Saturday, June 1, 2013

Stubs – The Graduate

The Graduate  (1967) Starring: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on the book by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman. Music by Dave Grusin and Paul Simon Run Time: 104 minutes. U.S.  Color. Comedy, Drama, Romance

One of the most acclaimed films of all time, The Graduate is an interesting film. Made at the end of the Production Code, the film features an extramarital affair, nudity and an ending that is anything but a guaranteed happy-ending. The film is notable for the Awards it was nominated for, including seven Academy Awards and for launching the career of Dustin Hoffman (who himself has won two Academy Awards) and cemented the reputation of Mike Nichols.

The Graduate is one of those films that not only captures its moment, the mid-60’s, nearly flawlessly, but also represents a bigger truth. Even with improved employment possibilities, a recent college graduate is likely to feel lost. They have another sixty to seventy to eighty years ahead of them and a whole lifetime of choices to make that will affect career and family. Sudden independence can be a very daunting stage in life and while millions move forward, most are still apprehensive, waiting for some inspiration on what to do next.

The future looks daunting for Benjamin Braddock, The Graduate.
The Graduate tells the story of a strange love-triangle between Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross). Benjamin is a recent college graduate who returns home to Los Angeles with no real ambitions besides lying by his parents' pool and catching some rays.
Enter the wife of his father’s (William Daniels) business partner (Murray Hamilton), Mrs. Robinson, who asks Benjamin for a ride home after the party celebrating his return home. As subtle as a hammer, Mrs. Robinson is very upfront about wanting to sleep with Benjamin. At first, Benjamin is confused, but ennui sets in and an affair with the older woman gives him something to do at night.

Mrs. Robinson can be as subtle as a hammer.
Even though they have nothing in common and nothing really to talk about, Benjamin spends days in the pool and nights screwing Mrs. Robinson at the Taft hotel, using the name Mr. Gladstone, when he rents the room. Eventually, Benjamin does learn that Mrs. Robinson was forced to leave due to pregnancy with her daughter Elaine and that she’s now stuck in a sex-less and love-less marriage. (This is back before the days of baby-mommas, when it was considered bad to have babies out-of-wedlock.)

Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin don't talk much.
Under pressure from his parents, Benjamin asks Elaine out on a date. Mrs. Robinson is not happy about it, having previously warned him not to date her. Benjamin takes Elaine to drinks at a strip club. Upset, Elaine storms out, but Benjamin catches up with her outside. He apologizes and they end up finding out they like each other. They end up at the Taft Hotel, the same one where Benjamin meets her mother. Everyone knows him on sight, but as a different last name. Elaine even asks him if he’s having an affair, which he reluctantly admits to, though he doesn’t tell her whom it is with.

But Mrs. Robinson is adamant about not wanting Benjamin to date her daughter. She threatens to tell Elaine about the affair if Benjamin doesn’t break it off.  But Benjamin is just as head strong and goes to tell Elaine everything. But Elaine doesn’t take it well and kicks Benjamin out and doesn’t want to see him again.

Benjamin though isn’t done with Elaine and follows her back to school at Berkeley. He gets a room in a boarding house run by Mr. McCleary (Norman Fell). Benjamin sort of stalks Elaine, this in the days before restraining orders were so common, going so far as to accompany her on a date with Carl Smith (Brian Avery), a medical student that her family has known a long time. Elaine confronts Benjamin with the story her mother had told her about Benjamin raping her. Benjamin denies it and Elaine quickly accepts his story and sort of accepts his proposal to marriage.

He follows her around, pestering Elaine to marry him and just when it looks like it will happen, Elaine’s father shows up and tells Benjamin off. Elaine drops out of school and is going to marry Carl. Benjamin drives up and down the coast, from Berkeley to Beverly Hills and back trying to find Elaine. He goes to Carl’s fraternity (wonder how he knew which one) and is told the “make out king” is in Santa Barbara.

Back down to Santa Barbara. In what is one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Benjamin arrives at the church just after nuptials have been said. But his screams from the gallery are returned and Elaine chooses Benjamin over Carl and over her parents. Using a cross to lock the wedding party in the church, Benjamin and Elaine run to catch a bus and their uncertain future with each other.

Is Benjamin really too late?
The ambiguous ending is somewhat hard to understand at first. They are embarking on a future that neither can anticipate. We realize along with them that they don’t really know each other that well and after their rebellious act, real life takes over. Benjamin is a little like the dog who finally caught the car, now what does he do with it. What will become of Benjamin and Elaine? They’re like hero and heroine after an action movie. Do they have what it takes to make the relationship work? I only know that the Braddocks are in for some very awkward Thanksgiving Day dinners.

The happy couple?
The Graduate is a very visual film. Nichols uses an economy of shots, which lets the scenes develop, usually without a lot of editing, letting the actors act out their parts rather than having their performances edited or pieced together. This is not to say that there is not some really great editing that goes on in the film. In a montage sequence we see Benjamin’s leap onto the pool float ends with him on top of Mrs. Robinson in bed, one of the slickest transitions I’ve ever seen.

Music is also very important to the film. There are at least three complete Simon and Garfunkel songs featured, including two back to back. None of the three songs were written for the movie, but were well known at the time, giving them an instant familiarity to the viewers at the time. They are mature, complex, but simplistic and reflect the mood of the story in places where there is no dialogue. Plus there are whole passages of the film that have no music, so the songs carry more impact when they’re heard. “Mrs. Robinson”, the one Simon song written for the movie, is really only a snippet of a song that wouldn’t be completed until after the movie was made.

While there are long passages of the film where there is no dialogue, the script is still filled with memorable lines and effortlessly transitions from comedy to drama. The shooting script was written by Buck Henry, who had to share credit with Calder Willingham, who had written a previous draft. One of the most memorable lines in the film is the one word advice Benjamin receives from one of his father’s friends, “Plastics.” The line is both a non-sequitur as well as a comment on the times. This is the mid-60’s after all, when everything seemed to be in transition, no matter if things really changed or not. Plastic was everywhere, but so was the idea that our lives were becoming fake as well.

My only beef with the script, and it is somewhat nitpicky, but at the same time obvious, is the passage of time. The assumption is that Benjamin is a recent college graduate, which is either late May or early June. His 21st birthday is about a week after his return home and marks the beginning of his affair with Mrs. Robinson. We get the idea that they are either meeting nearly every night and/or for a period of at least several weeks before Elaine comes onto the scene. But we’re told several times that Elaine is supposed to be coming home from school, all with slightly different arrival dates (this Saturday, next week.) And Benjamin isn’t anxious to ask her out, but I can’t tell if that apprehension lasts a day, a week or a month.

Then he falls in love with Elaine based on the one date, even though they’ve obviously known each other all of their lives, but the only reference is that they knew each other in high school. When he goes back to date her and Mrs. Robinson stops it, they are in the middle of torrential rain, which in LA is a wintertime event. But the summer is bookended by Elaine going back to school, which would be around September. And the wedding, which is hastily thrown together to keep Benjamin away from Elaine, is fairly elegant, a church wedding with a real wedding dress. Not bad for what’s shown to be only a couple of days.

The Benjamin character seems to reflect what was going on at the time with young college students and graduates. Their future was so uncertain that they couldn’t even imagine what would happen to them or what to do with their lives. While it isn’t specifically mentioned, the Vietnam War was going on at this time and so many futures were up in the air, depending on if they were drafted or not.

What was the point of all that hard work in college?
Dustin Hoffman was new to movies, having only recently made a name for himself in New York in an off-Broadway play after laboring for ten years in obscurity. His involvement in the film almost seems to be casting against type, but it is clear he is a natural. His little “yips” throughout the beginning of the film are his anxiety leaking out as he tries to figure out what to do. He is no more in love with Mrs. Robinson than she is with him, but being with her is still the best thing that’s happening to him.

Mrs. Robinson, and we’re never told a first name for her, doesn’t love or even really like Benjamin. She is stuck in a loveless and sexless marriage and only sees Benjamin was a diversion from her otherwise empty life. A confessed alcoholic, Mrs. Robinson is strong and mature, the opposite of the awkward and virginal Benjamin.

Anne Bancroft as the flawed, but provocative Mrs. Robinson.
While Anne Bancroft is in reality only a few years older than Hoffman, she brings an adult quality to the role, making a supposed larger gap in ages believable. She certainly comes off as the one in control of the situation, as she tries to manipulate Benjamin with sex and then blackmail him with threats to expose her own infidelity.

The Elaine character is not as complex as either Benjamin or Mrs. Robinson. While her character is more than one-dimensional, she gets over the shock of her boyfriend having bed her mother quite quickly and completely without very much inner tension. Despite Benjamin telling Mr. Robinson the sex was like nothing more than a handshake, mothers and daughters don’t usually share lovers.

Never take a woman to a strip bar on your first date.
In watching other people talk about Katherine Ross in this film, the first thing they always seem to talk about is how beautiful she is. There is also a purity of essence, which is a big contrast to her alcoholic, chain-smoking mother. Elaine is a simple woman by comparison. I can’t imagine Mrs. Robinson dining in a drive-thru. Elaine provides Benjamin with a chance for a real relationship with a woman he can relate to and one who must be as anxious about the future and her role in it, as Benjamin is about his.

One of the fun parts of watching the film is seeing actors in bit parts. From screenwriter Buck Henry’s turn as a hotel clerk to Mike Farrell (TV's M.A.S.H.’s Dr. B.J. Honeycutt) as a hotel bellhop (look quick) to Richard Dreyfus as one of McCleary’s tenants who offers to call the police after Elaine screams in Benjamin’s room when discussing his past relationship with her mother. Nichols' former comedy partner, Elaine May, even appears as the woman who brings Elaine’s note to Benjamin. Seeing these actors is like adding another layer to the picture.

Mike Nichols not only has a great sense of humor, he was one half of the comedy team of Nichols and May with Elaine May, would go on to have her own career as a writer and director. But he was also well known on the Broadway stage having staged such original Broadway productions as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Annie. He had already made one movie before The Graduate, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a drama which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which in many ways was a filmed stage play.

However, in the Graduate, we see a cross between theatrical staging and the capabilities of cinema to adjust the audience comprehension. As an example, after Elaine kicks Benjamin out of her bedroom, he confronts Mrs. Robinson in the hallway. When she tells him what is supposed to be a final goodbye, the camera pulls back elongating the distance between Benjamin and her showing just how alone he is and must feel at that moment.
Mike Nichols (l) directing The Graduate (1967)
Like the songs used in the film, there is a simplicity to The Graduate that belies the complex framing of the shots, the complexity of the story and the mature themes that American cinema was only just beginning to address on screen. The Graduate received a lot of accolades when it was first released, but the film has aged very well and deserves to be seen as the great piece of filmmaking it is. This is one of the best movies from the 1960’s and one of the best movies ever made.

Please feel free to leave comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment