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THE BIG PICTURE

The year that movies got in touch with the cultural revolution

Chatting with Paul Mazursky, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould about 1969's 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.'

July 07, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

For most of the 1960s, Hollywood was the last place you'd go to find the pulse of the pop culture. Movie attendance had reached all-time lows. The studios were crumbling -- most film lots were either up for sale, being rented out or looked like decaying junkyards. The movies were so archaic and out of touch with the times that for a three-year period in the mid-1960s, the Oscars for best picture (supposedly marking the best movies Hollywood could offer) went to a string of cobwebby costume musicals and dramas: "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" and "A Man for All Seasons."

The real excitement was over on the Sunset Strip, where an exciting new generation of bands -- the Byrds, the Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield and the Mamas and the Papas, to name just a few -- were popping up on practically every block.

But in 1969, everything started to change. In that year, between April and December, an amazing swell of groundbreaking films opened in Los Angeles and eventually across the rest of the country. They included "Easy Rider," "Midnight Cowboy," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Wild Bunch," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Medium Cool," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Take the Money and Run" and "Goodbye, Columbus." A host of young unknowns became stars overnight, notably Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Robert Redford, Jon Voight, Ali MacGraw, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould.

Ten years ago, I spent a few weeks digging through the archives and interviewing a host of stars and filmmakers -- some of whom are now deceased -- to try to capture some of the spirit of the times. As the summer goes on, I'll periodically revisit some of the highlights of what these mavericks and rebels had to say about their efforts to topple the old, established order.

If any one incident captured the Young Turks' attitude toward their elders, it would be "Easy Rider" director Dennis Hopper's encounter with the venerable George Cukor at a swank Beverly Hills dinner party. Unhappy with what he perceived as Cukor's dismissive attitude toward his much-celebrated new film, Hopper poked a finger in Cukor's chest and snarled, "We're gonna bury you. You're finished."

So here, in their own words, are some memories from the people who helped change the face of the movie business. Today we hear about the outrageous goings-on during the making of "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Paul Mazursky's 1969 film that offered a breezy, satirical look at the new sexual mores of the time:

Paul Mazursky, director: "I'd seen a story in Time magazine about Fritz Perls sitting naked in a hot tub in Esalen, so my wife and I went to a marathon 48-hour encounter group, and after we came back, Larry Tucker and I wrote the movie. The business was very open then. If you were a hot, young guy, you could get almost anything made. When we'd have a studio meeting, we'd show up wearing velvet pants, granny glasses and as many beads as possible because we wanted everyone to know we were far-out. Of course, the first guy who read the script said it was too dirty. And I said, 'What if we had Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward?' And he said, 'Well, then it wouldn't be so dirty.' "

Dyan Cannon, actress: "The day we had to do the scene where we all got in bed together, we were all a wreck. Bob Culp was so nervous that he talked a mile a minute; and Natalie Wood -- at first she wouldn't even come out of her trailer. It was my first big movie and I was panicked about having to take my bra off. I kept thinking, 'People are going to see me without my clothes on the really big screen.' "

Elliott Gould, actor: "I was very inhibited. I didn't want to get naked or interact sexually with the other actors. In the scene where I have to take my underwear off under the covers, I was so shy that I put on two pairs of jockey shorts before I got in bed."

Mazursky: "We all smoked pot and did crazy things. We had a New Year's Eve party that year where it was really two different parties -- the 50 people who were straight and the 50 people who were on acid. I think five marriages broke up that night."

Gould: "I thought Bob Culp was this incredibly smooth and sophisticated guy because he'd already been a star on shows like 'I Spy.' So after we'd shot the scene where we all smoke pot together, I asked him after work if he wanted to smoke some real pot with me. And he got so high that he passed out. He'd never actually smoked pot before."

Cannon: "Natalie Wood and I became friends working on the movie. I was in awe of her because she had it in her contract that she got an hour off to see her psychiatrist. I always wondered -- when I'm a star, will I need to see a psychiatrist too?"

--

patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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