Wednesday 21 March 2018

The Graduate at 50: a 1960s period piece that stands the test of time

On its 50th anniversary, Mike Nichols' The Graduate is being released in a new print. And as our film critic discovers, it bears up remarkably well

The Graduate turns 50 this year
The Graduate turns 50 this year

Paul Whitington

The first time The Graduate impinged on my consciousness was at some point in the 1970s: it was on television, and my parents were particularly keen on my not watching it. Why, I wondered? I recalled a picture of a woman leisurely removing a stocking - that may have had something to do with it.

Later, when I finally got to see it, I wondered what all the fuss was about. All that folksy Simon and Garfunkel music got on my wick, Dustin Hoffman's passive-aggressive character was infuriating, and the only interesting thing about it was Anne Bancroft: if a chap was going to have Oedipal issues, they might as well be about her.

But the young are glib about the things their parents consider important, and a fresh viewing has forced me to completely reassess Mike Nichols' film. The Graduate turns 50 this year, and to mark the occasion, a new print is being given a limited cinema release. You should go see it, because it really is a treat.

On the surface, The Graduate is a period piece. Paul Simon's catchy theme song 'Mrs Robinson' is purest 1967, and Benjamin Braddock's parents and friends enjoy a vulgarly opulent lifestyle that would horrify their right-on descendants. They live in sprawling Californian haciendas, all have their own swimming pools, and the men swagger about swapping golf stories with their hands in their pockets while their bored wives stand around like wallflowers.

But Nichols and the film's producer, Lawrence Turman, were not celebrating the joys of post-war America's laissez-faire capitalism, they were rejecting it. Hoffman's character, Benjamin, has returned in triumph from a stint at college during which he seems to have won every academic and sporting prize going. His proud parents have thrown a party, and their friends crowd around Ben preening and fussing, to his evident displeasure.

Everyone keeps asking him what he's going to do with his future, and one captain of industry takes him aside and whispers "just one word - plastics".

But Ben's bewildered by it all, and his confusion is not lost on Mrs Robinson (Bancroft), the sultry and jaded-looking wife of his dad's business partner. Mrs Robinson has large, tired eyes and favours animal-print coats and dresses; she moves like a tigress, and easily bullies Ben into giving her a lift home from the party. There, to his hilarious discomfort, she begins to expertly seduce him, and they embark on a summer-long affair conducted in various hotel rooms.

For Ben, a wide-eyed innocent, it's a sort of education, but he wants more, and insists on chatting to Mrs Robinson when she'd rather be getting down to business. And things get well and truly complicated when Ben is forced to go out on a date with Mrs Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), and ends up falling in love with her.

It was producer Lawrence Turman who got the project going. He'd left his father's garment business to pursue a career in film, and in 1964 had spent his own money buying the rights to Charles Webb's novel The Graduate.

But financing proved very difficult, especially as Turman insisted that Mike Nichols direct it. At that point Nichols had never directed a film, and had made his name doing comic revues and directing Neil Simon plays on Broadway.

But when Nichols was signed to direct a movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965 at Elizabeth Taylor's insistence, producer Joseph E Levine agreed to finance The Graduate.

Nichols, like Lawrence Turman and Benjamin Braddock, had rebelled against convention, abandoning his medical studies to break into showbusiness. He saw huge potential in Charles Webb's story: it was the mid-1960s, and young people were beginning en masse to reject their parents' values in a way that had never happened before. The Graduate might provide a means of catching the mood of the moment, but good casting, and bold storytelling, would be crucial to its success.

With the help of veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees, Nichols tried new ways of visually expressing Ben's isolation, and intense longings. Moody long shots of Ben driving or walking alone were juxtaposed with unforgiving close-ups that emphasised his fear of becoming trapped.

As Surtees later put it: "We would do whatever we could think of to express the mood, the emotion of the scene".

Not everything worked, and the scene in which Ben demonstrates his existential woes by sitting moodily at the bottom of the family pool in a diving suit is heavy-handed, and very much of its time. But overall, Nichols' creative bravery paid off.

Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen were all considered for the part of Benjamin, but Nichols instinctively felt that a different, less assured kind of presence was required. When he talked to Redford about the part, he asked him, "have you ever struck out with a girl?" Redford was puzzled. "What do you mean?" "That's precisely my point," Nichols replied.

Not everyone was thrilled about his plan to cast unknown stage actor Dustin Hoffman in the part: he was short, not conventionally handsome, and Hoffman would later be wounded by what he called a "veiled anti-Semitism" in reviews of the film that made constant reference to the size of his nose. But he was brilliant as Ben, and much of the film's comedy stems from the contrast between his clumsy advances and the sleek cynicism of Mrs Robinson.

Joan Crawford fancied that part, as did Lauren Bacall, and Ava Gardner actively lobbied Nichols before insisting that "I strip for nobody". She would have been so much less subtle than Bancroft, whose Mrs Robinson is simultaneously alluring and pathetic, and seems profoundly disgusted with herself, and the world. In reality, Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman, but neither performance ever let you know that.

Nichols wanted Paul Simon to write a series of new songs for the film, but he was constantly touring and didn't have time. So an existing song, The Sound of Silence, was used for the opening credits, and a new one, Mrs Robinson, appeared later on.

Simon had originally written it about former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and told Nichols "it's not for the movie - it's a song about times past".

"It's now about Mrs Robinson," Nichols told him.

The iconic song is used most effectively in strummed fragments, during the film's climax, when Ben races around Santa Barbara trying to prevent Elaine's impending wedding. He succeeds, and bars the church door with a crucifix to stymie his pursuers while he and the bride escape on a bus.

As the film closes, they sit at the back, and Robert Surtees' camera settles on their faces as the euphoria of the moment is replaced by flashes of worry, and doubt. It's a special cinematic moment, which perfectly captures the clueless impetuousness of youth.

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