‘The Graduate’ (1967) — Mike Nichol’s Homage to Wayward Youth

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The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate (1967)

Note to readers: In homage to director Mike Nichols and his recent passing at age 83, I am re-running one of my earlier blog posts concerning his fabulous comedy-drama The Graduate.

Never had poster art so succinctly summarized the essence of a motion picture. The raised leg forming either an arch or a bridge to unimagined pleasures; the low camera angle reflecting the seriocomic situation at hand; the shot of a smirking, incredulous college graduate named Benjamin Braddock; the rhetorical and self-fulfilling query uttered by him (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”); and, of course, the half-mocking, self-implicating laughter by the cynical Mrs. Robinson.

And then, there is the music:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sounds of silence

The first musical strains of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner, Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ iconic feature, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought — a soundtrack that spoke to a generation of disgruntled youth.

At the time, The Graduate seized upon the prevailing mood of the period, i.e., the mid- to late 1960s, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the essence of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era could.

Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (for example, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night were among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel – was the hands-down popular favorite.

The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin no more cares for that tidbit of information than he does for the other mindless indulgences of the Southern California lifestyle.

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) brooding about life
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in his room, brooding about life, in The Graduate

Unable to face up to the challenge of life away from school, Benjamin isolates himself in his room, brooding and reflecting upon his worthlessness. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by the laid-back Murray Hamilton in an array of coordinated cardigans).

Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings (and his sanity), all goes well with the illicit affair. That is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly attractive daughter, Elaine (angelic-looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect.

Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode in the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ tell-all book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin Books). Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin.

Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. There are many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them all) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe.

Even approaching “middle age,” the film is still as fresh, funny, and sharp as it was back in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding (with Benjamin rattling the doors of the church at back and on high, and shouting “Elaine! Elaine!” to the startled onlookers), and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus with a look of “Now what do we do?” on their faces. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book. Millennials, take note: you are not the only ones who’ve gone through difficult days!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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