The Graduate was one of the watershed films of 1967, along with Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, and to a lesser extent, In the Heat of the Night. All of these pictures drifted right out of the wreckage of Hollywood's Golden Age, when the old studio system was nearing its end due to gigantic commercial flops, most of which came in the form of bloated musicals; the emergence of counterculture also found Hollywood completely out-of-touch with the times. Many of the above titles are deeply anti-establishment in theme and helped pave the way for the Hollywood renaissance that would flourish until the mid-to-late ‘70s. While it was Bonnie and Clyde that opened the “cinema’s bloodgates” as Robert Kolker put it, it was The Graduate that provoked the censors even more with its lurid depiction of sex.
Director: Mike Nichols
Producer: Lawrence Turman
Writers: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Charles Webb (novel)
Cinematographer: Ronald Surtees
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Music: Simon & Garfunkel
Cast: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Elaine Robinson, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson
US Theatrical Release: December 22, 1967
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Director Mike Nichols opens his second feature film with an intimate close-up of Dustin Hoffman's face, introducing audiences to the wiry young method actor for the very first time. For an actor who was to become a key figure during the Vietnam era with his work in Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs and The Marathon Man, it’s surprising that he nearly didn’t make it into the movies at all. It was a triumph of switch casting on the part of Mike Nichols that landed him the part as Benjamin Braddock. Not since John Garfield had a starring role in a Hollywood film fallen to such a non-Aryan actor. The producers had originally envisaged a waspish lead like Robert Redford for the part of Benjamin. When they couldn’t get him, the role was even offered to Charles Grodin who turned it down; at 32 he was simply too old for the part of the 20 year old graduate; plus, with Grodin in the role the tone of the picture would have been comically different; his neurotic energy would have made the scenes with Mrs. Robinson too funny for the film to work dramatically.
In 1967, opening an American picture with a close-up was a gutsy move. Mike Nichols eschewed a conventional establishing shot to displace the audience in the drama from the very outset (A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and Slither all replicated this shot later in the ‘70s). It’s a technique Nichols uses throughout the film to emphasize Benjamin’s alienation. Eventually there’s a quick zoom out, and it’s apparent Hoffman’s character is on an airplane. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” quietly comes onto the soundtrack, setting the picture’s melancholy tone as Benjamin heads home to California. This was the first time an American film had substituted a musical score for a pop-rock soundtrack (something Martin Scorsese would take to new dramatic heights throughout his career). Nichols had been obsessively listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s pensive album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme throughout the production of the film, and the record didn’t just seep into the soundtrack, but it also helped create the dark, wistful mood that pervades the film.
Dramatically speaking, not much is required of Hoffman in the first half of the film. Suffering from the postgraduate-blues, he ambles through the film like a somnambulist, bumping into people, answering questions with staggered one-word responses. It’s essentially a one-note performance, albeit a very effective one. It truly seems like the role was tailor made for Hoffman. His swarthy countenance intensifies his alienation among the wasps of southern California. After the credit sequence, we see Benjamin plopped down in front of a fish tank, again in close-up. It’s an astonishing composition, as he’s figuratively drowning in his somber room. At the bottom of the tank, a little statue of a scuba diver ominously intimates at a later scene in which he is literally drowning in a scuba suit his parents give him as a birthday gift.
It's quickly revealed that the depressed Benjamin is hiding in his room so as to avoid the graduation party that his parents have thrown for him. His house is bustling with glib guests all eager to congratulate him. When he reluctantly leaves his room to mingle with them, it becomes apparent that the classically trained cinematographer Robert Surtees has been studying the work of French D.P. Raoul Coutard, who photographed just about every great new wave film. The hand-held, tightly framed camera work is dizzying as Surtees roams through the crowd from Benjamin's point-of-view. His anxiety and confusion is palpably felt, as we move from guest to guest in the Braddock's home. The wide-angle photography also creates an intensely claustrophobic environment in which the adults are rendered slightly monstrous due to the lens distortion. It's here that we first glimpse Mrs. Robinson seductively peering at Ben over a couch. Unable to stomach the party, Ben retreats back to his bedroom.
It's at this point Mrs. Robinson begins her near predatory pursuit of Benjamin. Anne Bancroft's turn as the aged femme fatale is astonishing (though it's interesting to note the actual age difference between Hoffman and Bancroft was a mere six years). Some critics have serious qualms with the characterization of Mrs. Robinson. Pauline Kael in particular thought it was vicious, but she also thought the idea of taking the film seriously was ludicrous. While Mrs. Robinson is definitely unsympathetic in the last half of the picture, there’s pathos to her performance in the first half as she desperately (and yes, cunningly) grasps at youth. She pressures Benjamin into driving her home the night of his party, and it is here the seduction truly begins.
Once Mrs. Robinson snares him in her daughter’s room, there are three rapid jump cuts of him turning around only to see Mrs. Robinson naked at the door. The three jarring, repeated shots seem to have floated right out of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. It’s really not possible to overstate the impact of the French New Wave on not just The Graduate, but also so many other American films of this era. It’s worth noting that Bonnie and Clyde was in fact originally conceived for Francois Truffaut. However, finding producer-actor Warren Beatty too difficult—“a Marlon Brando type” as Truffaut put it—he opted out. Then even Godard came and went. On purely visual terms, both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde are Americanized renditions of French New wave films. It’s surprising no has ever written a book dedicated to the profound influence the New Wave had on American cinema. Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution is the closest thing to resemble such a study. Using the five best picture nominations of 1967 as his springboard, he delves deeply into the New Hollywood that began to emerge in the mid-to-late ‘60s and traces its stylistic development right back to La Nouvelle Vague. It’s obligatory reading for anyone who loves the downbeat cinema of Hollywood’s 2nd Golden Age.
Although Benjamin is able to sidestep Mrs. Robinson’s first advance, he eventually succumbs to sexual temptation. The middle of the picture is really an intense examination of two lost, lonely souls who find some solace in their clandestine trysts. The scenes alternate from drama to black comedy seamlessly due to Nichols’ direction. He had a great deal of experience performing in improvisatorial revue comedies on Broadway before his directing career, and many of the scenes between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson play out as dark sketches. One of the highlights of the picture is a long montage in which Nichols uses all kinds of elliptical editing tricks to playfully show their affair unfold. My favorite part of the montage shows Hoffman’s character dive into his parents’ pool, swim in close-up underwater, then leap out of the water and just as he’s about to land on a raft in the pool, he lands right on top of Mrs. Robinson in a hotel bed. Suddenly, we hear the name “Benjamin” uttered, and as Hoffman turns his head from Mrs. Robinson, we see a close-up of his father in their home’s kitchen, and there’s Ben sitting right across from him. It’s one of the most imaginative pairings of match cuts with jump cuts, and it’s all executed with stunning fluidity.
In the last third of the film Hoffman’s character comes out of his somnambulistic haze and truly comes alive. Briefly, he becomes entangled in a dark love triangle with Mrs. Robinson and Miss Robinson, her daughter. Suffice it to say everything blows up for Benjamin. But his confusion and worry have simultaneously vanished as he has (for the moment anyway) a newfound purpose in life: he's going to marry Miss Elaine Robinson.
Though The Graduate did not win Best Picture at the 1968 Oscars, Mike Nichols did take home the Academy Award for Best Director. When critics and audiences asked him what becomes of Elaine and Ben, Nichols bleakly replied, "they become their parents." As film theorist Siegfried Kracauer put it decades ago, films reflect the collective unconscious of the time period in which they were made, and this is quite true of The Graduate. There's a moment of triumph and happiness when Ben rescues Elaine from her wedding to a square. But as they escape on a bus, their expressions turn from joy to thoughtful sadness. A look of defeat suddenly registers on their faces as the final shot of the film fades out. This is Vietnam era filmmaking after all.