Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the biggest hits of the decade, Mike Nichols and Buck Henry's 1967 The Graduate was perhaps the first picture to truly impact the youth culture, creating a 'youth market' in Hollywood filmmaking. The cleverly concocted farce is a balancing act of wit and near-slapstick that flirts with MPAA content taboos. As William Bayer explained in Breaking Through, Selling Out, Dropping Dead, Nichols and Henry anticipated a trend and tapped into the unconscious desires of the mass audience. Millions of kids that previously had never heard of the concept of 'alienation', suddenly recognized themselves in Benjamin Braddock's awkward hero.
MGM's The Graduate 40th Anniversary Edition is a major improvement on an earlier DVD release and adds a number of interesting extras to the mix.
Successful college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns to his parents in Los Angeles but feels depressed and directionless. He allows himself to be seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a family friend, and wastes the summer away. But when the fall comes, Ben's in a bind. His parents want him to date the Robinsons' girl, Elaine (Katharine Ross), a prospect that drives Mrs. Robinson into a frenzy.
The Graduate fell out of style in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mike Nichols' stylized look at Beverly Hills and the almost cartoonish array of supporting characters seemed every bit as 'plastic' as the dreaded establishment that Benjamin Braddock feels compelled to reject. The Graduate is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, if only because it seduces its audience into sympathizing with an inconsistent and unlikable rich kid. Benjamin Braddock is supposed to have been a Big Man On Campus and an athletic star, yet the 'generation gap' turns him into an introverted zombie the moment he sets foot in his parents' spotless Los Angeles home. The movie shamelessly stacks the deck. Benjamin's parents are greedy WASP demons, forever prodding, meddling and conspiring behind his back. The family friends are mummified monsters, sixty if they're a day. Their values are irredeemably corrupt, as (brilliantly) expressed in the immortal line about Plastics. Oh, woe is poor Benjy Braddock, the inoffensive and meek fellow who resists the demand that he go forth and join the evil adult world of money grubbing.
Benjamin crawls back into his bedroom-womb to commune with the guppies in his fish tank. He feels like he's underwater and drowning, you see, lost in an alien world. Dressed in his birthday wetsuit, the pool is his escape from the alien creatures at his parents' pool party. Benjamin's POV scuba walk, seen through his face mask and accompanied only by the sound of breathing, is a match for scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the next year. Poor Benjamin. All he has is his beautiful house, no worries about money or health, and a fancy European sports car.
The Graduate knows it can have its cake and eat it too, for in 1967 it was still the norm to popularize the problems facing society through the experiences of Very Rich People. Mike Nichols' instincts cannot be faulted in his choice of actors, as the 29 year-old Dustin Hoffman was immediately embraced by the audience. Sort of an upper-class Sad Sack, Hoffman's Benjamin is a classic comedy character, the kind of guy who doesn't know whether to apologize for taking up space or to sock somebody in the nose. He's Harold Lloyd for the neurotic 1960s.
The Graduate was considered a big picture of the counterculture, even though little or nothing of the 'youth revolution' is shown. Benjamin takes Elaine to a Sunset Blvd. strip club, not a rock show. The kids at the drive-in look like the kind of teenagers-pushing-30 that were a given on television shows. The Berkeley we see might as well be an ivy-league college. Elaine's fiancé carries a coat and smokes a pipe, like someone in a fashion ad from 1960, or even 1955. The Graduate's game is to limit Benjamin's alternatives to things he should by rights reject. This is the false America, see? The film makes the average authentic 1967 college student feel proud of his crummy dorm room and ratty Levis. We have values. We're not like them.
The Graduate is heavily influenced by the skit humor of two characters engaging in an enclosed space. Mike Nichols excels at this sort of thing, and most if not all of Benjamin's hotel encounters with Mrs. Robinson are comedic classics, single take scenes that show Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft to be capable of handling anything. The younger man-older woman gags are priceless, as are the nervous jokes about illicit sexual encounters. Bancroft exudes a bored discontent that disguises a crushed spirit. She pulls off the silent-movie gag of getting caught in a passionate kiss while holding a mouthful of cigarette smoke. We can see Mrs. Robinson's frustration when Benjamin would rather 'work on their relationship' than talk. She just wants the sex.
The clever script puts Benjamin through the grinder, hopelessly pursuing the beautiful Elaine after his forbidden relationship with her mother has been found out. Only after hitting rock bottom does Benjamin see the light, and the audience accepts him as Sir Galahad because he's finally found the nerve to commit to something. Buck Henry, Calder Willingham and Mike Nichols elevate their farce to mythic heights. The forces arrayed against Benjamin are daunting -- fraternity goons, a paranoid landlord, a manic cuckolded husband ("You are a DEGENERATE!"), the L.A.P.D. and even the fuel capacity in his spiffy red roadster. Will the hopeless twirp prevail?
In the famous back-of-the-bus finale, The Graduate paints itself into a corner. Do we truly believe that Elaine and Benjamin will be transformed into a functioning couple, or that they'll survive for a month without Mummy and Daddy's money? For its last thirty seconds The Graduate again takes the audience by surprise, switching styles completely. The rebellious elopers Elaine and Benjamin engage in a wistful bit of introspection and knowing smiles as they sit side-by-side -- but significantly, apart -- in the back of the bus. It's practically a Laurel & Hardy moment. Showing an uncanny sixth sense, Mike Nichols thrills his audience with an expression of its own collective desires. 1
MGM and Fox's The Graduate 40th Anniversary Edition presents the film in an enhanced widescreen transfer that flatters Robert Surtees' careful, creative photography. The film's design is unusually dark for a comedy, and makes intelligent use of camera tricks like extreme rack-focus that were commonly abused in other 'trendy' pictures. Simon and Garfunkle's pop songs place the movie squarely in time, post-Rubber Soul but pre-Sgt. Pepper. To score his suspense scenes, Nichols uses the guitar rhythm from the written-to-order song Mrs. Robinson.
Most of the extras are new. A good Dustin Hoffman interview One on One is repeated from the previous disc, but two new commentaries combine Hoffman with Katharine Ross and Mike Nichols with Steven Soderbergh. Always performing, Hoffman tends to dominate his track with Ross. She's happy to interject an occasional remark but is clearly made uncomfortable by her co-star's annoying insistence on talking about his crush on her during filming. Hoffman's version of events conflicts at least a couple of times with Nichols's account. According to Hoffman, the gag of grabbing Anne Bancroft's breast and then banging his head against the wall was a miraculous accident; he turned away from the camera to disguise the fact that he was cracking up. Nichols dryly states that that whole business was in the film starting with rehearsals. In the Soderbergh-Nichols track the amazingly talented Anne Bancroft gets her due.
Two new featurettes are included. One analyzes the film's seduction scene until every hint of life has been beaten out of it. The second piece collects a number of working directors to praise and offer comments on Nichols' classic. The 'Shaky-cam' visual treatment given the photo graphics comes off as an unnecessary defense against audience ADD -- as if the filmmakers didn't think the featurette would hold our attention without artificial agitation. The overall making-of-docu is called The Graduate at 25. An original trailer is included as well.
A second disc is an abbreviated CD with four songs from the original soundtrack, although Mrs. Robinson sounds suspiciously like the AM radio version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Graduate 40th Anniversary Edition rates:
Supplements: Commentaries with Dustin Hoffman & Katharine Ross, and Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh; four featurettes, trailer, extra CD with four Simon & Garfunkle songs.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 22, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. I was sixteen years old and working my first High School job at a pharmacy when the movie opened. A local minister walked in and started talking with the pharmacist about the film, and how immoral and obscene trash like it was was corrupting youth. This outrageous new movie would certainly inspire a righteous counterattack for the forces of decency. When I asked if the minister had actually seen the movie, I was told to shut up, I think by both of them in unison. It was like a line drawn in the sand. From then on I didn't trust adults either!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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