Thursday, July 8, 2010

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate

Watching Mike Nichols’ classic The Graduate for the first time in about ten years or so I was struck by several things: Dustin Hoffman’s performance seems like preparation work for Rain Man; Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson was sexy and brilliant; the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is bitingly funny at times; Benjamin Braddock is not nearly the cultural revolutionary that I remembered him to be (or that he seemed to be in the 60s). While the film is undoubtedly a classic, it is hardly great.

What was seen in its day as the bold defiance by the younger generation of their well-to-do parents has not aged well. Benjamin Braddock is not a hippie, a flower child, an anti-war protester. In fact, the Vietnam War is not mentioned once and is only faintly alluded to when Benjamin takes a room in a boarding house in Berkeley and is warned by the landlord, “I don’t want any outside agitators.” Benjamin, upon graduating from college is harangued by his parents and all their WASPy friends about his future plans. Like most kids his age, he doesn’t really have a clear idea. He would like to sit around by the pool and be a young man.

The opening party scene is shot in tight, jerky close-ups, mostly from Benjamin’s point of view as a whirlwind of activity flurries around him before he disappears back to his bedroom. One of the film’s most famous lines, “Plastics,” is offered as a piece of sound advice from one of his dad’s friends. It’s meant to be a satirical comment on materialism and it still has a hilarious ring to it, but if you think about it, wouldn’t it have been wise to listen to such advice in 1967?

The dialogue is often quite clever. The first scene between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson once she gets him into the house is so wonderfully written and acted, more so on the part of Bancroft, who projects maturity, world-weariness, no time for games. She is probably the best written, or at least the most interesting character in the film. Hoffman in this scene is just uncomfortable. He plays it well, but seems stiff, more like someone with a social disorder.

Hoffman’s best moments come in his later scenes with Bancroft, particularly when he insists they have a conversation before jumping into bed together. He is so genuinely interested in who she is, why she does what she does, how she gets away with it. He seems so…young. Hoffman was already 30 when he played Benjamin. I wonder if a younger actor could have pulled this scene off as effectively.

It’s interesting that this has become a considerable American classic because the style is more typical of European cinema of the 1960s. Of course, The Graduate presaged the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, which was marked by films heavily influenced by great European film makers like Godard, Rosselini, Fellini and Antonioni. Consider how bizarre this film must have been to audiences in 1967 with its handheld camera, fast cutting to imply the naked Mrs. Robinson when she first appears undressed before Benjamin, and almost avant-garde montage sequences to show the passage of time. One of the best edits in the film starts with Benjamin pulling himself onto a floating raft in his family’s pool and finishes with him landing on top of Mrs. Robinson in bed. It’s the perfect union of the two leisure activities that define Benjamin’s post-graduate career.

The Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack is one of the touchstones of The Graduate. The songs are great, if a bit toothless and safe at times. And with the exception of “Mrs. Robinson” (which was not even written for the film, but was about Eleanor Roosevelt and the country’s loss of innocence), the repetition of the songs becomes grating.

The film’s major weakness is in the relationship between Benjamin and Elaine. Together they should be inspirational, bucking the conventions laid down by their staid parents. Benjamin’s inertia and Elaine’s triumphal run from the altar at the climax are supposed to demonstrate their personal counter-culture revolution, but how did they get there in the end?

During their first date they seem to hit it off pretty well (after he takes her to a striptease show), but then he tells her the truth about the affair with her mother and all bets are off. She disappears back to Berkeley, he goes back to the pool until he eventually decides he’s going to marry Elaine. His father tells him his plan is half-baked. “Oh no. It’s fully baked,” comes Ben’s reply. Truly, it isn’t.

Elaine, not knowing the whole truth about what went on before, forgives Ben and falls into marriage talk before they’ve even discussed anything. These two kids never talk to each other. We never learn anything about Elaine – absolutely nothing. We learn more about Mrs. Robinson from a single conversation with Benjamin than we learn about Elaine in the last half hour.

When Ben races to Elaine’s wedding (rushed by her parents to keep her away from Ben) to stop it, Nichols builds some great excitement and tension. When he stops at the service station to find out where the church is you want to scream at the attendant when he stammers giving Ben directions. This scene was parodied wonderfully in Wayne’s World 2, putting Charlton Heston to good use for the first time in more than two decades.

He steals Elaine away from her Aryan pipe-smoking frat boy husband (the ceremony was completed before he arrived) as Mrs. Robinson shouts that it’s too late. Elaine’s response holds the summation of the film: “Not for me, it isn’t!” In that moment she’s asserting herself as independent from the ways of her parents, especially her mother who married to avoid the embarrassment of an out-of-wedlock child.

But what of the final scene in the film? Benjamin and Elaine escape to a bus that drives them away. They sit together in the back, exchange a couple of happy glances, sit smiling for a moment and then their faces turn blank. Nichols makes a great choice in holding this shot long enough to see their faces turn to…what is it? Is it apathy? Is it resignation? Do they even know what their next step is going to be? Perhaps after the excitement of escaping the church has worn off, they’ll realize their parents were right.

You may make the argument that Buck Henry and Mike Nichols are presenting an ironic finish, that really they are not the counter-culture ideals, but the embodiment of the worst aspects of that 60s counter-culture – whiny, self-indulgent and morally superior to the previous generation. If they had focused more on that then maybe they would have turned a classic into a great movie.

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