AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
Carnal Knowledge
Director: Mike Nichols (Dir)
Release Date:   Jul 1971
Premiere Information:   NY opening: 30 Jun 1971
Production Date:   15 Sep 1970-Jan 1971 at Panorama Studios, Vancouver, BC
Duration (in mins):   96-97, 100 or 105
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   Jack Nicholson (Jonathan)  
    Candice Bergen (Susan)  
    Arthur Garfunkel (Sandy)  
    Ann-Margret (Bobbie)  
    Rita Moreno (Louise)  
    Cynthia O'Neal (Cindy)  
    Carol Kane (Jennifer)  

Summary: At Amherst College in the late 1940s, freshmen roommates Jonathan and Sandy develop a friendly rivalry over their attempts at "scoring" on their dates with female coeds. The sexually aggressive Jonathan wants to be "smothered and mothered" by large breasts, while shy, romantic Sandy claims to value intelligence and sincerity. At a college party, Jonathan spots Smith College student Susan and, after summarily dismissing her breast size, encourages Sandy to approach her. Sandy's initial clumsy attempt leads to several dates with the intellectual and humorous Susan, which he then reports in detail to Jonathan. After Jonathan pushes him to "feel her up," Sandy persists in trying to touch Susan's breasts on a subsequent date, but Susan claims that she is not sexually attracted to him. Desperate, Sandy admits that she is the first girl that he has ever tried to touch in that way. Feeling sorry for Sandy, Susan allows him to touch her while she puts her hand on his penis. After Jonathan learns that Susan is more promiscuous than he had previously thought, he asks Susan to go out with him. While neither Jonathan nor Susan tells Sandy about the resulting romance, Sandy continues to tell Jonathan about his dates with Susan, claiming that he has fallen in love because she appreciates his sensitivity and intellect. On his next date with Susan, Jonathan, jealous that Susan likes Sandy more than him, tries to win her sympathy by fabricating a story about his humble childhood which led him to want to become a socially conscious lawyer. Several dates later, Jonathan's ploy pays off and Susan agrees to have sex, but does not enjoy the act. Jonathan describes his dates with Susan to Sandy, but calls her “Myrtle” to keep their betrayal a secret. When Sandy learns that Jonathan has lost his virginity with “Myrtle,” he tries to have sex with Susan, who at first refuses but finally relents. Months later, Sandy confesses to Jonathan that he is jealous of the fact that Jonathan lost his virginity before him and continues to have more adventuresome sex than he does. One night, when the three friends go out together, Susan dances with both men, enjoying Jonathan's suave demeanor and easy footwork more than Sandy's awkward attempts at intimacy on the dance floor. Later, Jonathan, angry that Susan has told Sandy that she feels so close to him she can read his thoughts, demands that Susan choose between the two men. When they both agree to break the affair soon after, Susan suggests that they can still be friends, but Jonathan coolly remarks, "I hope not." Days later in Sandy and Jonathan’s dormitory room, Susan and Sandy playfully argue like a married couple over packing for a camping trip while Jonathan sullenly watches. Over ten years later, the two friends meet and discuss their lives. Jonathan, who is now a taxman, is still the consummate playboy and complains that assertive women are gold-digging castrators and claims that he wants to settle down with someone “if their figure is good enough.” Meanwhile Sandy, who has married Susan and started a family, is bored with their suburban life and jealous of Jonathan's sexual freedom. Soon after, Jonathan begins dating television model Bobbie, whose revealing clothing displays her voluptuous figure. After several weeks of dating and passionate lovemaking with Jonathan, Bobbie suggests they move in together, but Jonathan rejects the proposal, suggesting that it will ruin their sex. Soon after, Jonathan confesses to Sandy that he was experiencing moments of impotence but has been cured by his attraction to Bobbie's figure. After Bobbie moves in with him, Jonathan insists that she quit her job, promising to provide for her. Bobbie concedes in hopes of marrying Jonathan and having children, but he continues to adamantly resist to the idea. At home with nothing to do, Bobbie becomes increasingly depressed, rarely leaving her bed and barely capable of warming television dinners for Jonathan. Lacking in any tenderness, Jonathan constantly berates and humiliates Bobbie, causing her to weep in despair. After Jonathan rages at Bobbie for having a more "checkered" sexual past than him and orders her to do something useful like housework, a desperate and sobbing Bobbie states that she cannot stand her life. One night, when Sandy and his sophisticated mistress, Cindy, are at Jonathan’s apartment to pick them up for a party, Jonathan tells Sandy that Bobbie is too passive, while Sandy claims Cindy dominates him in the bedroom. After Jonathan urges Sandy to swap partners for the night, Sandy agrees and goes to the bedroom to find Bobbie. Jonathan then dances with Cindy, who refuses his advances, confidently explaining that she will sleep with him but only on her terms. When Cindy leaves after ordering Jonathan to tell Sandy that he should not bother returning home if he sleeps with Bobbie, Jonathan opens the bedroom door to find Bobbie passed out from an overdose and Sandy calling an ambulance. Even as he witnesses Bobbie's despair, Jonathan can only yell at the unconscious woman that their relationship is "not going to work out." In the 1970s, twenty years since their college days, the now jaded middle-aged friends are still far from understanding love in a committed relationship. Wealthy Jonathan complains about his alimony payments to his now ex-wife Bobbie and their child, while Sandy, desperate to recapture his youth, dates demure eighteen-year-old Jennifer, dresses in hippie attire and espouses the “free love” of the new generation. When Sandy and Jennifer visit Jonathan, he presents a slide show of all his past lovers, including a picture of Susan which he attempts to ignore, referring to them all as "frigid ballbusters,” and paints increasingly degrading verbal portraits of each woman, upsetting Sandy and Jennifer. Later, Jonathan confesses to Sandy that he has only glimpsed the illusive nature of love through brief sexual encounters, while Sandy laments that when he finally falls in love with a woman and makes a commitment, his sexual interest in them dies. With his impotence increasing, Jonathan seeks out prostitute Louise, who obliges Jonathan's obsessive request that she perform a verbal ritual worshipping men's "virile" and "domineering" behavior and castigating women as manipulative and castrating. When Louise veers slightly from the script, an enraged Jonathan, whose libido has immediately faltered, demands that she repeat the lines verbatim to ensure his satisfaction.


Production Company: Avco Embassy Pictures Corp.  
  Icarus Productions, Inc.  
Production Text: A Mike Nichols Film
Distribution Company: Avco Embassy Pictures Corp.  
Director: Mike Nichols (Dir)
  Tim Zinnemann (Asst dir)
Producer: Joseph E. Levine (Exec prod)
  Mike Nichols (Prod)
  Clive Reed (Assoc prod)
Writer: Jules Feiffer (Wrt)
Photography: Giuseppe Rotunno (Dir of photog)
  Mary Ellen Mark (Still photos by)
  Clyde Hart (Key grip)
  Beppe Maccari (Cam op)
  Giampiero Servo (Asst cam)
  Rudolfo Bramucci (Gaffer)
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert (Prod des)
  Robert Luthardt (Art dir)
Film Editor: Sam O'Steen (Ed)
  Stu Linder (Ed asst)
Set Decoration: George R. Nelson (Set dec)
  Robert Schultz (Prop master)
Costumes: Anthea Sylbert (Cost des)
Sound: Lawrence O. Jost (Sd rec)
  Richard Portman (Re-rec)
Make Up: Sydney Guilaroff (Hair styles)
  Charles Schram (Makeup supv)
  Lorraine Roberson (Hair supv)
Production Misc: Joe L. Cramer (Prod mgr)
  Meta Wilde (Scr supv)
  Gordon Arnell (Unit pub)
MPAA Rating: R
Country: Canada and United States
Language: English

Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. & Icarus Productions, Inc, 30/6/1971 dd/mm/yyyy LP40121

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Technicolor
  Widescreen/ratio: Panavision

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: College
  Postwar life
Subjects (Major): College students
  Premarital sex
  Romantic rivalry
Subjects (Minor): Attempted suicide
  Battered women
  Depression, Mental
  Ice skaters and ice skating
  Love affairs
  Tax collectors

Note: During the opening credits, a discussion is heard between characters "Sandy" and "Jonathan" about their recent dates, which includes Jonathan's question, "Would you rather be in love, or be loved?" The image of a female ice skater, dressed in pure white and perfectly executing complex moves, first appears when Jonathan and Sandy meet in the 1950s. The image then reappears in the film as Jonathan discusses his sexual desire. The series of stills of "Jonathan’s” past lovers in the slide show sequence were shot by Mary Ellen Mark, a prominent photographer whose still photographic work was first seen on the 1969 film Alice's Restaurant (see above). In addition to studio work at Panorama Studios, Vancouver, BC, Carnal Knowledge was also shot in New York City.
       Upon the film's release, many reviewers noted the abrasive sexual content. On 18 Sep 1971 New Republic reported that newspapers in 14 cities had refused to advertise the film, objecting to its title. By 7 Feb 1972 Var reported that after a Jan 1972 opening of the film in Rome, Carnal Knowledge had been banned in most of Italy for alleged obscenity. An 11 Feb 1972 DV article noted that the ban was then removed.
       In Jul 1972 a Playboy article stated that a movie house operator in Albany, GA was convicted of distributing obscene material when he showed the film. A 19 Jul 1973 HR article stated that the lower court obscenity conviction was upheld in Georgia's highest courts. After appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court by the DGA and MPAA, among others, to reverse the ruling on the film, a 25 Jun 1974 WSJ article noted that the court upheld their decision to allow local juries to apply local rather than national standards regarding obscenity, but suggested that local courts do not have "absolute freedom." A 25 Jun 1974 HR article added that the Supreme Court ruled that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene because it did not display human genitals or actual scenes of intercourse. According to a 9 Sep 1974 Box article, the film finally reopened later that month in Albany, GA.
       Ann-Margret was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role by the Academy Awards and the New York Film Critics for her performance in the film. The film garnered much critical attention. Some castigated the film for having a "repellent," "stereotypical" and "pessimistic" vision of love, while others praised Carnal Knowledge for its frank handling of the “chauvinistic nature of American men.” The film was included in NYT , Cue and Chicago Sun-Times “Ten Best” lists for 1971.
       As noted in a 26 Oct 1969 NYT article, Carnal Knowledge was based the unproduced play by Jules Feiffer, who wrote the film's screenplay. Although the play was never staged on Broadway, over fifteen years later it was produced at the Pasadena Playhouse (4 Nov--11 Dec 1988), in Dallas, Texas and off-Broadway.

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Cinematographer   Jan 1971.   
Box Office   12 Jul 1971.   
Box Office   9 Sep 1974.   
Daily Variety   11 Feb 1972.   
Daily Variety   29 Jan 1974.   
Daily Variety   31 Jan 1974.   
Esquire   Oct 1971   pp. 45-46.
Filmfacts   1971   217-221.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Sep 1970.   
Hollywood Reporter   18 Sep 1970   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Dec 1970   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Jun 1971   p. 3, 6.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jul 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   25 Jun 1974.   
Los Angeles Times   2 Jul 1971.   
New Republic   21 Aug 1971   p. 22.
New Republic   18 Sep 1971.   
New York Times   1 Jul 1971   p. 63.
New York Times   4 Jul 1971   Sec II, p. 1.
New York Times   30 Jul 1971.   
New York Times   1 Aug 1971   Sec II, p. 9.
New York Times   5 Sep 1971   Sec. II, p. 1, 3.
New Yorker   3 Jul 1971   pp. 43-44.
Newsweek   5 Jul 1971   p. 71.
Newsweek   2 Aug 1971   p. 9.
Playboy   Jul 1972.   
Saturday Review   3 Jul 1971   p. 18.
Time   5 Jul 1971   pp. 66-67.
Variety   30 Jun 1971   p. 22.
Variety   7 Feb 1972.   
Village Voice   8 Jul 1971   p. 49.
WSJ   25 Jun 1974.   

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.