This is the reason I love living in Los Angeles—having the opportunity to go to screenings like the one I attended last night: the premiere of the restored print of “The Graduate” followed by a discussion with director Mike Nichols, producer Larry Turman, and actress Katharine Ross. Oh my God, what a film. I’m sure PhD theses have been written about how this film defined a generation and hit at a time when young people in this country were longing to break free from the yoke of their parents’ aspirations and social mores.
I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Are you listening?
Yes, I am.
That exchange always gets a roar of laughter from audiences, probably because it sums up the message of the whole film—that the adult world is artificial and oblivious to the things that young people care about. Mike Nichols explained last night that in his view the film was about Benjamin’s quest to not become a “thing.” His school, his parents, Mrs. Robinson—all had conspired to turn him into the “thing” they needed him to be, making him feel lost and soulless until, through the madness of going after Elaine Robinson despite the near impossible situation, he rediscovers his true self.
How to even comment on the raw, aggressive, utterly compelling sexuality that is Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson? The stuff that every boy’s dreams, fantasies, and nightmares are made of! Sheer perfection. Nichols said that in the early rehearsals Bancroft was coming off too sweet. “How do you want me to play it?” she asked. “I can’t explain it, but I can do it for you.” Nichols then read a few lines. “Got it,” Bancroft said. “Anger.” Indeed, seeing the film again last night, every single line Mrs. Robinson utters, from “Benjamin, will you take me home?” to “Waiter, I will have a martini” is seething with the unexpressed anger of a woman who has sold her soul down the river in a loveless marriage and a life built on other people’s expectations.
There are so many great lines in the film that I’d have to post the entire screenplay to give my favorites. Most revolve around Benjamin’s awkward flailing about (who can’t relate to that?) juxtaposed against Mrs. Robinson’s steely assertiveness. Some of my favorite moments are the tiny but brilliant nonverbal bits such as when Benjamin first drives Mrs. Robinson home and pulls up in front of her house. He is clearly waiting for her to get out of the car but she stares straight ahead. It never even occurs to her to open the door herself, she just waits for Benjamin to run around to her side and do it. There is also the improvised moment when they are first going to bed together at the Taft Hotel. As Mrs. Robinson is undressing, Benjamin cups his hand on one of her breasts. Anne Bancroft responds in character, which is to say she doesn’t respond at all but starts to methodically examine a stain on her now removed blouse. Dustin Hoffman was so floored by that he started laughing and, trying not to ruin the scene, walked to the other side of the room. He couldn’t stop laughing so he broke character and started pounding his head against the wall, waiting for Mike Nichols to yell “Cut.’ But Nichols loved it and kept the whole thing in the film!
Another small touch that I love is when the adults, who are constantly numbing themselves with alcohol, keep asking Benjamin what he’d like to drink. Whatever he answers, they pour him something else, showing their complete disregard for his individual needs and wants. It wasn’t until I was older myself that I realized that no adult in the film has a first name. Even at the height of their affair Benjamin calls Anne Bancroft Mrs. Robinson.
What archetypes Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine Robinson are. How can we be completely infatuated with Mrs. Robinson one minute and then fall head over heels in love with Katharine Ross’s Elaine Robinson the next? I think every time I see this film (and last night was probably my hundredth viewing!) I follow the same progression as Benjamin Braddock, lusting after the sensual escape hatch provided by Mrs. Robinson, only to ultimately cringe and switch my allegiance to the true understanding offered by Elaine. Hard to believe that I am now almost 10 years older than Anne Bancroft was when she made the film. And she herself was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman though it is stated in the film that she is twice his age.
As Benjamin's parents, William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson personify everything about the consumer culture that the younger generation was beginning to reject in the mid-1960s. Daniels and Wilson are two character actors who contribute immeasurably to everything they appear in and they are certainly at the top of their form in “The Graduate.” I also admire Murray Hamilton’s red-faced Mr. Robinson. He deserved an Academy Award nomination for the brief scene in which he confronts Benjamin at his Berkeley boarding house (run by Norman Fell and featuring an unbilled but whiny Richard Dreyfuss). Benjamin tells an enraged Mr. Robinson that the affair with his wife meant nothing to him—they might as well have been shaking hands. After unleashing a stream of venom at the young man and swearing he’ll have him arrested if he ever looks at Elaine again, he gets up to leave and spews “You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake your hand!”
Of course the fantastic Simon & Garfunkel score seals the film as an icon for a new generation. Most of the songs already existed and were put down in the score as placeholders for three new songs they promised to write but never got around to because of their skyrocketing careers. At one point Turman and Nichols went to the songwriters and said they just had to have a new song for the scene when Benjamin is racing to Elaine’s wedding. Simon and Garfunkel apologized but said they didn’t have anything else. “Nothing?” Nichols asked. Paul and Art went off for a few minutes, then came back and sang “Mrs. Robinson” exactly as it appears in the film. “What?!” Nichols and Turman exclaimed. “Did you just make that up in five minutes?” They explained that they had been working on a song about Eleanor Roosevelt and decided to just substitute Mrs. Robinson for Mrs. Roosevelt! The “dee de-dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee de-dee” that is now such a recognized part of the song was supposed to be temporary until they figured out more lyrics!
Charles Webb, the author of the book upon which Buck Henry’s magnificent screenplay was based, was apparently upset about one change in the film. In the book, Benjamin reaches the church in time to save Elaine from marrying her creepy boyfriend Carl (played in the film by Brian Avery who was at the screening last night). Nichols wisely chose to add an even richer anti-establishment texture by having Benjamin get there too late, just after Elaine and Carl are legally wed. Nichols swore that the oft-cited Christ imagery of Benjamin pounding on the glass window of the church from the balcony was unintentional. It happened only because the pastor of the church where they were filming was freaking out when Dustin Hoffman started hurling himself against the glass wall during rehearsals. Terrified that the glass would break, he nearly threw the cast and crew out of the church. Nichols then instructed the actor to spread his arms out wide when he hit the glass to avoid putting too much weight on one spot!
The much debated ending of the film when Benjamin and Elaine escape from the church and end up staring straight ahead on the city bus also has a surprising history. In the screenplay Benjamin and Elaine simply make it to the bus followed by a pan to the angry crowd in front of the church. End credits. Nichols instructed Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross to go to the rear of the bus and laugh in relief. The ending that was used in the film, whose meaning has been the subject of countless arguments between couples over the past 30 years, was an accident. Katharine Ross said she thought Mike Nichols had forgotten to yell “Cut!” so she and Dustin just sat there blankly, waiting for the scene to end. As in life, cinematic miracles can appear when you least expect them.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson
Joltin' Joe has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey...hey, hey, hey