“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know.”
“The Graduate” (1967) was groundbreaking when first released and remains one of the most important films. This work and “Bonnie and Clyde” – both influenced by the French New Wave — helped usher in the New Hollywood period of cinema that lasted until 1977, and a new generation of young directors came to prominence infusing their work with anti-establishment sensitivity and counterculture – a reflection of the times. The casting of Dustin Hoffman changed Hollywood as well. In an article for Vanity Fair, the film screenwriter Buch Henry says, “A whole generation changed its idea of what guys should look like… I think Dustin’s physical being brought a sort of social and visual change, in the same way people first thought of Bogart.”
After graduating from college, Ben Braddock feels overwhelmed by life and spends most days in his parents’ pool. “I think that I’m just drifting,” he admits to his dad. Bored, he has an affair with the married, middle-aged Mrs. Robinson – and is given a purpose to life when he falls in love with her daughter. A satirical look at the stifling American middle class, the film is a masterclass in filmmaking – and it feels as modern as ever. As I re-watched it last night I couldn’t help to feel Ben’s dilemma heightened by the current malaise we’re under right now. The famous scene where he wears a wetsuit and mask and enters the pool – articulating his sense of alienation and ennui – illustrated the way I have been feeling for the past few weeks.
Mike Nichols’ direction is a textbook on mise-en-scene, and I could spend pages deconstructing every scene. You’re basically visually experiencing the film through the eyes of Ben – and the camera (cinematographer Robert Surtees) makes you feel what he is feeling. Notice from the first scene how Ben is carried expressionless by the walkway of the airport – encapsulating his state of mind – and is contrasted by a shot of his luggage – also being moved by a conveyor belt. I point out to my students how a director can use innocent lines in the background of the set to frame a character – and make you feel a sense of imprisonment. Notice how Ben is always positioned by doors, windows, or defined by the vertical lines on the wallpaper or a phone booth as he nervously calls Mrs. Robinson from the Taft Hotel lobby. There’s a visual sense of entrapment – that mirrors how he feels internally. The editing is striking. I particularly love the way he uses parallel editing to juxtapose Ben jumping in the pool – and jumping in the arms of his lover. Mrs. Robinson’s den is visually a green jungle – and she wears animal prints. The film luxuriates in angles to convey his emotions as well. During the first illicit meeting in the hotel room, Nichols tilts the camera slightly askew as Mrs. Robinson sits on the bed. “Are you afraid of me?” she asks.
Mrs. Robinson has always been the most complex character in “The Graduate” – and Anne Bancroft is so good that she almost unbalances it. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s wondered how amazing it would be to see the story through her eyes instead. She is an older and female version of Ben. In the one rare moment where she lets her guard down in the hotel room – we discover she went to art school. She’s suffocating in the role that society has placed her in. She’s more intelligent than any of the other men in the film. She’s aware – too aware – of her situation – and her weariness reads more heartbreaking than Ben’s. Instead of a scuba suit, she’s built an armor of cynicism, regrets and too much booze around her. When Ben asks her if she’s always afraid of being alone, she responds ever so coolly, “I’m very neurotic.” Her face – framed by the doorway – as Ben tells her daughter about their affair – is full of disenchantment. The world has turned upside down.
Simon and Garfunkel’s introspective songs are as if they were sung by Ben himself.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Benjamin Braddock: No.
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin Braddock: You got me.
Available to stream on Hulu and to rent on Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Microsoft.
Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Based on the novel by Charles Webb
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, and Murray Hamilton
Producing “The Graduate”
“It all began with a book review. On October 30, 1963, a 36-year-old movie producer named Lawrence Turman read Orville Prescott’s review of Charles Webb’s first novel, The Graduate, in The New York Times. Though Prescott described the satirical novel as “a fictional failure,” he compared Webb’s misfit, malaise-ridden hero, Benjamin Braddock, to Holden Caulfield, the hero of J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye. Turman was intrigued. “The book haunted me—I identified with it,” he says. Now 81, Turman is lean, with white hair and bright eyes. Over lunch in West Hollywood, he recalls how he fell in love particularly with two of the novel’s images: “a boy in a scuba suit in his own swimming pool, and then that same boy on a bus, his shirttail out, with a girl in a wedding dress. I liked it so much, I took out an option with my own money—something I counsel my students not to do. Because no one else bid on the novel, I optioned the rights for $1,000.” Turman, who now chairs the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, considered himself something of an industry outsider, though by 1963 he had already produced several films (including The Young Doctors, with Fredric March and Ben Gazzara; I Could Go On Singing, with Judy Garland; and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man).” Perhaps he still feels like an outsider because he started life in the garment industry, following in his father’s footsteps, although he had majored in English literature at U.C.L.A. “Everyone always says how tough show biz is,” Turman says, “and, of course, they’re right, but it’s kid stuff compared to the garment business, where someone will cut your heart out for a quarter-cent a yard. I’d carry bolts of cloth five blocks after making a sale, only to learn that the customer bought it cheaper, and I had to schlep the bolts of cloth back to my dad’s office.” He can still vividly recall working his way down 14 flights of a manufacturing building, “getting rejected at every floor.” After five years of working with his father, he pounced on a blind ad in Variety: “Experienced Agent Wanted.” He got the job at the Kurt Frings Agency, a four-person operation specializing in European actors, including Audrey Hepburn, by candidly confessing that he “had zero experience, but was full of energy and would work very cheaply”—$50 a week.
After optioning “The Graduate,” Turman needed a director. He immediately thought of another industry outsider, the comedian turned Broadway director Mike Nichols, then 33 years old. At the time, Nichols had just had a great success directing Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, but before that he had been half of the legendary satirical comedy team Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Their sharp, skewed portrayals of “Age of Anxiety” couples struck a deep chord in American life, and their comedy sketches were hilarious, such as the one about a pushy mother and her put-upon rocket-scientist son: “I feel awful,” the son says after his mother berates him for not calling. “If I could believe that,” she says, “I’d be the happiest mother in the world.” They were improvisation geniuses and could perform sketches in the style of everyone from Faulkner to Kierkegaard.” (vanityfair.com)
Casting Dustin Hoffman
“When I was auditioning for this part,” Dustin Hoffman recalls for Vanity Fair, “I had finally made some inroads in my career.” After 10 years as a struggling actor in New York, Hoffman had won an Obie Award in 1966 for best Off Broadway actor, in Ronald Ribman’s The Journey of the Fifth Horse. He’d been supporting himself with a series of odd jobs—selling toys at Macy’s, working as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, on West 168th Street, waiting tables at the Village Gate—and sharing an apartment with Gene Hackman and his wife. After he won the Obie, his performance as Valentine Brose, a schizophrenic night watchman in an Off Broadway British farce called Eh?, landed him on the cover of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times. And in a daily review, the Times described his performance as “a sort of cross between Ringo Starr and Buster Keaton.” “I was riding high, so I felt that I was going to have a career in the theater, which is what I wanted. So when the part came along, I read the book, I talked to Mike Nichols on the phone, and I said, ‘I’m not right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a Wasp. This is Robert Redford.’ In fact, I remember there was a Time magazine on the coffee table in my apartment, and it had the ‘Man of the Year’ on the cover, which was ‘Youth Under 25,’ with a kind of sketch of a young guy who looked like Matt Damon. So I said, ‘Did you see this week’s Time magazine? That’s Benjamin Braddock!’ Nichols replied, ‘You mean he’s not Jewish?’ ‘Yes, this guy is a super-Wasp. Boston Brahmin.’ And Mike said, ‘Maybe he’s Jewish inside. Why don’t you come out and audition for us?’ ”
He took three days off from “Eh?” and flew to L.A. for the screen test, which took place at rented offices in the Paramount Studio lot on Melrose Avenue. “I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous,” Hoffman said in an interview accompanying the 40th-anniversary DVD edition of The Graduate. He had stayed up all night on the airplane, trying to memorize his lines. The next day, he walked into the high-ceilinged, interconnected offices and met Nichols, who was waiting for him, seated at a fully appointed bar. Nichols casually offered him a drink.
“I’m immediately feeling miserable,” Hoffman remembered. “I just have bad feelings about the whole thing. This is not the part for me. I’m not supposed to be in movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong—an ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York, in an ethnic, Off Broadway show! I know my place.” (Harry Hoffman, Dustin’s father, of Russian-Jewish ancestry, worked as a set dresser for Columbia Studios before launching his own short-lived furniture company.)…“We looked and looked and looked,” recalls Nichols, “and when we saw Dustin Hoffman on film, we said, ‘That’s it.’ And I had come all the way from seeing the character as a super-goy to being John Marcher in ‘The Beast in the Jungle.’ He had to be the dark, ungainly artist. He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people? It took me a long time to figure that out—it’s not in the material at all. And once I figured that out, and found Dustin, it began to form itself around that idea.” (vanityfair.com)
Filming “The Graduate”
“Before filming began, Nichols rehearsed his cast for three weeks, a luxury by today’s standards. “We could have taken “The Graduate” on the road, we knew it so well,” Katharine Ross recalls. “We rehearsed on a soundstage complete with tape marks and rehearsal furniture. Mike had just come off directing all those Neil Simon hits.” Hoffman didn’t know at the time that it “was unusual to rehearse as if we were doing a play, finding the character, which is what you do in theater. This was my first film, so I thought that was it! It was the best rehearsal I’d ever had, and the most creative time. But once we started shooting, I felt more frightened and insecure, brought on by my fear that Mike thought he had made a mistake in casting me. At a certain point, I was terrified that I was going to get fired.” In fact, Gene Hackman—who was playing Mr. Robinson—was fired, three weeks into rehearsal. “Gene said to me while he was taking a leak in the men’s room,” Hoffman remembers, “ ‘I think I’m getting fired.’ And he was, and I thought I was next. So by the time we started shooting I was on pins and needles, terrified that Mike didn’t like what I was doing. He was never satisfied; he was always looking for the exquisite take. I was dubbed a perfectionist for years, and all I could think was ‘I learned from Mike Nichols.’ ” (vanityfair.com)
The Music of “The Graduate”
“Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had been together since 1957, when they called themselves Tom and Jerry, and had even appeared on ABC’s American Bandstand, fashioning themselves after the Everly Brothers. But when Nichols approached the musicians with his idea, they seemed uninterested, even blasé. This was the 60s, after all, and troubadours had better things to do than write for movies. Turman, however, made a deal with them to write three new songs, but they became so busy touring that Simon—a slow and careful composer—didn’t have the time to do it. When Nichols began editing the film, he and Sam O’Steen, his film editor, began laying in songs that Nichols had already fallen in love with: “The Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” “April Come She Will.” The one song Paul Simon did get around to writing, called “Punky’s Dilemma,” Nichols didn’t like. It was written for the scene, Turman explains, “in which Dustin alternates swimming and fucking and fucking and swimming, from the hotel to his parents’ pool.” They ended up not using it, but Nichols was intrigued when he heard a few chords of a new song Paul Simon was working on, a kind of nostalgia lyric called “Mrs. Roosevelt.” Nichols wanted it, so he suggested that he change the name to “Mrs. Robinson.” The rest is pop-music history. Art Garfunkel, who would be directed by Nichols as an actor in his next two films, Catch-22and Carnal Knowledge, was impressed with the director. “He always makes you feel like the smartest guy in the room,” Garfunkel told Vanity Fair recently on the phone, before embarking on a brief solo tour. “You know how smart you have to be to do that?” Nichols had them record half-written songs on a Hollywood soundstage. The missing verses for “Mrs. Robinson” would appear in April 1968 on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, the LP with a striking Richard Avedon cover portrait of the two musicians.
Simon and Garfunkel’s lucid, poetic lyrics serve as Ben’s interior monologue as he makes his way through the empty opulence of his parents’ suburban paradise. The juxtaposition of “The Sound of Silence,” a deeply personal cri de coeur, against the Los Angeles airport terminal—as Ben is carried robotically along a moving walkway—is both touching and funny. Right away we know we’re in a fish-out-of-water story, and Ben’s inarticulate, deeply felt musings will suffocate in this environment. In some ways, the ironic use of Simon and Garfunkel’s music—“April Come She Will” while Ben sits in bed in the Taft Hotel, drinking a can of soda, catatonically watching television while Mrs. Robinson flits back and forth in various stages of undress, or Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar slowing down and sputtering as Ben’s Alfa Romeo runs out of gas during his desperate race to the church—prefigured the music video. You might say MTV was born out of The Graduate.” (vanityfair.com)
About Director Mike Nichols
“Mike Nichols was a film and theatre director, producer, actor, and comedian, consistently producing iconic work throughout every stage of his career. He began his career in the 1950s with the comedy improvisational troupe The Compass Players, predecessor of The Second City. He left The Compass Players to team up with his improv partner, Elaine May, forming the legendary comedy duo “Nichols and May.” Their live improv acts were a hit on Broadway, resulting in three albums, the first of which won them a Grammy. After Nichols and May disbanded their act in 1961, Nichols began directing plays. His debut Broadway production was Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” in 1963 with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. He next directed “Luv” with Alan Arkin in 1964, and in 1965, “The Odd Couple,” receiving Tony nominations for each. In 1966, Nichols was invited to make his feature film directing debut with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The groundbreaking and acclaimed work led critics to declare Nichols the “new Orson Welles.” The film garnered thirteen Academy Award nominations, won five, and was a box office hit, quickly becoming the number one film of 1966. Nichols’ next film was “The Graduate,” starring a then-unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The film was another critical and financial success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1967 and receiving seven Academy Award nominations. Nichols took home the Academy Award for Best Directing.
Among the other films he directed were “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Wolf,” “The Birdcage,” “Closer,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” He won his sixth Tony Award as best director with a revival of “Death of a Salesman in 2012.” During his career, he directed or produced over twenty-five Broadway plays. His other honors included the Lincoln Center Gala Tribute in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2010. His films garnered a total of forty-two Academy Award nominations and seven wins. Nichols, who was married in 1988 to broadcaster Diane Sawyer, passed away in 2014 In January 2016, PBS aired “Mike Nichols: American Masters,” an “American Masters” documentary about Nichols’ life. It was directed by Elaine May.” (secondcity.com)