THE GRADUATE (1967)

  • Director: Mike Nichols
  • Writers: Calder Willingham & Buck Henry, based on the novel by Charles Webb
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, and Murray Hamilton
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#17), 1 Oscar (Best Director (Mike Nichols)), 6 additional Oscar Nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Actress (Anne Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Katherine Ross), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, Rent on YouTube, Buy on Amazon Video

I think that the subject matter this movie deals with (aka a younger guy having an affair with a married woman) was probably a lot more shocking in 1967. Today, my reaction to most of the early sections of this movie is “JUST SLEEP WITH MRS. ROBINSON AND STOP PUTZING AROUND, YOU RIDICULOUS DEPRESSED KERMIT THE FROG.” On a basic level, Benjamin Braddock leaves me wanting to strangle him. I think this frustration actually comes from how ahead of its time this movie was in many ways. It’s easy to forget that it came out two years after The Sound of Music, and just because it many ways it feels not so different from a Wes Anderson movie doesn’t mean that Dustin Hoffman isn’t running around with neuroses that are hard to recognize today.

So yes, I do have mixed feelings about this movie. Of course it has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, with Simon & Garfunkel writing basically all their hits for the soundtrack of this movie. The filmmakers used existing tracks like “The Sound of Silence” to pace the editing, then decided the movie wouldn’t work unless they left them in. This was an unusual move at the time, but basically ended up inventing the modern movie soundtrack by accident. Simon & Garfunkel then agreed to change the lyrics to one of their songs, originally about “Mrs. Roosevelt,” to “Hey, Mrs. Robinson.” That is only one of many ways that The Graduate feels like an extremely early example of the “modern movie.”

There is a school of thought that the best directing is directing the viewer doesn’t notice at all, like umpires at a baseball game. Whatever the opposite of that sentiment is, it may be typified by Mike Nichols, who directs this movie within an inch of its life, mostly for the better. I could watch this movie on mute just for the shots Nichols uses, though then I would miss the songs. I am probably not alone in this sentiment, given that Nichols won Best Director at the Oscars but this movie lost Best Picture to In the Heat of the Night. This is a movie where Dustin Hoffman dresses up in a SCUBA outfit and falls into a pool, where he stands on the bottom in the middle of a crowd of people in his backyard. He’s feeling alienated, get it?

This is also, of course, the first major film role for Dustin Hoffman (his second, Midnight Cowboy, would also make it onto the AFI Top 100 list). He was seen as one of the leading members of the “new breed” of actors, throwing himself into each role. One thing I find strange about The Graduate is that from a plot perspective it seems like one of the movie’s major assumptions is that Benjamin is very young and handsome and women would of course throw themselves at him. But… even then, did women think Dustin Hoffman was handsome? Even the movie’s screenwriter, Buck Henry, said that Hoffman “made conventional good lucks no longer necessary on screen,” which is a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one.

Though it maintains a reputation as a movie of the 60s counterculture, the movie’s plot was controversial for reasons outside of its themes of youthful alienation. In the early portions of the movie, Benjamin is a recent college graduate who has no idea what to do with his life and no idea how to relate to his parents (his father is played by William Daniels, who I mostly remember from 1776 and Boy Meets World). He spends the first half of the movie being laboriously seduced by his parents’ friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). She is a much older, married woman, and the movie is very frank about what’s going on. Bizarrely from my perspective here in 2020, Benjamin’s reaction to her overtures is something like blind panic. The camera flashes, almost subliminally, to parts of her body when she stands in front of him, naked, but spends more time on the expression of Benjamin’s eyes. That expression mostly seems to be horror. But he inevitably does sleep with her, then becomes more and more neurotic about it, and then falls for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). Despite all of Mrs. Robinson’s attempts to keep them apart, he crashes Elaine’s wedding in Santa Barbara and the two of them run off together. The movie ends on a shot that lingers longer than we’re expecting on Benjamin and Katherine’s faces at the back of a bus, as the euphoria wears off and they start wondering what’s next.

In 1967 this was about as shocking as mainstream American movies got, though today I doubt it would even be rated R. At any rate, all of this has perhaps seeped into the culture now to one degree or another, so it’s hard to get any distance from it. People my age who don’t necessarily even know this movie exists will likely still recognize many of the famous shots, like Benjamin framed by Mrs. Robinson’s sexy, stockinged leg. The scene where Benjamin crashes the wedding was recreated almost shot for shot in Wayne’s World 2, with the huge cross he bars the door with replaced with an electric guitar (in turn, Nichols apparently basically lifted the sequence from a 1924 silent comedy starring Harold Lloyd, Girl Shy). But how many people my age have actually seen this movie? I’m not sure.

For many modern viewers the most controversial part is less likely to be the adultery storyline, but rather he somewhat cavalier way the movie treats Mrs. Robinson falsely accusing Dustin Hoffman of rape. Perhaps strangest of all is the tone of the scene where Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine tells him, where she seems to both believe her mother and only be a little put off by it. In general, in fact, Benjamin seems to me to do almost nothing to make Elaine fall for him, yet she seems to. Maybe she’s just getting with him to piss off her parents?

Roger Ebert did a somewhat famous re-evaluation of this movie on its thirtieth anniversary, saying he now sympathized more with Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin comes off as an “insufferable creep.” This is closer to how I see the film now, too, though the movie turns Mrs. Robinson fully into a villain in the third act. Nearly every older actress in Hollywood was offered the role, but most were scared off by the storyline and implied nudity. Bancroft was only 35 at the time, just six years older than Hoffman, and, at the time, a much bigger star than he was. Bancroft had won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker five years earlier. I also discovered while researching this that she was married to Mel Brooks.

As Ebert pointed out, those of us today may get different things out of this movie than young audiences did in 1967. There is certainly a disconnect today between young people and their parents, of course, and there are many of those elements that still ring true. But today the primary reason for re-watching The Graduate is the way it has influenced filmmaking ever since. Just as The Graduate was one of the first mainstream American films to be heavily influenced by the European (particularly French) New Wave of the 50s and early 60s, a direct line can be drawn from it to everything from Annie Hall to The Life Aquatic to Garden State. But boy, Benjamin is super annoying.

One thought on “THE GRADUATE (1967)

  1. That shot of Elaine and Benjamin always read to me like “In 25 years, we’re going to be just like our parents” with Elaine the next Mrs. Robinson and Ben investing in plastics, or whatever is hot, but mundane.

    Like

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