don’t know. Their education comes in a fashion that proves to everyone else they’re the liars, cheats, and thieves. They’re the ones mesmerizing these women only to reveal the monstrous ego beneath their smiles later on. They’re the ones putting on an act to “win” affection even if it means marriage only to resent their spouse instead of themselves for creating their situation. We’re watching an expression of men acting and reacting with their penises rather than their brains—selfish men who need everything to go their way until it does. It’s a frank depiction of the power of sex and the weakness of men to let it propel them towards oblivion.