“The Graduate” (1967) is one of the key, ground-breaking films of the late 1960s, and helped to set in motion a new era of film-making. The influential film is a biting satire/comedy about a nebbish, East Coast college graduate who finds himself alienated and adrift in the shifting, social and sexual mores of the 1960s, and questioning the values of society (with its keyword “plastics”). The themes of the film also mirrored the changes occurring in Hollywood, as a new vanguard of younger directors were coming to the forefront. Avant-garde director Mike Nichols, following his debut success of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) with this second film, instantly became a major new talent in American film after winning an Academy Award for his directorship.
The theme of an innocent and confused youth who is exploited, mis-directed, seduced (literally and figuratively) and betrayed by a corrupt, decadent, and discredited older generation (that finds its stability in “plastics”) was well understood by film audiences and captured the spirit of the times. One of the film’s posters proclaimed the difficult coming-of-age for the recent, aimless college graduate:
“This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future”
Director Nichols actually subversively portrayed how aimless and unalive the disaffected young generation was (in the character of Benjamin) – and would become as they approached middle-age and worked in sterile corporate settings. [In the same year, it joined “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) as one of the most popular films for the college-aged generation.] It was complemented by the music of the popular singing duo Simon and Garfunkel from their Grammy-winning “The Sounds of Silence” album (with songs composed earlier and previously-released except for “Mrs. Robinson”), with meaningful, haunting lyrics amidst koo-koo-kachoo sounds to enhance the film’s moods and themes.
The film was nominated for a total of seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Actress (Anne Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Katharine Ross), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The film won only one award – Best Director. The Oscar-nominated screen adaptation by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (who appears as the hotel’s desk clerk) was based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb (a recent graduate of the East Coast’s Williams College when he wrote his first novel).
Warren Beatty, Charles Grodin, Robert Redford, and Burt Ward (the ‘Robin’ character of the TV series Batman) were all considered for the role of Benjamin, and Patricia Neal and Doris Day were considered for the part of Mrs. Robinson. Short-statured (5’6″) Actor Dustin Hoffman had already been cast as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in “The Producers” (1968) when he bowed out and took the role of bumbling graduate Benjamin Braddock. His defection forced Mel Brooks to quickly recast the trademark role with Kenneth Mars.
The film opens with a close-up, disembodied image of Benjamin Braddock’s face (Dustin Hoffman) [a 29 year-old convincingly playing a 21 year-old in his film debut]. It appears that he is alone and isolated – he is – but as the camera pulls back, it reveals that he is on a plane filled with passengers of various ages. He is returning home to Los Angeles from college in the East. Appearing slightly shy and unprepossessing, his face has a blank, expressionless, enervated, zombie-like look. (The beginning and ending scenes of the film are symmetrically patterned after each other – the young couple are also surrounded by a busload of passengers, but remain isolated and impassive.)
While standing mute by himself on the automated, moving walkway (with a monotonous recording: “Please hold the handrail, and stand to the right. If you wish to pass, please do so on the left”) at the busy LAX airport, the credits play as “The Sounds of Silence” is heard on the soundtrack, reinforcing the theme of his emptiness and alienation from his surroundings:
…And in the naked light I saw
ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking
people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
no one dared disturb the sound of silence…
“Just one word: plastic.” “Are you here for an affair?” These lines and others became cultural touchstones, as 1960s youth rebellion seeped into the California upper middle-class in Mike Nichols’ landmark hit. Mentally adrift the summer after graduating from college, suburbanite Benjamin Braddock would rather float in his parents’ pool than follow adult advice about his future.
Together with “Bonnie and Clyde”, it stands as one of the most influential films of the late ’60s, as its mordant dissection of the generation gap helped lead the way to the youth-oriented Hollywood artistic “renaissance” of the early ’70s.
Almost from the start, Mike Nichols knew that Anne Bancroft should play the seductive Mrs. Robinson. But the young film director surprised himself, as well as everyone else, with his choice for The Graduate’s misfit hero, Benjamin Braddock: not Robert Redford, who’d wanted the role, but a little-known Jewish stage actor, Dustin Hoffman. From producer Lawrence Turman’s $1,000 option of a minor novel in 1964 to the movie’s out-of-left-field triumph three years later, Sam Kashner recalls a breakout film that literally changed the face of Hollywood.
(Sam Kashner at VANITYFAIR)
The Graduate is significant for three reasons. First, it is a major work by director Mike Nichols, who is characteristic of what the French call an auteur . (He is in complete control of his films and they contain consistent themes and elements of style.) The Graduate was Nichols’s second film after he directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and it won him an Academy Award for best film director of 1967.
Second, the film was very popular with young people. The Vietnam War was escalating, and many young people were questioning not only the war but certain values of their society. But The Graduate was not a heavy protest film as Getting Straight or The Strawberry Statement were. The film’s concern was not with destroying a materialistic, “plastic” society where people use each other as objects, but with a young man who questions this value system, decides what is important to him, and acts upon it honestly.
Third, the film stands the test of time. It possesses qualities of universality and brilliance because Nichols uses the filmic symbol system to generate laughter and cheers from his viewers.
Mrs. Robinson uses Benjamin as an object to satisfy her desire. Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson carry on their affair until he is forced by his parents to have a date with her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), currently home from college. One kiss from Elaine changes Benjamin from passivity to action. He now pursues Elaine, and overcoming all odds, rescues her at a church just after she marries a medical student. Benjamin and Elaine (she is still in her wedding gown) leave together on a bus.
The Graduate shares with other Nichols’s films the theme of a character who finds himself or herself “drowning” in some way, and who attempts to change. In The Graduate , Nichols shows this drowning visually. Early in the film, Benjamin is in his room alone during his graduation party staring into an aquarium which has a model of a diver at the bottom of the tank.
His father has Benjamin wear the suit to “show off” in front of friends. In this suit, which relates to the diver in the aquarium, Benjamin enters the backyard pool and then just sinks to the bottom. He stays underwater as the camera pulls back, making him almost disappear.
The Graduate also shares with other Nichols films the tentative ending, where the viewer is left to ponder if enough really has changed. In the ending of The Graduate , Benjamin has rescued Elaine and they escape on a bus. They don’t speak. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” is sung, as it was at the beginning of the film. The point Nichols is making is that perhaps not enough has changed, and that Benjamin cannot free himself from his society completely; he can only try, by seeing clearly and being true to himself and his own values.
Elements of style that Nichols uses so well in The Graduate that can also be found in his other films are the use of the environment to comment on the states of his characters (cool colors and white walls in The Graduate emphasize a sterile environment), heads that fill the screen while the background is often out of focus (Benjamin moving through the guests at his graduation party as the camera, concentrating on him, shows his isolation), and the use of filmic technique to comment on the situation (Benjamin runs to the church to rescue Elaine but appears to be running in place without getting anywhere, since Nichols had this action shot through a very long lens that flattens perspective).
The Graduate remains today as funny and profound as it was when first released. It articulates concerns about values. And for Benjamin, Elaine, and the viewer, there is a tentative note of hope.
(By H. Wayne Schuth at filmreference.com)
Director Mike Nichols said that while filming the Berkeley scenes in The Graduate, he sensed a great deal of “hostility” from the people of San Francisco.
“To them, we represented the corruption of Hollywood and the middle class element of the United States,” said Nichols. Dustin Hoffman recalled, “People that were critical of the film said, ‘How can you make a film about somebody coming out of college where there’s no mention of Vietnam, there’s no mention of pot, drugs, the women’s movement, and everything?’ Mike’s answer was, ‘Well, because we did the book.’ The book was written in ’62, and he made no attempt to update it.”
(“The Graduate and the Generation Gap” at AMCtv.com)
Remembers Katharine Ross, “We were sort of still in the ’50s mentality. While we were shooting in Berkeley, the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco — and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”
Screenwriter Buck Henry explained that the film was never specifically meant for the youth audience of 1967. “It was film made by and for a generation that hadn’t had films made for it,” he said. “We were just trying to make a film about something we understood. Mike Nichols, producer Larry Turman and I all thought we were ‘Benjamin.’ That’s how the book affected us. Nichols and Turman saw the behavior and events in the film as reflecting what they felt at Benjamin’s age, and so did I… Everyone I knew went through it — I think it’s true today, too. How to get away, and what the hell to get away to.” At the time, Henry, Nichols and Turman were all in their late thirties.
Even at Embassy Pictures, the studio which produced The Graduate, there were doubts that the script would appeal to youth. Stuart Byron, who was working there as a publicist, recalled, “In 1967, ‘our’ culture and ‘our’ concerns were approaching their zenith, and what did The Graduate have to do with them? The word ‘Vietnam’ was never mentioned. This was the basis of our conviction that The Graduate would flop. ‘Where is the relevance?’ we would cry, as soon as the bigwigs were out of earshot.”
Before The Graduate’s release, Mike Nichols took it on a tour of colleges at the studio’s insistence. “What I heard the most from college students was, over and over and over and over, ‘Why isn’t it about Vietnam?'” remembers Nichols. Because that was the fashionable topic. That was the topic that showed what a serious person you were and how deeply involved, and to make a movie that was for young people and was not about Vietnam actually affronted them.”
Despite the initial reaction of college students, The Graduate went on to sell 90 million tickets. The youth audience forgave the film for failing to address Vietnam, and flocked to theaters for multiple viewings. At the first test screening in New York City, Nichols recalled, “From the moment that ‘Benjamin’ took the cross and beat back ‘Mr. Robinson’ in the church, the audience stood on its feet and screamed like at a prizefight. We were scared to death. We didn’t understand what had happened. And Dustin, who’d never seen the film, was in the balcony. He came out white as a sheet. We were all absolutely stunned. We didn’t understand what had happened, because it had hit some wind that was circling the Earth, something that nobody could have predicted, and just been lifted beyond what we ever could have imagined. I don’t think that it was a sort of madness of the time, or that it had all that much to do with its quality or lack of quality. It was some cultural thing that just exploded as a result of the film, but it was, of course, like all cultural things, already happening.”
(“The Graduate and the Generation Gap” at AMCtv.com)
The ending is amazing not for its unpredictability, but for its final shot. Mr. Robinson discovers Ben’s affair with his wife and daughter, chases him away from Elaine and essentially forces her to marry some d-bag. Ben runs around crazylike searching for the locale of the mystery wedding, finally discovers it nearly too late – banging on a balcony window and yelling “Elaine” until she returns the call. He fights off angry guests, finally escaping with the bride and quickly boarding a public bus.
Here, amidst confused looks of older country folk, a bride and a scrub sit on the back of the bus. There are some excited smiles at first but then: the “what next?” Perhaps they found their love, their passion but… then what? Another shotgun wedding? Continued escape from their parents and cohorts? And above all: despite the union with love or whatever it was, Ben still has no idea what he wants to do.
Forty years later, we still have no idea.
(Paul Sorenson at MIDDLENESS)