As dispiriting a portrait of masculinity and male sexuality as I’ve ever seen, Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as college buddies who spend the next twenty years fumbling through failed relationships and directed from a script by Jules Feiffer, made a lot of waves in 1971. But only received a single Oscar nomination, for Ann-Margret’s career-redefining role as a ferociously sexual single woman whose independence gives way to passivity and emotional neediness. I wrote about the film and its production for Turner Classic Movies.
Jack Nicholson had yet to break as a major American star – his most notable role to date was in Easy Rider (1969) and his breakthrough film, Five Easy Pieces (1970), was not yet released – when Nichols cast him as Jonathan. Writer Jules Feiffer, who was often on set, was dubious that Nicholson was right for the role of a ferociously womanizing Jew from the Bronx but was won over by his intensity and attention. “I remember watching the shacking-up scene,” recalled Feiffer. “I couldn’t believe Jack’s directness and simplicity and intelligence. He got everything.” Nicholson, a director in his own right (he was busy editing his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, on weekends), was reportedly very attentive to the other actors and remained the on set to feed lines off-camera.
This was Art Garfunkel’s second film as an actor (he had made his acting debut in Nichols’ Catch-22, 1970) and his first as a lead. He’s dominated by powerhouse Nicholson but it works for their onscreen dynamic: Sandy seems forever to be explaining and justifying himself to Jonathan, who from the beginning acts the role of the wiser, more experienced one. Ann-Margret, still best known as an entertainer, was desperate to break out of her image as a sex-kitten and made the most of this challenging and complex adult role. “I’m not a technical actress,” she writes in My Story. “I can’t turn it on and off. I’m all raw emotion and nerves. I literally become the person I’m playing.” The transformation took its toll. “I spent hours at night pacing the bathroom, depressed, teetering on the brink of a breakdown, and hoping I made it through the movie.” She earned rave reviews, an Oscar nomination and recognition as a serious actress, but at a personal cost: “Carnal Knowledge left me in a depressive stupor fueled by pills and alcohol.”
The film plays on TCM on Thursday, February 5. Read the complete article on the TCM website here.