The Graduate (1967), dir. Mike Nichols


The Graduate is one of the greatest films ever made. Landing with Embassy in summer 1965, The Graduate was a major success, opening in 950 cinemas and grossing $35 million dollars; Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director. In a 1968 press release, producer Joseph E. Levine described the film’s success as “like an explosion, a dam bursting”, predicting the film would become “the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history”. But The Graduate was equally shaped by the experimentation emerging from the French New Wave, on the cusp of the emergence of New Hollywood amid transformations in technology, film schools and American counterculture. As Mark Harris explores in Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood (2009), aging executives and the commercial failure of big budget family friendly musical spectacles like Doctor Dolittle left room for new voices. But as Nicholas Godfrey writes, many of New Hollywood’s lesser-known works display “formal and thematic adventurousness that far exceeds the ambition of the films now typically identified with the New Hollywood canon”, offering “stylistic maximalism” and “politicised self-critique”; the influence of Godard is “difficult to perceive”, accounting to a “general loosening of intellectual shackles”.

The Graduate was shaped directly by its period. Nichols had directly engaged with the Civil Rights Movement: as he tells in Mike Nichols: An American Master (2016), he performed with Elaine May at Selma, recalling the 20,000 marchers and people fainting. Jacob R. Brackman describes in his illuminating New Yorker piece the “national nervous breakdown”. In his 1987 audio commentary for the Criterion laserdisc, Howard Suber notes a scripted deleted scene with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) hitchhiking.

“Why aren’t you there?” the man would have asked, again and again, referring to, but significantly never mentioning the word “Vietnam”.

“Because I’m here,” Ben would have replied.

As Frank Rich notes, the characters are “uniformly upper-middle-class (or wealthier) and white”; Benjamin never smoked pot and doesn’t fear the draft; Berkeley’s students are “unreconstructed frat guys” from “the Eisenhower fifties”. Brackman offers a different picture, celebrating the film’s “look of today”, arguing the Berkeley students aren’t from a “dozen years ago”. But as Harris writes, “Eisenhower was barely out of office when Webb had first gotten the idea for his novel” (2009:122); Doris Day and Reagan were considered for the Robinsons.

Upon release, The Graduate created a cultural conversation. As Harris describes, “the film’s release marked the first time in many years that so many American moviegoers had felt the direct sting of a generational insult” (2009:381), becoming a hit amid college students and baby boomers, no longer relying on the epics and musicals their parents chose for them (2009:382). As Suber notes, what was new was “how many people there were”; Braddock’s peer group had increased by 60%, the amount of college students doubling. Writing in Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner notes students at Columbia University in spring 1968 “took turns sneaking out of the occupied president’s office to go see The Graduate”. But some objected to the lack of radicalism; as Brackman comments, the “subversive message” is that you “cannot sustain an opposition to America”; youth must “find someone to submit with”.

A 21 year-old graduate from Williams College, the same college author Charles Webb graduated from, Benjamin Braddock conduits the anxieties and uncertainties of drifting in an uncertain world. According to Harris, Nichols saw Braddock as “Holden Caulfield’s literary descendant” (2009:50), over a decade after The Catcher in the Rye (1951). As screenwriter Buck Henry tells Harris, him, producer Lawrence Turman and Nichols saw themselves as the “protagonist of the book” (2009:119). But Hoffman’s casting was controversial: speaking in American Film in 1979, Levine thought Hoffman was a “plumber who had come to fix the leaks” (2009:276). Hoffman returned to New York registering for unemployment (2009:311). Speaking in a 2007 commentary with director Steven Soderbergh, Nichols described Hoffman’s as “organic”; he never contemplated “changing anything” in the industry of stars.

Benjamin’s awkwardness and isolation is rarely captured on film. Hoffman “worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera”, shaking through “the entire movie” (2009:311). In a deleted scene from the screenplay, Benjamin is shown giving his valedictorian speech (2009:291), but Nichols introduces Benjamin as an emptier slate. In the opening, we pan out from Ben upon the airplane, as the intercom announces their descent. He stands in isolation, down the escalator against the white wall; luggage reiterates his isolation, asking if the tags match, when Ben has no match of his own. At his parent’s house in Pasadena, this isolation becomes pronounced. Family friends list off awards and accolades: a track star, the college newspaper, debating club. Mr McGuire attempts to seduce Benjamin, suggesting a career in plastics. Suber notes a deleted scene from the screenplay where a “miniature set” depicted mute adults as “giants” hosting a dinner party. But his life is his own. The camera moves through upstairs, drifting through like Ben. Production designer Richard Sylbert achieves genius in Benjamin’s room: a fish tank, dartboard, model ships, sailboats and a globe, juxtaposing an outgrown childlike sense of play and yearning for escape; a framed picture of a sad clown in the corridor reflects his inner state. In reflections upon the glass aquarium, Buck Henry sought to convey “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in synch with” (2009:314).

But perhaps one of the most well executed elements is its use of the family pool as communal space. In his commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols recalls conflict with Turman over the scene in the wetsuit, wanting to create an image of Hoffman as a “creature in the corner”. Shot through an Aeroflex camera, we follow Benjamin through first person perspective, forced into the water by his parents. As Suber parallels, both The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) encased its protagonists in “technological apparatus”, focusing on “deep, aspirated breathing” to reflect “a combination of terror, isolation and imminent suffocation”. The Graduate is built by images; as Harris notes in Scenes from a Revolution, Sylbert wanted a “colder, more muted palette” that “refract[ed] Los Angeles through a prism of East Coast amusement”, photographing “every ostentatious new faux-whatever mansion with a swimming pool” in Beverly Hills they could find. One deleted scene from the script panned out in a helicopter to reveal 30 identical homes and pools. Speaking in a 2007 audio commentary with Katharine Ross, Hoffman comments he “had been born into a generation not dissimilar to this”, his father a Depression baby embracing materialism and consumerism; Nichols and Hoffman wanted to depict drowning around the “worship of objects”. Benjamin must negotiate his relationship with his parents: he sits by the pool sunglasses on, unable to see their faces. As he shaves by the mirror, steam engulfing the room, his mom pries into affairs; learning to shave, but still cutting his thumb. Over breakfast, his mom mixes pancake batter, acting as a clear family construct; suggesting he get with Elaine (Katharine Ross). At the suggestion of marriage, his mom lets out an excited screen; as the phone is picked up, the toast pops, right on cue.

Benjamin exists within a liminal space, without purpose: he sits in his bedroom watching TV over a beer, needing to get off his ass. Benjamin has expectations of what life has in store for him, but cannot put his finger on it; as Nichols tells Soderbergh, those “who expect wonderful things have serious problems”. Author Charles Webb remembers his mundane existence before the film’s release, stocking perfume in a Pasadena department store, working as a shipping clerk and in life insurance. The disillusionment of Benjamin extends beyond the generational sense of loss of 60s youth and an unclear path in life; as Harris writes, Nichols realised Benjamin was a “Jew among the goyim”, “a visitor in a strange land” (2009:319), mirroring his adolescence as an immigrant from a German mother and a Russian Jewish mother growing in Berlin. As Nichols recalls in An American Master, he attended a “special Jewish school”, remembering “Blackshirt kids taking my bike”. As his boat from Germany departed, he stood as he listened to Hitler’s “unintelligible” speech. Speaking in Vanity Fair, Nichols remembers the Bremen landing in New York, shocked by a “delicatessen with Hebrew letters” and “Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola”. Hoffman experienced anti-Semitism through his childhood and casting, living in “anti-Semitic neighborhoods” in L.A., returning to those same neighbourhoods where he felt aware “of how different I looked from them” that he’d escaped in New York.

Pursuing a secret sexual relationship with family friend Mrs Robinson (Anne Brancoft), Benjamin adopts a pseudonym as Benjamin Gladstone. Nichols underlines neat juxtapositions through his awkward comedy: elderly couple pass at the hotel entrance, a vision of the age that will meet him one day; crossing between contexts, the clerk (screenwriter Buck Henry) asks if he’s “having an affair”; the party mistakes him for a porter. Benjamin’s sexuality is covert: communicating with Mrs Robinson over the payphone asking for the room number; taxis and guests crowding around the booth. The immaturity of his rite of passage is a mess of contradictions; the act of booking a hotel room is a sign of status and adulthood, devalued by his inability to interact with hotel staff. In the Soderbergh commentary, Nichols comments the young man/older woman formula is a “classic situation” and how “most guys started their sex lives”; it “happens again in every generation”. Driving in his red Alfa Romeo across the sunset bridge, moving through trees, green lawns and night gives a feeling of freedom. We speed through the climax, running out of gas and running out of breath.

Both Mrs Robinson and Benjamin negotiate power dynamics. As an older woman, Mrs Robinson has power and allure. During one scene in rehearsal, Hoffman describes “break[ing] the scene” as both him and Nichols cracked up; he “stood against the wall” and “started banging my head”. Benjamin’s relationship has foundations within immorality, but Mrs Robinson never acknowledges her own power, victim blaming and twisting Benjamin into a “rapist”, becoming increasingly acidic. Dave Grusin’s score underlines their generational difference, utilising a jazzy music cue. But Benjamin looms over with the upper hand, decrying her to Hell as a “broken down alcoholic”, their relationship the “sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me”. When he tells Elaine it’s all over, it “was just something that happened”. The stresses and anxieties of the past become just another anecdote.

Mrs Robinson’s coercion should not go unacknowledged. As Ben takes her home at night, it’s under the guise of protection, feeling safe with the light on; she offers a drink attempting to seduce him; violates his own private space; she enters the room naked, appealing to her own desires. She asks Benjamin if he would like her to “seduce” him, throwing back Ben’s question as though appealing to his desires. Surtees and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt are immaculate in using setting and outfit to reflect character, from Mrs Robinson’s black dress to leopard skin coat; she sits on her black sofa watching TV with bourbon, greenery overgrowth behind her; Sylbert wanted to literalise the image of Robinson as a wild beast. In the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols points to the fact he had “months and months” to prepare, allowing thought to be taken into strap marks visible on Mrs Robinson. Mrs Robinson still has her story: the cigarettes she smokes, her fractured marital relationship, her tears as Nichols moves out from her crying face, her abusive scream as Ben tries to tell his own story. Her husband’s initial brief interactions with Benjamin communicates perfect dramatic irony and comic timing, giving Benjamin relationship advice on women filled with assumptions, suggesting he “ought to sow a few wild oats” and that he has to “fight ‘em off”; Benjamin responds with emotionlessness. As Mrs Robinson recalls the conception of Elaine in the back of a Ford, Benjamin must deal with the reality of Elaine’s age and the nature of their relationship. Nichols creates suspense: as he confronts Elaine about his relationship with her mother, Mrs Robinson’s head appears in the doorframe, foreshadowing Jack Torrance’s murderous rampage in The Shining (1980). In his commentary, Suber emphasises Mrs Robinson’s and Benjamin’s separate narrative arcs: Ben’s narrative is a comedy, ending in “integration and fulfilment”; Mrs Robinson experiences tragedy, ending in “alienation and frustration”. Mrs Robinson is a narrative function as the active agent and aggressor; at the pivot, Benjamin “seizes control” of “destiny”.

Elaine is introduced from the beginning: in Mrs Robinson’s bedroom, a picture of Elaine sits behind them, watching in in plain sight. The 60s bought its own wave of films about love, sex and relationships; The Graduate is but another lens to express values about sexuality and relationship politics, positioning marriage as a rite of passage. As Hoffman notes in his commentary with Ross, Benjamin’s dates with Elaine carry a 1950s vibe, going to a drive-in burger place; as he describes, they’d be “Republican kids”. Benjamin is rebellious, driving across the curb; taking her to a stripper. On the Boulevard, Nichols captures a documentary quality, moving past young teenagers through a long lens. Elaine’s presence allows for a different environment in which to view these characters: the study halls and sports halls of the University of California, shot over 1 day without permission in the Berkeley campus. But Benjamin and Elaine have little chemistry; Benjamin has few date ideas besides coffee; he stares at her across campus through a fountain. Elaine’s relationship with Carl becomes a perfect Redford stand-in: blonde, inoffensive, walking through the zoo as Benjamin stalks her. Marriage carries uncertainty: Ben’s conversation with his parents about his intention to marry is a masterpiece in comic diffusion, stressing his “half baked idea” is “completely baked”, before admitting “she doesn’t like me”. In bed, as he asks her, tired and asleep, yawning and embracing; she tells him “I don’t know”. Their screwball comedy-esque wedding has become the centrepiece, shot with a focus on close-ups as Ben screams for Elaine. The final scene parallels Elaine’s earlier departure on the bus, Ben running runs after her. They sit in silence, uncertain of their future. As Nichols tells in the Soderbergh commentary, the ending was “created by my unconscious”; rather than laughing, they look terrified and upset. As Nichols concludes, his “definition of shooting a movie” is to shoot “until something happens than no one could have predicted”.

Benjamin’s relationship with Mrs Robinson opens a question around what sex represents. In the age of the production code, sexuality was repressed, but as the production code tore itself apart and foreign cinema pushed boundaries, The Graduate allowed shock cuts to the breasts of a stripper substituting for Bancroft. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in a contemporary review in New Republic, the “moral stance” is “refreshing”, accepting “a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter”, though “[m]oral attitudes” are “getting stricter and stricter”. As he concludes, beyond the “moral revolution” of “contemporary American fiction” from decades ago, cinema makes these statements “intrinsically new and unique”.

Mrs Robinson realises it’s his “first time”, stressing it’s “nothing to be ashamed of”. Benjamin’s inexperience plays in subtle movements: unable to take hangers off the rail, touching her breasts, undoing her zip, but without devolving into lewd sexuality. In the bedroom, Surtees uses shadows; Benjamin kisses Mrs Robinson, inhaling smoke. Nichols took advantage of Hoffman’s experiences: he asked him when he first had “any action at all” (a junior high production of The Jazz Singer, performed in blackface) (2009:294) and his struggles buying rubbers from a female clerk (2009:310). In the novel, Benjamin spent three weeks on the road post-graduation, admitting to his father he slept with a few prostitutes. By removing this backstory, Nichols elevates Benjamin’s awkward inexperience around sex to a place of greater universality; more people have had bad, awkward sex or should expect bad, awkward sex than have slept with prostitutes. Nichols was caught between two uneasy places: an industry of sex comedies that, as Harris writes, featured “as little sex as possible” (2009:313), and a film under Levine that didn’t feature sex, with Levine suggesting an arthouse poster with Hoffman and Bancroft naked (2009:361). Writing in the Vanity Fair piece, Turman recalls novelist Calder Willingham’s “vulgar” draft of the screenplay, incorporating “gratuitous homosexual and man-woman sex.” Benjamin seeks human connection within a relationship that cannot allow it: he wants to “liven up a little conversation”, before finding there’s nothing to talk about. As Kauffmann writes, the film’s “sexual dynamics” allow Benjamin to “assess and locate himself in every aspect” in identity formation, beyond the “sexual sphere”.

Perhaps one of the most important elements is the soundtrack, using a selection of songs by Simon & Garfunkel. But The Graduate isn’t a Simon & Garfunkel film, without the commercial backbone of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) though still promoting an artist and album in the process. Though some films play best in silence, a good soundtrack isn’t just interested in the charts, but in consistency. Simon & Garfunkel’s split might still feel tragic, but their 6 years together produced gems; my parents grew their relationship together to Simon & Garfunkel, and did the same to their kids.

The recurring theme of The Sound of Silence, cutting between the blackness, the pool, water and reflections, reflecting Benjamin’s “deep depression” of his “emotional suicide” of “fuck[ing] Mrs. Robinson” (2009:360), and its return in the final scene, and Scarborough Fair during the montage at the zoo, are incredible beyond words. During the final race to the church, Simon riffs along, in the zone. As Hoffman recalls in his commentary with Ross, Nichols told Hoffman the film has “no second act”; the “second act is Simon & Garfunkel”. As Nichols tells in his commentary with Soderbergh, Paul Simon “was so clearly Dustin’s voice” because his voice was still “searching”. Nichols had listened to Simon & Garfunkel as a morning ritual (2009:358), the duo receiving $25,000 and reaching the top of the billboard.

Having trained in theatre, Nichols embraces the theatricality of cinema in his attention to performance and small details, through 3 weeks of rehearsals (2009:290) and 100 days of shooting. Speaking in An American Master, he recalls being stunned when he first saw A Streetcar Named Desire and the power of its performances. But The Graduate is equally made by visuals, with freedom to move and shoot from a long distance that would continue through New Hollywood in films like The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Surtees pays close attention to the sun and rain, reflections upon the hotel table upon Benjamin’s meeting with Mrs Robinson and in the car window, and the dimmed lights as Elaine’s father confronts Benjamin. Kauffmann enthused of Nichols’ formal effects: his “expansion and ellipsis”, “subjective time” in sound editing and the “balletic”, “quintessential rhythms” akin to Kurosawa. As Brackman enthused, Nichols was like “a child who has been given a great many presents at once”, discovering the “camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding.”

Speaking in in the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols cites the long takes and filled frames from A Place in the Sun (1951), and Preston Sturges’ endless shots where it felt “like something really happening”. Speaking in An American Master, Nichols rejects the notion of auteur theory. Nichols argues “French guys with cigarette ashes all over them” had “misunderstood the whole thing”, whilst “ignor[ing] our greatest directors”. As he concludes, whilst “[o]ne man can’t make a movie”, the film itself has to “come from one mind”.

When I first watched the film aged fourteen, the same year I watched Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936) and Seven Samurai (1954) for the first time, I was transfixed by how radical its filmmaking style felt. But I’d already been introduced much earlier: in The Simpsons (1989-present) episode Lady Bouvier’s Lover (1994), the closing scene in the church is transposed with Grampa and Jacqueline Bouvier, complete with a parody rendition of The Sound of Silence. The Graduate has lived on in the popular consciousness: Saving Face (2004) modelled its final act on the church in The Graduate, using the same tropes to explore 21st century Asian American lesbian identity and generational love. The Sound of Silence has become one of the most precious memes. But The Graduate’s power has never left.

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