Frank '70s coming-of-age tale has lots of sex, profanity.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Carnal Knowledge is a 1971 Mike Nichols drama that explores adult themes and changing attitudes about virginity, sex, marriage, loyalty, friendship, betrayal, adulthood, male chauvinism, despair, sexual dysfunction, gender stereotyping, and suicide. Naked breasts are seen briefly or obscured in the dark. Men are seen naked but no genitals are shown. Sounds of moaning and thrusting are heard. A sex act is viewed from above, showing only the face of the woman below and the back of the clothed man with her. Adults drink alcohol. Two friends discuss swapping their partners for sex. Men discuss women's body parts and assess their attractiveness. A 40-year-old man takes up with an 18-year-old girl. A man says he paid a 16-year-old for sex and it's suggested that she gave him an STD. A college girl sleeps with one friend, then betrays him by carrying on with his best friend at the same time. There is lots of profanity, including "f--k," "c--t," and "s--t."
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What's the Story?
At a time when pregnancy would ruin an unmarried woman's life, two 1940s Ivy League male college friends share their thoughts and experiences regarding women, sex, and love. They both claim they want life partners with high morals who can see into their souls. One adds that he'd also like big breasts. As the action progresses over many decades, breasts and other female body parts become the prevailing preoccupation, ignoring the human needs of the women they have objectified. The women's movement is not mentioned, but CARNAL KNOWLEDGE is about 20th-century man's reluctance to adapt to a world in which women mean to take their equal place educationally, intellectually, economically, and professionally. None of the changes achieved by the women's movement are specifically cited, but their impact on men's sex lives and men's expectations of women are unavoidable. As the women in their lives demand respect, beat them at tennis, and tell them how they want to be treated in bed, Sandy (Art Garfunkel) goes with the flow, marrying, having a family, and trying to be less selfish. Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) flails emotionally, sleeping with one woman after another, finding fault in them all, and ultimately blaming "ball busters" and "castrators" for his erectile dysfunction. Ironically he finds himself unable to perform the act that has compelled his lifelong obsession with women. Men of the 1940s faced the dilemma of wanting sex but disdaining the "loose" "tramps" who were willing to give it to them. Many women from the 1960s onward rejected those social and sexual paradigms, leaving men to decide if they would fight the girls or join them. The men in this movie struggle with that dilemma.
Is It Any Good?
Older teens may view this '70s classic as a treatise on ancient history, but this sharply observed piece is as relevant as ever. The Jules Feiffer script doesn't need to specifically cite today's continuing unequal pay and underrepresented political power for women, as those inequalities come to mind immediately in reaction to Mike Nichols' unvarnished look at relationships and the lies people tell themselves in the pursuit and maintenance of the same. The double standard and its repercussions sums up the movie -- although independent, late-marrying women who are comfortable with their sexuality are increasingly accepted in "decent" society in much of the United States, it says a lot that the words "tramp" and "slut" still have no male equivalent in the English language. Ann-Margret received a supporting actress Academy Award nomination for her searing performance, and Nicholson, Garfunkel, and Bergen are all spot-on as well.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the movie's depiction of the 1950s view of sex as a scarce commodity that men can achieve by pushing unwilling women to succumb. Compare this to more recent decades' reports of teen sex, teen pregnancy, and a culture of hooking up. What do you think the double standard is with regard to socially approved male and female sexual behavior?
The movie suggests that Jonathan and Sandy cling to views of women that don't reflect who women actually are or what they want and believe. The men believe that all women want to get married and have children and be financially supported. Do you think this is true?
It's suggested that the well-educated Susan wants to be a lawyer when she is young but that she gives up that goal to marry and raise children instead. Jonathan tells Bobbi to quit her job and then chides her for being idle. How do you think those two plot points are related to each other?
Do the movie's themes resonate with you, or do they seem dated?
- In theaters: July 18, 1971
- On DVD or streaming: January 31, 2006
- Cast: Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen
- Director: Mike Nichols
- Studio: MGM
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 98 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Last updated: March 30, 2022
Our Editors Recommend
Influential coming-of-age sex comedy has mature themes.
Searing story of betrayal isn't for kids.
'80s comedy-drama has mature themes, profanity.
Well-acted drama full of Clinton-era jabs.
For kids who love comimg-of-age tales
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