The Graduate (1967) dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, Murray Hamilton
Oh to be Mike Nichols in the late 60’s, like Orson Welles in late 1930’s, a revered stage director, brought to Hollywood and given the biggest toybox in the world to play in. After ‘practicing’ his skills with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1966, Nichols at the height of his creative talents was shit hot and birthed the great masterpiece, “The Graduate” – a time capsule of American 60’s progressiveness and a benchmark for the Hollywood changing of the guard.
Benjamin Braddock arrives home a college graduate. His parents are joyful, not because they’re happy he’s back but because he has achieved what they’ve always wanted of him. But they are not content with this, expectations are further heaped on Ben to go to graduate school and push forward with his career. Typically Ben feels the pressure and is caught frozen and overwhelmed with doubt.
And so, when the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), comes onto him, he gives in to her sexual demands. They start an affair ‘just because’, which we all know will end badly. The rift comes in the form of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) whom Ben’s parents have been pushing Ben to date. He gives in and goes out with Elaine, instantly sparking a chemistry which infuriates Mrs. Robinson. Her efforts to separate the two do not phase Ben as he embarks on a mission find Elaine at Berkeley steal her for good.
I think every romantic comedy made in the 90's and beyond owes a debt to the final act of “the Graduate”. As Benjamin Braddock races against time, scouring the Berleley campus for Elaine’s whereabouts the film gathers speed and momentum for its wedding-crashing finale. Same goes with the youthful self-expressionistic indie-film ilk of Wes Anderson, “Juno” “Away We Go” et al . Specifically Mike Nichols’ use of Simon and Garfunkel as a tonal reference point for the film with today’s eyes looks as fresh now as then. While the emotions of Benjamin and Elaine run from extreme highs to lows, the poignant music and lyrics route our interpretation of those emotions in it’s own subdued hyper-reality. Listening to “Mrs. Robinson” during the frantic chase finale lightens up what, for Benjamin, is a harrowing and desperate search. And the despair Ben feels for his soulless sexual affair for Mrs. Robinson achieves tonal perfection with the song, "The Sound of Silence".
The casting is so good, we don’t even release Benjamin and Elaine have the fastest courtship in cinema history. Just one date and we believe how Ben could propose to her (really, who wouldn’t propose to Katherine Ross after one date??) and how Elaine could actually settle for the neurotic and arrogant Ben. Chemistry sears the screen when they finally meet – which only occurs at the halfway point, prior to which it was Anne Bancroft’s picture.
Bancroft needs only a few words and a look of her eyes to express everything about her character. She is simply awesome as Mrs. Robinson, the original desperate housewife. The look on Bancroft’s face in the kitchen reacting to Ben’s conversation with her husband is priceless. The conversation is framed and focused on Bancroft in the foreground reacting only. And watch carefully her oh-so-quick glance down the barrel of the camera as she exits the scene. The seduction scene is played out carefully by Nichols and his actors and the dialogue as written by Buck Henry are the exact words which would have come out of these characters' mouths if they were real people. And so, despite the absurdity and quirkiness of the filmmaking every crucial moment in rooted in genuine real world emotion.
“The Graduate” represented a benchmark shift in studio Hollywood toward a more personal aesthetic like the French New Wave. Hollywood stripped away the old cumbersome production code and leaned on the creative minds such as Mike Nichols to tell us familiar stories in untraditional ways. Though untraditional for a studio film, at the time “The Graduate” is and always has been highly accessible and loved by all who watch it. Enjoy.