The Graduate (1967) Mike Nichols

There are some films that are indelibly burned into your psyche for whatever reason. It may have to do with the heart of every audience member jumping into their throats the first time the shark comes out of the water in “Jaws”, or the blaring rock sound of The Ronettes  “Be My Baby” on the soundtrack of  “Mean Streets”, or the discovery of a little know film called “The Panic in Needle Park” as you watch a then unknown actor named Al Pacino blow you away. There are certain films that are etched into your life and become a brick on the wall that helped build your love for movies. For me “The Graduate” was one of those films. 

I do realize that the film has dated, hell it was dated back in 1967, so let me get some of the criticism out of the way. You know the stuff critics have been saying about this film since its release some forty years ago…and Roger Ebert reiterated upon the films 30th Anniversary. First, there is the age difference of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, only six years, and yes Hoffman does look too old to be a twenty one year old college student. Then there is the character of Benjamin who many sanctified years ago as a symbol of America’s anti-establishment youth. Benjamin who really does not rebel more than any twelve year old would. As for Mrs. Robinson who over the years has been vilified as a unsatisfied bitch, well it turns out she is the only character in the script with any emotional soul and not a cardboard “plastic” character. Finally, there is Elaine, Elaine who Ben runs away with in the end, after she marries blonde haired waspy Carl, who apparently she was forced to marry. Elaine, who found Ben disgusting when she discovered he had slept with her mother and a half hour later, is chowing down on burgers and fries at a drive-in with him. Ben the rebel ends up with the girl his parents wanted him to date all along in the film; of course they would have preferred it would have been before she said “I do” to old Carl.

That all said, hopefully the naysayers are happy now and if not, feel free to add any other points you feel are detrimental in the film because in spite of all this “The Graduate” remains an influential, groundbreaking work.     

Everyone knows the plot line. Benjamin Braddock just graduated from college and comes home to sun drenched California (I should talk living in sun-drenched Florida!). Uncertain what to do with the rest of his life he drifts into an affair with an older woman, a sarcastic yet sultry Mrs. Robinson, who just happens to be the wife of his father’s business partner. He then becomes involved with the Robinson’s beautiful daughter Elaine much to the disgust of Mrs. Robinson, and Mr. Robinson when he eventually finds out Ben was sleeping with his wife and is now in love with his daughter! 

The film came out at a time when American cinema was finding a new path; a new generation of filmmakers were just beginning to emerge, many from television and the theater. Additionally, influences were emerging from European filmmakers, particularly the French New Wave of Truffaut, Godard and others. America’s old guard were on their last legs with their best days behind them. “The Graduate’s” look and style is very much influenced by these factors.   

When writers and historians discuss the rise of American cinema in the 1970’s, the golden years, they are really talking about a period that began in 1967 and ended around 1976. Just like when folks talk about the sixties, the turbulent, revolutionary, anti-war, hippie, pop art, rebellious 1960’s did not begin until 1963 with the Assassination of JFK, and the invasion of a British rock and roll group called The Beatles. The first couple of years of that decade were culturally connected to Eisenhower’s 1950’s.   

The source material, a novel by Charles Webb, was published in 1963 to little and no acclaim. By the time the film was made in 1967, a lot had changed in America, the anti-war movement had emerged, long hair, hippies, an anti-establishment movement was growing, a feeling of it was us against them (in 1968 Jerry Rubin would make the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30″ a rallying cry). Webb’s Benjamin Braddock did not live in that world. He seems to be a character on the cusp, a product of 1950’s suburban America though unlike his 50’s counterparts he did not want to follow in his parents footsteps, subsequently he drifts…mostly into an affair with Mrs. Robinson.  

Still, this film was revolutionary; the casting of ethnic looking Dustin Hoffman is just one of the many factors about “The Graduate” that changed American film. Here was a guy who did not look like the typical Hollywood movie star but rather like an everyday person. Any of us could be Benjamin Braddock (1).  And then there is Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson! Well nobody thought of Ms. Bancroft as a sexy on screen performer  before this film, extremely talented, yes, a Broadway actress of great esteem (Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker), certainly.  As a film actress, at this point in time she floated through more than a decade of minor films, some horrid works like “Gorilla at Large” and a few decent dramas like “The Slender Thread.” But here was Annie as a sexy “older” (as mentioned, she was 36, only six years older than Hoffman) woman showing off her body in various stages of semi-undress. Another point is that nobody considered Annie a funny lady, but how could she not be, wasn’t she married to Mel Brooks?  Looking at Mrs. Robinson today, though she was consider the devil back then, she can be veiwed as the most sympathetic and real person in the film, a frustrated, unsatisfied woman, and I don’t mean that just sexually, in a dead end marriage who was probably more hip to the times than any other character in the film.

It was producer Lawrence Turman who brought in director Mike Nichols, whose greatest successes were light Broadway fare like “Barefoot in the Park”, “The Odd Couple’ and “Luv.”  Nichols had already made one film; the still unreleased “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Turman thought Nichols would be a good fit for Webb’s acerbic novel because of his background as part of the funny though caustic team of Nichols and May.  Turman hired author Calder Willingham (End As a Man, Providence Island) to produce a screenplay which according to Sam Kashner, author of “The Making of The Graduate” was vulgar. Nichols happened to meet Buck Henry at a party and recommended him for a rewrite of the script. Henry changed a lot, actually putting back into the script a lot of the dialogue from Webb’s novel. The final credits include both authors’ names.

After only two films Nichols was already a director of distinction deservingly winning the Oscar’s Best Director award, though the film lost to the more mundane “In the Heat of the Night.” Nichols was aided well by Sam O’Steen’s superb editing and the cinematography of Robert Surtees. Another major factor in the film’s success is the inspired use of Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack. The music is not just background but an integral part of the story telling process interweaved seamlessly with the editing. Just look at the scenes where Ben is wasting his days away between the pool and his room. The editing flawlessly reflecting the changes from one location to the other.  Later in the film the same editing technique again as we watch the affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson drudge along, all to the music of Simon & Garfunkel.

Some trivia facts. Nichols considered Doris Day for the role and submitted a script to her manager husband who thought it was filth and never passed it on to his wife. The song Mrs. Robinson, which Paul Simon initially was writing for an album, was originally titled Mrs. Roosevelt and changed only after it was to be included in the film.  Look for a young Richard Dreyfuss in the Berkeley apartment scene, where he utters the words “Shall I get the cops?” 

In the end, “The Graduate” is not the great anti-establishment film we all thought it was back then (save that distinction for “Easy Rider” two years later) and Ben is not the great symbol of rebellion we gave him credit for (save that for Dennis Hopper’s Wyatt), what it does possess is a series of thoughtful conflicting moments, for example the crucifix swinging scene after Ben arrives at the church at the completion of the ceremony and Elaine screaming out his name. This scene still stands out as one of the great moments in the film (to this day I remember the audience at the Lincoln Art theater applauding)  however,  as the film closes and they ride on the bus, you look at them and say, well what happened here, Ben has ended up with the girl his parents wanted him to be with all along!  Hmm.

****1/2

(1) Originally Robert Redford begged Nichols for the part of Benjamin who would have been a blonde good looking sports jock instead of nerdy Dustin Hoffman.  Nichols told Redford he was wrong for the part, he could never play a loser. Redford said sure he could play a loser. Nichols then replied “O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?” to which Redford replied, “What do you mean?” That’s when Nichols knew for sure Redford was wrong for the role. He didn’t even know what it meant to strike out with a girl!

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8 comments on “The Graduate (1967) Mike Nichols

  1. Wonderful piece there, John. But then, there’s nothing extraordinary in that cos this blog abounds in such wonderful writeups :)

    Graduate happens to be one of my favourites as well. I don’t really care about the negatives, but the fact that you put them in words shows how strong the pros about this movie were that it has become not just a classic, but also, as you’ve so eloquently expressed, a cultural icon.

    And the 2 songs by Simon & Garfunkel – wow!!! If Mrs. Robinson was marvelous, Sounds of Silence remains one of the greatest songs ever written, making the phrase my favourite oxymoron.

    And yes, Robert Redford might have ruined the movie. The nerdishness that Dustin Hoffman brought in to the role was essential to the progression of the plot.

    By the way, the source material by Charles Webb that you’ve mentioned, is it worth a read? Should I try & grab a copy of the book?

    • John Greco says:

      Shubhajit, thanks very much for the kind words. I am glad we are on the same page with this film. It is one of those films that meant a lot at the time and remains an exceptionally well made film.

      As far as the novel, it was a long time ago but I remember it is very much dialogue driven (like reading a screenplay) and it was funny. However, since it was so long ago it is hard to make a recommendation one way or the other.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    “The film came out at a time when American cinema was finding a new path; a new generation of filmmakers were just beginning to emerge, many from television and the theater.”

    Aye John, and it is one of the most groundbreaking films in all of American cinema, one that literally defined a generation, and integrated so many cultural elements including the landmark Simon & Garfunkle score. It’s arguably Nichols’ greatest film, and the one that characterized the rebeliousness of the the late 60’s. The running commentary by Professor Howard Suber on the Criterion laserdisc of the film provides one of the finest analytical and historical examination of this movie milestone, but you, yourself here have really outdone yourself with a spectacular consideration of the film by way of narrative context, casting, cultural influence, and characterization. It’s s brilliant essay, one of your finest, and one you should really be proud of.

    • John Greco says:

      Sam, thank you very much. It is good to see the love for this film. This is a film that should be required viewing for young filmmakers, the composition, the editing, the music and the performances are all pitch perfect.

      Interesting about Professor Suber’s commentary on the laser disc. I have the DVD Special Edition which has a interesting interview with Hoffman. Too bad they did not include the Suber commentary.

  3. Dave says:

    I LOVE this movie as well, John. Your treatment here is wonderful, as the historical context of this film in particular only adds to its greatness. This is definitely one of those historical benchmark films, as the movie itself is so linked to the general mood of the times. In fact, during the “History Through Film” class that I took in college just a few years ago, The Graduate (along with Easy Rider) were the two films used for the 1960s. It’s impossible for me not to instantly connect the film with the entire era… and I’m sure that the soundtrack has a lot to do with this association as well.

    Hoffman and Bancroft both give unbelievable performances here. You’re spot on in noting that Hoffman adds the touch of nerdiness to the role that is absolutely essential.

    • John Greco says:

      I wish they had film classes like that when I went to school.

      The use of the music in this film was important. I think it was the first time music of the rock generation was used in a movie as part of the soundtrack.

      Dave, thanks again for the kind words, my friend!!!

  4. Judy says:

    A great review of a great film, John – I appreciate all the historical context. Must admit I had never realised there was such a small age gap between Hoffman and Bancroft – they both give such powerful performances that they make you believe it is a much bigger gap.

    On Charles Webb, there was a lot of news coverage of him in the UK a few years ago when it was reported that he and his wife were living in the Brighton area in poverty and facing eviction from their home for a debt of £1,600 – sadly he sold the film rights to ‘The Graduate’ for a one-off payment of $20,000 and apparently this also had a clause including the film rights for any sequels he might write in the future! His Wikipedia entry says he has now published a sequel, ‘Home School’, which was supposed to clear his debts – must admit I haven’t read either novel.

    Unfortunately I did see ‘Rumor Has It’, a sort of weak movie sequel to ‘The Graduate’, which just reminded me how good the original was.

    • John Greco says:

      I remember hearing about Webb being in debt, and yes he sold the rights for practically nothing. Of course, he was an unknown young writer at the time and “The Graduate” was a first novel, and not a financial success until after the movie, so I am sure the hot shots in Hollywood took advantage if him.

      I also saw “Rumor Has It” and quite agree the film was weak.

      Thanks Judy!

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