Mike Nichols (1967)
Benjamin Braddock, the title character in Charles Webb’s 1963 novella The Graduate, has his twenty-first birthday shortly after returning to his parents’ home in suburban LA, following his graduation from a college in the East. The story begins in the summer of 1962 so Benjamin was born a few months before America entered World War II. Plenty of children of Benjamin’s generation, in their early years, must have grown to feel their parents were heroic, in having survived and won the War. By the turn of the decade, however, fears of nuclear war were increasing in tandem with anxieties about the nuclear family. In the course of the 1950s (which also saw the popularisation of Freudian theory peak), it became common literary and dramatic practice to attribute the confusion and unhappiness of teenage characters to their mothers and/or fathers. By the time Webb’s The Graduate reached the cinema screen, blaming grown-ups had expanded from a domestic context into a political position, especially as a result of Vietnam – the virtual antithesis of the Just War that ended in 1945. Benjamin Braddock is seduced by Mrs Robinson, the wife of his father’s law partner. Mike Nichols, with the help of Buck Henry and Calder Willingham’s screenplay, takes every opportunity to remind Benjamin’s coming-of-age contemporaries in the audience that they’re being screwed by the older generation.
From the start of the film, when he arrives at Los Angeles airport, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is presented as incapable of agency. Throughout the opening titles and to the accompaniment of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, he is borne along on a moving walkway at the airport. Back at the family home in Pasadena, while the welcome-home party his parents are throwing goes on downstairs, Benjamin sits alone in his room, in close proximity to a fish tank. This composition introduces a succession of images and implications of claustrophobia and submersion. Benjamin watches a group of party guests, all of them middle aged, from his bedroom window; they stand – viewed as under glass – beside the Braddocks’ swimming pool. A little later, at a party for his twenty-first, his parents’ birthday present is a scuba-diving suit, which his father insists his son wears, and gives a public demonstration of in the pool. This episode is shot (by Robert Surtees) mostly from Benjamin’s point of view, encased within the deep sea-diving outfit. The ominous sound of the compressed air apparatus on the suit makes things disorienting, as well as suffocating.
‘I’m a little worried about my future,’ says Benjamin, more than once, even before he gets into bed with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). His worry seems to be that he has no future since the only life available to him is the shallow, materialistic one that his parents lead and which he has already rejected. It doesn’t make realistic sense that a clever twenty-one-year-old who’s just spent three years away from home on the other side of the continent, at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, has such pessimistically limited horizons; but to object in these terms is to miss the point. Benjamin Braddock’s situation made powerful emotional sense as an expression of anxiety, especially to the youth audience that so helped the film turn into a runaway countercultural and commercial success. Dustin Hoffman, in the role that made him a star, is an important part of the calculating improbability of The Graduate. This is essentially a lampoon of affluent WASP values and WASP actors were what Mike Nichols originally had in mind. (The casting story of the film is one of the highlights of Mark Harris’s book Scenes from a Revolution – The Birth of the New Hollywood.) Yet Hoffman’s ethnic incongruousness gives physical reality to Benjamin the misfit (and, in due course, the underdog rebel), and substance to the young middle-class audience’s sense of alienation from their background. Hoffman’s extraordinary profile, physique and gait are integral to sustaining the film as both comedy and drama. His short limbs and odd head carriage don’t just bring humour to Benjamin’s climactic sprint to interrupt the wedding of the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), whom he’s now determined to marry himself. Hoffman’s visual eccentricities also reinforce the character’s little-guy appeal. They’re a big part of why the viewer roots so strongly for Benjamin.
Hoffman’s strangulated, nasal delivery had never been heard in cinemas before. (Not in the lead anyway: he had a small part in an Arthur Hiller comedy, The Tiger Makes Out, released a few months before The Graduate.) The sounds coming out of him, including Benjamin’s repeated whimpers of apprehension, make the vocal side of his performance as distinctive as the physical – although both draw attention too to the unlikely aspects of Benjamin Braddock. On their son’s homecoming, Mr Braddock (William Daniels) and his wife (Elizabeth Wilson) proudly list his college achievements – captain of the track athletics team and the debating society, literary editor, ‘soon to continue his studies as a John H Alpington scholar’. Dustin Hoffman’s playing of Benjamin makes all these improbable (at least until his cross-country pelt in the closing stages). There are times when the character’s naivete verges on dim-wittedness. The gift of the scuba-diving paraphernalia sticks out as a comic device because Hoffman isn’t the action-man type. His unconventional looks make a passable joke out of the remark of one of the Braddocks’ friends that Benjamin must be a heartthrob but the film seriously exaggerates his sexual inexperience to get full mileage out of Mrs Robinson’s exploitation of him. She seems to be the first member of the opposite sex he’s ever had a drink, let alone slept, with.
Mike Nichols, intent on keeping the audience entertained, is alert to the slightest risk of attention flagging. Even a critical conversation between Benjamin and Elaine is split into two eye- and ear-catching college locations: a gym where they watch a netball match (he’s the only male in evidence); a library, whose potential for urgent whispers that annoy a nearby swot student is exploited to the full. The direction is brazenly assured – each scene makes its intended individual impact, sometimes without regard for context or even continuity. The shot of Benjamin gazing at his parents’ friends from his bedroom shows them standing outside in bright sunshine. His daydream is broken by Mrs Robinson, who demands to be driven home immediately: it can’t be a long journey yet she and Benjamin arrive there after nightfall – her fear of the dark is the excuse she uses to get him inside the house. Having resisted her first attempt to seduce him, he has second thoughts and phones her from the Taft Hotel; she agrees to meet him there. Once she arrives, the scene is played as if she set up the meeting. Benjamin’s lack of thought about what will happen on their date may be hard to credit but it makes the encounter more amusing. They conduct their affair in a room at the Taft for weeks, if not months, but Benjamin never addresses her as anything but ‘Mrs Robinson’. The formality isn’t merely funny because it’s ludicrous; it’s also a reminder that Benjamin is in deferential thrall to his elders.
I can’t bring to mind a Hollywood picture of the 1950s or first half of the 1960s in which parents seek to thwart children as selfishly and proactively as happens in The Graduate. Anne Bancroft gives Mrs Robinson a fine brittle hauteur and mask of indifference but there are always hints of the cafard below. Her line readings in the first seduction sequence are superbly witty. (‘I’m very neurotic,’ Mrs Robinson warns Benjamin, her voice adamantine.) In almost the only sequence that evinces sympathy for an older character, she tells him – in response to a sudden onslaught of questions from the other side of the bed – how she got into her loveless marriage, when she was pregnant with Elaine. But once Benjamin disobeys her orders – by going out with Elaine when she returns home on vacation from her studies at Berkeley (though he’s obeying other adults’ orders in doing so) – Mrs Robinson turns into a crudely vengeful harpy and Bancroft’s talents are wasted. Although the actual age difference between them was only nine years, the casting of Katharine Ross as her daughter is doubly effective. Elaine Robinson’s soft-featured beauty complements her mother’s acrid, jaded glamour. In spite of their different personalities, you sometimes hear the older woman’s speech rhythms in those of the younger. The scene in which Elaine realises that Benjamin and her mother have been having an affair, as well as being strongly acted, is one of the film’s most visually succinct and potent moments.
Except for Anne Bancroft, until her task becomes impossible, and cameos from Buck Henry (the pedantic, watchful clerk on the Taft reception desk) and Norman Fell (an amusingly hostile Berkeley landlord), the non-young in The Graduate are brutally caricatured – in either their physical appearance or the way they’re played or both. In the film’s climax, as Benjamin and Elaine make their escape from her wedding to Carl Smith (Brian Avery), the guests are viciously aggressive in their efforts to prevent the getaway, grabbing and clawing at the two youngsters. Close-ups of Mrs Robinson, her husband (Murray Hamilton) and the bridegroom show their faces twisted in (silent) yelling accusation. We know from his first appearance that medical student Carl has sold out: he wears a suit and smokes a pipe – in other words, is prematurely middle-aged (though this doesn’t fit with the brief characterisation of Carl’s student pals as hearty jocks – or with their references to him as ‘the make-out king’). Mike Nichols throws everything at the last few minutes – the confounding tone is part of what makes the finale a bravura example of working-the-audience. The sudden outbreak of religious imagery has an undeniable impact though the charge is largely sarcastic. A mile high above the nave, Benjamin makes his appeal to Elaine standing in a crucifix position, behind the glass that separates him from the wedding party below. As he and Elaine try to flee, Benjamin grabs a hefty-looking cross, which he uses first to fend off their pursuers then, when he and Elaine have got outside the church, as a means of blocking the oldies’ exit. The escapees catch a bus and the film ends with them sitting side by side on it, their faces looking straight into the camera – smiling, then uneasy, then slightly hopeful, then hard to read. They’ve flown the coop but what do they do now?
The Graduate, a superficial movie, is a masterpiece of artfulness. Nichols’s use of Simon and Garfunkel’s music is a good example of his canny approach. While ‘Mrs Robinson’ was composed for the movie (though barely completed: the hit version eventually released in 1968 has a substantially different lyric), ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘April Come She Will’ and ‘The Sound of Silence’ were already well-known songs. Thanks to what they’d come to mean to young audiences, the songs (especially ‘The Sound of Silence’) confer an illusion of deeper meaning on the film. More than twenty years after The Graduate, Pauline Kael damned Mike Nichols with the faint praise of being ‘acclaimed for being hip to the Zeitgeist’. Kael was reviewing Postcards from the Edge and referring to the success that Working Girl, Nichols’s previous film, had enjoyed but this director was never more hip to the zeitgeist than in 1967.
23 June 2017