Sunday, August 21, 2011

1967 - The Graduate

I am now back in New York City, happy to be home with my beautiful wife once more. After months of sporadic trips to various parts of the country for work, it is nice to be settled in again. It makes for a nice change. Speaking of change (see what I did there?), you may have noticed some slight additions to the website. In a bout of enthusiasm, I created a Google AdSense account to see if this silly little hobby of mine might actually earn me some pocket money. The enthusiasm continued when I also became an Amazon Associate, allowing to me offer product links to DVDs and perhaps other appropriate items. With a recent (minor) increase in this blog's traffic, I thought I would try these things out and see how it fares. So, if you see anything interesting, go ahead and click, and I might make one-third of a cent. No need to worry, though, dear reader. Matt vs. the Academy is not going anywhere. Whether or not this little experiment is successful, the Best Picture nominee reviews will continue.

For purposes more practical and less greedy than those above, I've also added links to make it easier to subscribe to this blog, as well as to share it with your friends. In the sidebar on the right, you'll find ways to subscribe to posts and/or comments through the blog reader of your choice, or you can submit your email address to receive each post by email. Plus, at the bottom of each post, there is now a row of lovely social networking buttons.

Whew! With that administration out of the way, let's get to the next review, a classic Best Picture nominee from 1967...

The Graduate
Mike Nichols
Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
(based on the novel by Charles Webb)
Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

The graduate of the title is Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), recently returned from college without a clue as to what to do with his life. His parents (Daniels & Wilson) are throwing him a graduation party and all their friends have suggestions for his future. One word: plastics. One of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson (Bancfroft), has a more deviant idea. She persuades Benjamin to drive her home after the party and, once inside, proceeds to seduce him. A flustered Benjamin rejects her advances but, several days (or perhaps weeks) later, his boredom and loneliness and curiosity get the better of him and he calls Mrs. Robinson to take her up on her sordid offer.

The two begin a secret affair. Soon, however, Benjamin is unsatisfied with the purely physical nature of their relationship and wants to have an actual conversation with Mrs. Robinson. That turns out to be not such a good idea, after all. Their conversation quickly turns into an argument when Mrs. Robinson gets rather agitated at the idea of Benjamin taking out her daughter, Elaine (Ross), a thought that had never crossed his mind until she made him promise not to do it. Naturally, when Elaine visits during a college break, Benjamin's parents pressure him into asking her out and he reluctantly obliges. Benjamin's idea of sabotaging the date by taking Elaine to a strip club fails miserably and he finds himself in the extremely complicated situation of falling in love with his lover's daughter.

The Graduate is undeniably a product of the 1960s. The groovy decor and fashion, the hippie music from Simon & Garfunkel, even the prolific use of the zoom lens. In fact, in his sophomore film as director, Mike Nichols - who had made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only one year earlier - makes good use of his camera, presenting us with some uniquely artistic visuals. Sometimes, we see characters through their reflections on a coffee table. Other times, we see characters talking but are unable to hear their words due to loud music or crowds. We feel Benjamin's isolation through a POV shot as he scuba dives into a backyard swimming pool. We feel his confinement through the now very famous shot of his body literally trapped in the frame by Mrs. Robinson's leg. Then, there is the rapid-fire series of brief shots when Mrs. Robinson presents her naked self to Benjamin, a sequence oddly reminiscent of the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho.

Clearly, The Graduate was written as a comedy. But what's interesting is that, despite the genuinely funny script, Nichols and the cast don't overplay it. Quite an achievement since there are some very jokey jokes in there, which would be just as at home in a Marx Brothers movie. Dustin Hoffman remains deadpan when given just one strange word of advice, "plastics". Nor does he mug when inadvertently uttering a sexual pun, "wood". And he is very much sincere when suggesting his plan of marrying Elaine is "completely baked".

This restraint is incredibly effective, allowing the film to comment on social issues with honesty. Indeed, The Graduate captures the feeling of uncertainty that is the fate of people like Benjamin Braddock, who are stepping into the real world for the first time after a lifetime of school, a feeling that probably hasn't changed all that much since the 60s. The final few minutes of the film are particularly captivating. We cheer on Benjamin and Elaine as they frantically jump on a bus laughing and smiling, on a high from their exhilarating and spontaneous moment of defiance. The camera lands on the two sitting at the back of the bus, still smiling as they look behind them at the aftermath of their actions. But the shot lingers. And their smiles slowly fade. And it is a wonderful summing up of the whole film. Three words: what happens now?

As mentioned, rising star Dustin Hoffman carries the film with understated perfection, earning his first Oscar nomination. Remaining subtle in the face of farcical elements seems to work well for him (see Tootsie). Anne Bancroft, also nominated, succeeds as the nonchalant cougar. (Iinterestingly, she was only six years older than Hoffman.) The film's third nominee, Katharine Ross, is movingly gentle. Also of note are William Daniels as Benjamin's well-intentioned father and Murray Hamilton (last seen here in Jaws) as the cuckolded Mr. Robinson. Finally, two bit part players have gone on to bigger and better things. Mike Farrell, famous for M*A*S*H, appears very briefly as a bellhop. And also from Jaws - amongst many, many other things - that's Richard Dreyfuss as the boarding house resident eager to call the cops.

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  1. Back into my time machine: Winter break 1967; I was a 20 yr. old college senior at the University of Miami. A bunch of us went to see The Graduate at the Miracle Theater (appropriate located on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables). To say this film had an impact on us would be a gross understatement. There was so much laughter going on that I had to see it a second time almost immediately. I think I saw it 5 or 6 times during its theatrical run.
    This social satire on the generation gap wisely kept to personal and familial issues and didn’t comment much on broader national problems. This has, I believe kept it fresh and less dated, narratively at least. Told almost completely from Benjamin’s point of view, it leaves it up to the audience to speculate about other character’s motives. It is what give’s the ending its ambiguity.

    The casting can take up an entire article by itself. The film was in development for several years, and many performers were considered. Robert Redford was approached early on and wisely declined. He’d be more suited for the role of Carl “the ‘ol make-out king” Smith. Charles Grodin could certainly play dead-pan and probably was closer in description to the book’s Benjamin, but after seeing Hoffman, I can’t imagine a better choice. Bit player, at the time, Richard Dreyfuss, wanted the part really bad, but he was still a few years away from his break out. As for Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft wasn’t approached until Jeanne Moreau, Doris Day, Patricia Neal and Ava Gardner to name some, turned it down. Bancroft was brilliant. I’ve always seen a facial similarity with Michelle Pfeiffer, who would be my casting choice with Jason Schwartzman if redone probably 8 years ago.

    The New York Times ran a series called Watching Movies with….(various film directors). One of them was The Graduate with Ron Howard. Howard stated that seeing The Graduate is what made him switch from actor to director. One comment he makes is regarding the tone of the film, which like Bonnie and Clyde, fluctuates. “The tone of this movie was so revolutionary at the time, and in a lot of ways it still is.” He said. “in some ways it’s a traditional kind of sex comedy, but it’s not shot like a screwball comedy. It’s shot like a drama. Look at all these dark rooms and tense moments. Yet the comedy keeps reasserting itself.”

    I’d have to agree that the tonal shifts didn’t bother me as much as they did in Bonnie and Clyde. Mike Nichols probably has never been better at direction. The Sound of Silence/April Come She Will montage was especially clever switching seamlessly from Benjamin’s house to the hotel room. These musical interludes became cliché in the years that followed, but back then, they were new. I think of Simon and Garfunkel’s music more as Bob Dylan-influenced poetic folk music more than hippie music, but it did speak to the flower-child generation.

    There will be certain movies from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies that will elicit strong feelings in me beyond the film itself. I think, depending on one’s age, we all have a time period where certain movies filled a special emotional space within us.

  2. I feel like I've almost grown with the movie. I saw it as a child not understanding most of it. As a teenager it meant something completely different thann what it means to me now. It really is a true classic.

    Welcome to LAMB and a great concept and challenge. All the best.

  3. Mike Nichols' seminal film at once reflected the generation gap and also widened it, giving youths a clear voice, indigenous music, villains (all adults), and a sympathtic anti-hero, played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman in a career-making turn. Good Review!