#8) The Graduate (1967)
OR “Ben of Iniquity”
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on the novel by Charles Webb.
Class of 1996
This is a revised and expanded version of my original “Graduate” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home to suburban Los Angeles after graduating from an eastern college. At a party thrown by his parents, Ben attracts the attention of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner. Unsure of his future and doing nothing with his present, Ben awkwardly accepts Mrs. Robinson’s offer of a sexual tryst. The affair continues throughout the summer, but complications arise when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns home and starts dating Ben. Strap in for one of filmdom’s most bizarrely iconic love triangles.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Nichols, Hoffman, Bancroft and Henry for “concoct[ing] a funny and satirical look at a certain slice of Americana”, though admits that the film “doesn’t capture the ‘60s as well as the edgier ‘Easy Rider’”. Ouch. An essay by film critic Jami Bernard is a celebration of the film’s visual style, and a disapproval of the pan-and-scanned TV version (which dates this essay quite a bit).
But Does It Really?: While “The Graduate” might not capture the zeitgeist of the late ‘60s, its examination of young adulthood’s uncertainties is timeless. The successful adaptation from page to screen is supported by Nichols’ inventive directing, as well as pitch perfect performances from Hoffman and Bancroft. “The Graduate” isn’t as groundbreaking or taboo at it once was, but its universality, A+ craftsmanship, and ongoing legacy has ensured its place in film history.
Everybody Gets One: After an unsuccessful string of B-pictures for Fox in the early ‘50s, Anne Bancroft returned to her native New York to study at the Actors Studio (among other places). Bancroft had a string of successful stage performances on Broadway, including Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker”, a role she reprised for the Oscar-winning film version. She won the role of Mrs. Robinson after every actress of a certain age from Patricia Neal to Ava Gardner turned it down.
Wow, That’s Dated: Many have commented on the film’s failure to capture 1967 America, but there are flashes of the youth counterculture when Nichols’ guerilla filmmaking takes to the streets of Berkeley. Also dated: bossa nova mood music, and couples needing to take a blood test before getting married.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial success, “The Graduate” entered a very crowded Oscar race with seven nominations, including Best Picture. Despite losing to fellow NFR entries “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night”, the film did manage one win: Best Director for Mike Nichols. To date, “The Graduate” is the most recent film to only win an Oscar for its director.
- “The Graduate” was originally going to be Mike Nichols’ film directing debut, but production was delayed so that Nichols could helm the sought-after film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
- Veteran screenwriter Calder Willingham and TV comedy writer Buck Henry penned separate drafts of “The Graduate”, with Henry’s script being the final version. When word got out that Henry would receive sole credit, Willingham successfully lobbied to have his name on the credits as well, pointing out that both drafts crib large selections of the book’s dialogue verbatim.
- Shoutout to cinematographer Robert Surtees. “The Graduate” is the rare film that successfully translates the verbal storytelling of the novel into the visual storytelling of the movies. Surtees’ compositions illustrate the isolation felt not only by Benjamin, but by practically every other character as well.
- Feeny! Fe-he-he-heeny!
- Walter Brooke had been acting in the movies for 25 years when he was cast as Mr. Maguire, but he finally achieved film immortality with just one word…
- Bancroft is relishing the opportunity to play against type as an assertive, yet equally vulnerable seductress. Bancroft/Robinson knows what she is doing at all times.
- Apparently there’s a “Bewitched” convention at the Taft Hotel; complete with Esmeralda and Aunt Clara!
- Dustin Hoffman was an unconventional choice for Ben (Warren Beatty and Robert Redford tested for it), but his depiction of the character’s awkwardness and uncertainty is flawless. Now if only Hoffman didn’t become an alleged chronic sexual predator after this…
- Today’s revelatory backstory brought to you by Ford Motors: You’re ahead in a Ford!
- The last time I covered this film I gave Elaine flack for being “underwritten”. Obviously, I wasn’t paying attention. Elaine might not be a perfect match for Benjamin, but she is definitely a kindred spirit who identifies with his confusion and suppression from the older generation. This is aided by the lovely subtleties Katharine Ross brings to the part. Her Elaine is definitely her mother’s daughter.
- Is it only raining on Benjamin’s car? I didn’t realize he was driving an Alfa Romeo Eeyore.
- As a Bay Area resident, it’s my obligation to point out that when Ben drives over the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, he’s going the wrong way. He should be driving on the less cinematic lower level.
- Norman Fell as a skeptical landlord? Quick, someone give him a sexually repressed wife!
- One of Ben’s fellow tenants is a young unknown Richard Dreyfuss. His character is studying oceanography at Berkeley, and will one day convince Mr. Robinson to close the beaches!
- Simon & Garfunkel’s music was originally a placeholder before “The Graduate” was scored, but Nichols liked it and convinced the duo to write/perform more songs for the soundtrack. After Nichols rejected Simon’s first two compositions, Simon pitched a half-finished song about Eleanor Roosevelt. “Mrs. Roosevelt” became “Mrs. Robinson”, Simon’s ad-libbed “dee-dee-dees” stayed in, and behold, a classic.
- The final lingering shot of Ben and Elaine letting their new reality sink in on the bus is a fine example of New Hollywood-style storytelling. The only thing that mars the ending is the obvious dubbing in the Mrs. Robinson-Elaine exchange, “It’s too late.” “Not for me.” Other than that, great movie.
- Everyone benefited from the success of “The Graduate”. Hoffman and Ross became movie stars, Nichols spent the next 40 years as a film director, and Anne Bancroft continued being an in-demand character actor for the rest of her life, albeit with a new following of sexually awakened younger fans.
- Author Charles Webb hesitated to pen any sequels to “The Graduate”, knowing they could be adapted into a film without his involvement. Webb finally relented following some financial hardships, and 2007’s “Home School” was roundly panned by critics and readers alike.
- As for film sequels, the closest we ever got was this pitch from Buck Henry in the opening shot of “The Player”.
- A stage adaptation of the novel played New York and London in the early 2000s, meaning a significant number of theatergoers have been in the same room as a naked Kathleen Turner.
- The cultural references to “The Graduate” continue to this day, but as always, classic-era “Simpsons” leads the way. Here’s someone named Sam Etic doing a spot-on Dustin Hoffman.
Listen to This: Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 album (and 2012 NRR entry) “Sounds of Silence” features two songs from the “Graduate” soundtrack; “April Come She Will” and, of course, “The Sound of Silence”. The completed “Mrs. Robinson” would appear on their album “Bookends”, released three months after “The Graduate”.