"The Graduate"

Dustin Hoffman explains his method, his sequel and other notes behind this sweeping indictment of adulthood -- and swoony vision of triumphant youth.

Published January 10, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Graduate"
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross
MGM Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Making-of documentary, interview with Dustin Hoffman

Mike Nichols' 1967 "The Graduate" boasted a shrewd mixture of cheekiness and sappiness that by 1970 gave it the biggest domestic gross in American movie history after "The Sound of Music" and "Gone With the Wind." The movie featured two unknowns, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, as post-collegiate drifter Benjamin Braddock and his true love, Elaine, and Anne Bancroft as Ben's sex-mate and Elaine's mother, Mrs. Robinson. But for all its unorthodox trimmings, the film had a simple, salable premise -- "the madcap adventures of a well-heeled young man and his 'family affair' with two generations of pulchritude" (to quote the cover of the hardback reissue of Charles Webb's 1963 novel).

Because of the film's sprightly assembly, viewers hooked by that line didn't feel cheated when they found the "madcap" laced with anomie and melancholy. And the movie had two hot cultural properties: the director, Nichols, who'd trumped his Broadway-comedy Golden Boy image with a prize-winning film debut on Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; and, supplying songs for the soundtrack, Simon and Garfunkel, purveyors of tuneful alienation. Put these pop-art question marks and exclamation points together and what you got was an incredible pull factor -- naughtiness wrapped in an ambiance of "class" and cutting-edge attitude.

The DVD features two main extras: a talking-heads documentary called "'The Graduate' at 25" and an extended interview with Dustin Hoffman. In the documentary, producer Lawrence Turman comes on as the prime mover. Originally thinking of novelist Webb as good screenwriter material, Turman ended up optioning Webb's book instead, and hiring Nichols to develop and film it after the director's early stage smash, "Barefoot in the Park."

Turman then gave Nichols the leeway to hire just about anyone he wanted, including Simon and Garfunkel -- and Hoffman. As screenwriter Buck Henry says, they initially envisioned a prototypical California clan: "blond, healthy, a family of surfboards." Their fantasy casting was "Bob Redford, Candice Bergen, Ronald Reagan and Doris Day." But when Hoffman nailed the part, they surmised he could connect "as a genetic throwback -- as if Doris Day and Ronald Reagan had this monkey."

Hoffman was crucial to the movie's aura of wit and daring -- which is still more of a kick than the movie itself, which ends squarely on the side of naivete. With Mrs. Robinson, a cat-woman in plush lairs, seducing Ben before he falls for her picture-perfect daughter, "The Graduate" is a kitten in leopard-skin clothing. Yet for a cultural phenomenon that opened the floodgates for youth movies and generated a rash of imitations, "The Graduate" hasn't dated, at least as entertainment. Nichols and Henry's appropriations of Webb's seduction scenes (Henry shared screenplay credit with Calder Willingham) have the paradoxical timeless/ephemeral quality of the comedy routines Nichols did in clubs and on stage and TV with Elaine May.

"The Graduate" may still play as a breakthrough for young audiences who haven't seen it, since it's hard to think of another movie that places such a sweeping symbolic indictment of adulthood into such a swoony vision of triumphant youth -- and gets away with it. Still, viewing the film today, it's even more ambiguous whether Benjamin feels out of it for good reason or whether this schlub simply knows he's not ready to carry an elaborate upscale L.A. lifestyle. When a family friend gives Benjamin some pithy advice about his future -- he just says "plastics" -- it's a great line, but it doesn't sum up the Braddocks. No matter how consumerist they may be, all we know at this point in the film is that they want Benjamin to go to graduate school -- which, to them, is doing something.

The movie treats Mrs. Robinson as a monster, though she's the most sensual and complex character. Bancroft in this film is a sensational American Moreau, with a quicksilver erotic ambiance, plus tinges of warmth and lightness that cement her crack bits of comedy. The running joke in the movie is that Benjamin wants to talk and have what future cosmopolites called a "relationship," while Mrs. Robinson wants sex. But Bancroft at least shows that Mrs. Robinson likes and savors sex: rubbing her hands over her lover's chest, she expresses the pleasure this woman takes in being close to a strong young body.

Soon, though, she's snarling like a banshee. From the source material up, the story is conventional; the unfaithful woman must be punished, the true lovers must have their day. In the documentary Turman states that Nichols came up with the mildly racy alteration of Benjamin's wresting Elaine away after she says "I do" to a med student. Nichols' knowing tone and craftsmanship are what give this film the impression of bite -- that, and the inspired casting of Hoffman as Benjamin.

The most uncomplicated and lasting change the counterculture wrought was the alteration of upper-middle-class style -- the doffing of the de rigueur white shirt and sport jacket and the proper image that went with them. That's roughly clean-cut Ben Braddock's transformation in his mini-odyssey, and the oddball casting gives it zest. Hoffman's DVD interview is about his "Jewish nightmare" of "an ethnic actor" meant for "ethnic New York parts" being asked to do the unlikely, such as romancing a jaw-dropping American beauty like Katharine Ross. But Hoffman does provide some clues to his and Nichols' combination of Method and improv-comedy techniques, including the development of Ben's nervous squeak and his risible erector-set approach to handling Mrs. Robinson's breasts.

Through most of the film, Hoffman's flat delivery and wary, awkward gait (walking like he's in his scuba outfit even when he isn't) suggest a man who won't say or do anything until he's ready. His performance leaves the character open to unexpected possibilities. At the end of his interview, Hoffman admits he once proposed a sequel in which Ben and Elaine have settled into a not-very-good marriage (including regular in-law visits from Mrs. Robinson), and Ben has an affair with his 17-year-old son's girlfriend. "I get it," Nichols replied; "You become Mrs. Robinson."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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