News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films: The Graduate
I’m teaching “The Politics of the 70s Film” this semester, and Mid Century Cinema will follow along, with a few words about each movie screened for the class. First up is The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), a film that, in style, substance, and attitude, crystallized many of the elements of the emerging New Hollywood. Nichols, a participant in the turn-of-the-sixties comedy revolution as one half of Nichols and May, had for his behind-the-camera debut directed the production-code busting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). The Graduate was anything but a sophomore slump; it was a huge hit, and captured the public’s imagination. Or part of the population, at least—at the time the movie was largely received in generational terms, with younger viewers flocking to repeated viewings while older audiences (and older critics) tended to have their doubts, skeptical and in some cases even offended by a film that, as one observer argued, so obviously stacked the deck against the older generation.
Both generations, however, were wrong. Not so much about the revolutionary nature of the movie—it was, indeed, a game changer. The youngsters were right to recognize a great film, with the contributions of Buck Henry (who adapted the screenplay), cinematographer Robert Surtees and production designer Richard Sylbert (Fat City, Chinatown, Shampoo) framing the performances of an outstanding cast, led by Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, William Daniels and Murry Hamilton. And their parents were right to sense a changing of the guard, as Nichols brought a daring European sensibility to his direction (he was especially enamored of Truffaut and Antonioni), an eagerness to explore only-recently taboo subjects, and the music of Simon and Garfunkel—all of which were indeed suggestive of an Old Hollywood giving way to something New.
But the cheering upstarts and offended traditionalists missed the movie’s message. Certainly Benjamin (Hoffman), like many young people of all generations, does not want to live the life that his parents did. As he explains in The Graduate’s famous opening dialogue, Benjamin is “a little worried about” his future, which he wants to be, “I don’t know . . . different.” And true to that ambition he spends the entire film refusing to conform to the norms (and expectations) of his elders. But as I wrote in Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, “if the passing of the decades expressed in movie-watching can be reduced to that long, humbling shift of allegiance from Andre to Wally in My Dinner With Andre, so too is it seen in The Graduate,” with the increasing realization that Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) is not only, by far, the most fascinating character in the movie, but also that in her story one sees the writing on the wall – as Nichols intended – that Benjamin’s life will not be different.
Benjamin and Elaine (Katherine Ross) are in fact following exactly in the footsteps of their parents. (Sylbert imagined them “probably divorced six years later.”) The parallels between mother and daughter are especially striking. When Mrs. Robinson first offers her naked body to Benjamin she does so in the reflection of Katherine’s portrait. And Mrs. Robinson was a pretty young girl once, too. In the movie’s most heartbreaking moment, she briefly recalls that time when the possibilities of own life seemed unbounded—before she got pregnant and left school to be married. (Elaine will do essentially the same thing, as the movie goes out of its way to have a character announce “Elaine Robinson has left school.”) No wonder Benjamin and Elaine look so uncertain at the end of their film, when, in what should be their moment of triumph, Nichols keeps the camera rolling long enough to force the question: now what?
Mrs. Robinson, Reflected in Elaine's Portrait
Mrs. Robinson's Life Passes Before our Eyes