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    Alice Out of a Cannon

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As she turns 81 today, the vivacious Dyan Cannon – in addition to her credentials as a writer/producer/director and singer/songwriter – is perhaps best known as a gifted actress with a glorious gift for comedic unraveling. It started with her first major movie role, the uptight attorney’s wife Alice Henderson, in director/co-writer Paul Mazursky’s wise and smartly observant hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), in which she evolves over the course of the film from a wary, protected princess to an enthusiastic participant in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Or at least, as the satirical but sympathetic script by Mazursky and Larry Tucker about two questioning Southern California thirtysomething married couples portrays, the “promised” revolution. Of the film’s four principal stars, which also included three-time Academy Award® nominee Natalie Wood as Carol, married in the film to four-time I Spy Emmy® nominee Robert Culp as Bob, with fellow screen neophyte Elliott Gould as Alice’s straight-arrow spouse Ted, Cannon proved to be the most sparkling discovery in a jewel-encrusted, pitch-perfect quartet, earning an Oscar® nomination and the New York Film Critics Award for her revelatory performance. 

    As Mazursky recalled in his 1999 memoir Show Me the Magic: “At one point we were hot on Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin [as Ted]. (I think they would have been very good.) But somehow we didn’t feel sanguine. Then Dyan Cannon, who had been married to Cary Grant, walked into our office. [Executive Producer Mike] Frankovich knew her and thought she might make a good Alice. She had once guested on the Danny Kaye show [for which Mazursky was a writer] as a singer, and I remembered how adorable she was. Dyan read for us and did very well. She seemed perfect. Larry and I agreed she could do the part, but we couldn’t make a final decision until we found our Ted.” Frankovich made another suggestion: the guy who recently played as Billy Minsky in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). “When Elliott Gould came into our office at Columbia, all he said was ‘Hello,’ and Larry and I looked at each other as if to say, ‘This is the guy!’ He was Ted in every way. He was tall and handsome in a Jewish kind of way. He seemed a bit vulnerable, and that was exactly what we were looking for. We decided to put Dyan through a screen test. She would be one of three actresses to test with Elliott. They’d all do the same scene, one in which Ted is horny and wants sex with Alice. Alice, however, is too disgusted by Carol’s behavior to even think of sex. Ted quickly develops a terrible headache. Alice gives him a massage, which only gets him hotter. Finally, in a moment of complete despair, Alice asks Ted, ‘Would you want me to do it just like that, with no feeling on my part? Would you, Ted? Would you, darling?’ To which Ted instantly replies, ‘Yeah.’ No one has done anything funnier in one of my films. (At the preview in Denver when Elliott said ‘Yeah,’ the audience exploded. You couldn’t hear the dialogue for the next five minutes.) All three tests were good, but it was no contest – Dyan Cannon became our Alice. Elliott and Dyan made a perfect couple. The scene was funny and sexy. Mike was elated. ‘Why that scene is so good I’m thinking of showing it to the distributors at the national convention.’ (He later did, which helped start the buzz about the film.)” Gould would also, like Cannon, writers Mazursky and Tucker and cinematographer Charles Lang, score an Oscar® nomination. Cannon, in turn, would continue to score in a number of roles across the next four decades, portraying a gallery of alternately wily, exasperated and unraveling spouses in films like Such Good Friends (1971), Heaven Can Wait (1978, her second acting Oscar® nomination), Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Deathtrap (1982), and even adding luster to the shambolic outrageousness of the Twilight Time title 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997). The four-way interaction of Wood, Culp, Gould and Cannon in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice shows debuting director Mazursky’s magic, right out of the starting gate, as a masterful observer of contemporary mores and foibles that still speaks volumes nearly a half-century later. Its January 23 arrival on TT hi-def Blu-ray in a new Sony 4K restoration transfer includes a vintage Audio Commentary featuring Mazursky, Culp, Gould and birthday honoree Cannon, an interview with Mazursky, and new Audio Commentary ruminations by TT’s resident swinging couple, film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Consider the possibilities when Preorders open January 10.