Friday, October 23, 2020

The Graduate (1967)

USA, 106 minutes
Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Charles Webb
Photography: Robert Surtees
Music: Simon & Garfunkel
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Buck Henry, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Richard Dreyfuss, Mike Farrell, Elaine May

The Graduate was a hit movie everyone conspired to designate a symbol of its unique times, released at Christmas following the Summer of Love and heading into 1968. But for a movie that appeared to have a lot of "relevance," that prized quality of the '60s, The Graduate makes a lot of basic mistakes. It casts Dustin Hoffman as a California kid but he barely has a speck of California in him. Vietnam and a civil rights struggle do not exist in this movie, though the sexual revolution is covered quite adequately (a religious relative of mine, in California no less, once turned off the TV in outrage because this movie was playing). And the basic premise—a young man falls in love with the daughter of the married woman who gives him his sexual awakening—is fairly distasteful when looked at it in isolation, like some inverted, degraded version of a classical Greek drama. It's not tragic, it's tawdry.

But I'm not sure these filmmakers, notably director Mike Nichols, really made mistakes because, after all, it's a comedy they set out to make here. It's absurd like comedy in fundamental ways. Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) may be going through coming-of-age rites of passage but he never seems to learn the first name of his paramour (Anne Bancroft), calling her "Mrs. Robinson" right through to the end, even when they are in bed together. His parents' idea of a gift for his 21st birthday is a scuba diving outfit ... to use in the swimming pool. And Ben is not even capable of getting a room at a hotel without going through ridiculous slapstick-level gyrations. His luggage is in the car but he doesn't need a porter. It's only a toothbrush. My guess is it's primarily the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack that confuses people.

In fact, the Simon & Garfunkel is at once so potent and so seemingly "relevant," in that particular '60s sense, that it's likely the one element persistently giving this clever, flawed comedy its enduring aura of '60s statement. These singing minstrels' contributions may be better remembered now for featuring fragments of the still unfinished hit song "Mrs. Robinson," but arguably their signature song and a heavy '60s bellwether, "The Sounds of Silence," is at least as significant, appearing three times, including at the start and at the end. So there's your argument that the movie is attempting to make big statements about generations and decades. And, yes, it's also playing with ideas around the famous '60s generation gap, as well as sexual freedoms and the benightedness of the white upper middle class. Precisely where it is not relevant, precisely because the concerns of the day are not the concerns of these wealthy insulated nitwits, it may be incidentally making further points about the '60s for those so inclined.

On the other side of that, pulling in the opposite direction, is Dustin Hoffman's performance, in collaboration with director Nichols, which is studied, measured, calibrated for effect, with roots in vaudeville shtick. He is a stone-faced croak-voiced picture of youthful inhibition and repression. A scene of Ben and Mrs. Robinson's first tryst is so spectacularly awkward that Nichols reportedly cracked up on the set and Hoffman, improvising, trying to stop laughing himself, walks away from Bancroft to the rear wall and pounds his head against it. Nichols never shouted "Cut" and the gesture only makes Ben more absurdly awkward in the scene so it stayed in the movie. Much of the humor is drawn directly from Ben's inhibition—his little squeaking noise made from intense self-consciousness, his never-ending politeness to his elders, the awkward ways he expresses himself: "Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends. I mean that." Among other things, The Graduate marked the arrival of an acting talent in Hoffman that would dominate movies for decades.

As for the narrative, I don't know. That's not as inherently funny, or sympathetic, and never has been, instead giving the picture an uncomfortable edge. Co-screenwriter Buck Henry says in a DVD extras interview that he is impressed with and has sympathy for Ben's burgeoning feelings for Elaine, but I have always been uneasy on the point and by now I'm more in sympathy with the parents (even including, to some degree, my religious relative). If you have an affair with a mother, you probably shouldn't marry the daughter, even in a comedy (although a comedy is the place for it if any). That just seems sensible. Woody Allen, are you pathing attention? Nichols, Hoffman, and Katharine Ross as Elaine redeem it somewhat with the great last shot, one of the great last shots in movies, rivaling the one in Another Year in similar ways, with an unexpectedly long take: the elation of the moment subsides and doubts begin to shadow the faces of Ben and Elaine as the bus takes them away into their unknown future.

There has never been a sequel to The Graduate, but a comic discussion of one is pitched (by Buck Henry!) as part of The Player and, in DVD extras, Hoffman also in 1992 had an idea for one. Both involve the marriage of Ben and Elaine lasting, and somewhat cordial relations with Mrs. Robinson. I guess we still have to worry about a remake or, worse, reboot. The last time I watched The Graduate I noticed the resemblance of Benjamin Braddock to Tom Cruise's Joel in Risky Business—same shades, same stone face, same carefully polite way of dealing with elders—so much so that I think Cruise must have studied Hoffman's performance fairly closely. It reminded me again that these are essentially only comedies, with perhaps some pretensions to more. "The thinking man's mindless entertainment," a college friend characterized Risky Business, and in the end it applies equally to The Graduate, now steadily aging out.


  1. A couple of local angles. My wife was at Cal in 1971-73, and she said guys would always try to impress girls by telling them their apartment was one used in The Graduate. Also, when Ben crosses the bridge on his way to Berkeley, he is going the wrong way based on how the bridge was at the time.

    A couple of times, I taught classes at Cal on teenage culture. For the 60s, I couldn't bring myself to show The Graduate, which I don't much like, so I'd show Wild in the Streets.

  2. The local distortions are always funny. In The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jeff Bridges is seen entering a building in one place in downtown Seattle and inexplicably exiting it in another place miles away.