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. It could be the blaring rock sound of The Ronettes singing, 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 film’s 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 Benjamin runs away with in the end, after she marries the blonde haired, waspy Carl, who apparently she was forced to marry. Elaine, who found Benjamin disgusting when she discovered he had slept with her mother. However, there she is, a half hour later, chowing down on burgers and fries at a drive-in with him. Benjamin 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 happened 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 look and style of the film was 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 truly 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 more 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, the love generation, an anti-establishment movement was growing. There was 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 white picketed 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. 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 viewed 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 Benjamin 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 in New York 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!
(1) Originally Robert Redford begged Mike 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 quizzically 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!