THE GRADUATE walked across the stage with honors in the new-day-dawning year of 1967, the #1 boxoffice hit, a gross of $103,500,000 (it cost just $3,000,000) minting a brand new left-field star in Dustin Hoffman, securing as well that co-stars, director, writer and a couple of musicians would not have to worry about future employment. The adaptation of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel went through several drafts from several writers before director Mike Nichols decided on the take from Buck Henry, who also has a small part as a hotel clerk. *
Fresh out of college, 21-year-old ‘Benjamin Braddock’ (Hoffman, 29) can barely mumble communication to his shallow parents and their upper-class Beverly Hills friends. When predatory cougar ‘Mrs.Robinson’ (Anne Bancroft, 35, with hair color added to make her seem a decade older) seduces the awkward clod, they don’t have anything to talk about either. Ben meets her daughter ‘Elaine’ (Katherine Ross, 27) and after treating her miserably, decides she’s the girl for him. Time for a showdown or three.
Though the self-loving/self-hating Luxury = Empty angst of Beverly Hills-spawned putzes like Ben weren’t the ongoing where’s-the-rent? sweat taxing 90% of the population, the alienation theme fit the time and caught a large part of the upending national mood. So what if everyone in the movie except Elaine was portrayed as a joke (and she doesn’t come off all that well) and that Ben’s got as much character as a chicken–in fact he’s a pitiful jerk? No matter. It was the just-right confluence of script wit, performance nuance and directorial skill, bolstered by the keen decision to add the musical poetry of Simon & Garfunkle. The gell tolled at the right moment to capture the “what’s it mean?” shudder splitting the country along any number of fault lines. Though Vietnam, race, drugs and politics are nowhere to be found in the screenplay, their underlying economic/spiritual/ethical chasm hit a collective nerve, in a year primed for fuses lit by art, expressed in cinema. Plus, Anne Bancroft could melt your stove: Ben may be a dolt, but he’s not a moron.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/ Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you”
The impact is somewhat dulled by time—modern viewers, jaded/spoiled/numbed to the point where they react like Mr.Robinson—may shrug and wonder what was the big deal. Your time will come–oh, looks like it has…
Still, this generational touchstone retains a strong nostalgic pull. The agate-polished performances hold power. The fluid look achieved through Nichols direction and Robert Surtees’ superior cinematography can’t be faulted. The music is perfect. Along with Hoffman’s cute-goofy skillful bumbling and Bancroft’s wonderfully assured scary-seductive allure, there are juicy pieces of supporting work from character greats like William Daniels as Ben’s dad and Murray Hamilton as ‘Mr.Robinson’. Daniels scored a comic trifecta that year, showing up in Two For The Road and The President’s Analyst. Hamilton could finesse “unctuous” into an art form. Plus, another solid, unsung supporting pro, Walter Brooke, gets one brief, immortal scene to deliver what could stand for the most trenchant one line/one word in movie history: “Plastics.” Little did we know. **
“Laugh about it, shout about it/ When you’ve got to choose/ Every way you look at this you lose”
Oscar-time came and Nichols picked up a trophy for his direction. Nominations went for Best Picture, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Bancroft), Screenplay (Henry shared the nomination with Calder Willingham), Supporting Actress (Ross), and Cinematography.
105 minutes, with Elizabeth Wilson, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne. Don’t blink and you’ll catch Richard Dreyfuss, 19, in his first feature credit–he has one line.
* Backstory trivia about the casting is legion: every actress in town was considered, including Doris Day: in her autobio she offered “I could not see myself rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age whom I’d seduced.” ‘Batman’s Burt Ward was up for Benjamin but couldn’t get out of his TV contract. Robert Redford was in, because in the book, Ben was a WASP, but Nichols couldn’t believe Redford would have any trouble with women, so the script and casting switched ethnicity and type. Patty Duke turned down Elaine, only to crash-land that same year in Valley Of The Dolls.
“We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files/ We’d like to help you learn to help yourself”
** 1967—-yes, there were creaky throwback tankers like Camelot, Doctor Doolittle, The Way West, Eight On The Lamb, Clambake and Valley Of The Dolls (crucial in its majestic badness). But they mean zip next to The Graduate, Bonnie And Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke, In The Heat Of The Night, The Good The Bad and The Ugly and In Cold Blood. Add in To Sir With Love, The St.Valentines Day Massacre, Hour Of The Gun, The President’s Analyst, Two For The Road, The War Wagon, El Dorado, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, Bedazzled, Up The Down Staircase, Wait Until Dark, The Whisperers, Point Blank, The Trip, The Fearless Vampire Killers, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and You Only Live Twice. As they say, ‘you had to be there’ (unless, of course, there was Vietnam).
“Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids/ Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson”