During the late ’60s and early ’70s, several counterculture-themed stage shows attracted attention by featuring total nudity, ostensibly to challenge inhibitions and taboos. (Whether the exposure was truly meant to juice ticket sales remains a subjective matter.) While Hair is undoubtedly the most enduring of these once-controversial shows, Oh! Calcutta! may actually capture the cultural moment even more effectively. Instead of conveying a complete narrative about social issues (as Hair does with its storyline about the Vietnam War), the wildly uneven Oh! Calcutta! comprises a series of comic sketches and interpretive-dance numbers. Accordingly, it’s like a sampler platter of attitudes, ideas, and mannerisms from the era of the Sexual Revolution.
At its best, the show captures the tension that arose between enlightened women seeking sociocultural equality and narcissistic men who exploited “free love” as a means of avoiding interpersonal responsibility. At its worst, Oh! Calcutta! is like an X-rated version of The Benny Hill Show, with breasts and penises and vaginas thrown at the audience as recklessly as the four-letter words with which the script is infused. Plus, since the historical moment to which the show belongs has passed, Oh! Calcutta! seems strange when viewed with modern eyes. The sheer amount of nudity and sexualized content remains startling, but the sense of daring that one presumes the show had in its original iteration has faded.
In any event, this film of Oh! Calcutta! isn’t really a film. Rather, it’s the theatrically released version of a pay-per-view TV special that aired in 1971. The special comprised a taped performance of the stage show, with added flourishes including a single exterior scene and lots of cheesy video effects (dissolves, superimpositions, wipes, etc.). In short, nothing fancy. Nonetheless, the cast featured in this production is fairly strong, with the biggest name being Bill Macy—a middle-aged comic actor who later gained fame as a costar on the sitcom Maude. (His high point, unless one counts his presence in full-cast nude dance numbers, is a sketch in which he plays a vulgar swinger who wows a new lover with his oral skills.)
Each of the comic vignettes has a different style, but two stand out as having something worthwhile to say. A scene set in Victorian England features a man trapping a seemingly virtuous woman in a private room so he can take her virginity. Yet as she tells her life story, it becomes clear she’s sexually experienced. The joke is that because she gained her carnal knowledge outside of society’s view, her reputation remains intact. Sly and wry in equal measure. Representing an entirely different style of comedy is a broadly farcical scene involving kooky doctors supervising a sex experiment—by the time the gypsies and the puppy dog run onstage, the piece has reached an apex of controlled chaos. (“It’s the last time we advertise for help in Screw magazine!”)
More typical, alas, is the scene of fairy-tale figures Jack and Jill, in which Jack has Jill measure his member with a ruler and then reciprocates by inserting the ruler into Jill. (“I got my imagination and my cock,” Jack exclaims. “I suppose that’s enough for a man to have!”) As for the dance scenes, they’re lyrical enough, but the wall-to-wall nudity is distracting. Many posh individuals are credited with writing Oh! Calcutta!, including Jules Feiffer, John Lennon, and Kenneth Tynan, though one suspects that the bigger names merely contributed notions. And that, ultimately, is the vibe of Oh! Calcutta!—a bunch of notions, some more interesting than others, fused by the overriding theme of sex.
Oh! Calcutta!: FUNKY