Before there was “the Sixties,” there was the relatively more tranquil 1960s. To appreciate the cultural excitement whipped up by The Graduate, it’s useful to recall that it belongs to that quieter part of the decade before the apocalypse. At the time of the film’s Christmas week release in 1967, the national divisions over civil rights and the Vietnam War were raging, but the explosions of 1968—Lyndon Johnson’s abdication, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago riots—were still months away. Yet somehow this movie, technically a romantic comedy with a nominally happy ending, caught the drift of the boomer generation’s growing alienation from the status quo and captured a new zeitgeist that was in the air but had yet to fully take hold. That it did so is all the more impressive given that The Graduate contains not a single reference to a contemporary headline. The characters are uniformly upper-middle-class (or wealthier) and white. The protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, may have just graduated from college but he seems not to have heard of pot, and his many anxieties do not include a fear of the draft. When plot complications propel him from Los Angeles to the University of California in Berkeley, we don’t meet that campus’s radicals but instead some unreconstructed frat guys who seem to have been living in a bubble since the Eisenhower fifties. Just the same, intimations of a brewing youth rebellion ripple through the entire film. The Graduate, an elegant exemplar of old-school high-end Hollywood filmmaking,anticipates the counterculture without ever enlisting in it.
By sheer happenstance, I saw The Graduate as a college freshman some weeks before its actual premiere, at a sneak preview at the old Esquire Theater on Oak Street in Chicago, back in a day when sneak previews were truly “sneak”: ticket buyers weren’t told the title in advance and risked wasting an evening on a bomb. Once the opening credits revealed the movie’s identity that night, there was no uptick in anticipation. The film’s generic title promised little. Two of its stars, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, were complete unknowns. (Hoffman had just a few off-Broadway stage credits, and Ross was a young Universal contract player who had yet to land a significant role.) The Hollywood career of the third star, Anne Bancroft, had plateaued after the triumph of her Oscar for best actress as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962).
The real marquee name of the project was its director, Mike Nichols, who, though only in his midthirties, had already launched three brilliant careers—as the performing partner of Elaine May in one of the funniest and most influential improvisational comedy acts ever; as the director of Neil Simon’s first two smash hits on Broadway, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple; and as a filmmaker whose first directorial undertaking, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s landmark drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, released a year earlier, had won Oscar nominations for all four of its main actors (among a total of thirteen nominations), two of whom, Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis, won. It was Nichols’s comic voice—urbane, sardonic, witty, and somewhat remote—and its amplification by Hoffman’s performance that gave The Graduate its unsettling tone. The sneak-preview audience left the theater with the exhilarating sense that it had been present at the birth of a phenomenon and the ascent of a star. But if you told friends about it, they’d be incredulous (“Dustin who?”)—until, that is, the moviebecame a sensation immediately upon its release.
The genesis of the film predated Virginia Woolf. A producer unknown to Nichols, Lawrence Turman, sent him The Graduate, a first novel by Charles Webb published in 1963, suggesting it “would make a good movie.” As Nichols would later recall, “It’s the only time in my whole life that that ever happened successfully.” The director thought the adaptation would be straightforward, but there were two unsuccessful attempts (one of them by Calder Willingham, who would share the screenplay credit) before he turned the job over to Buck Henry. Nichols and Henry had known each other, in passing, as seven-year-olds at the Dalton School in New York, but their real connection was in their artistic apprenticeships: like Nichols, whose partnership with May was nurtured by the Compass Players, the legendary comedy troupe in Chicago, Henry had begun his career in improvisational comedy, with a similar troupe, the Premise, in New York.
The third pass on the script proved to be the charm, because by then Nichols had found the focus of his adaptation: “A boy who was drowning in things, in objects, in affluence, fighting, and then finding there’s no way he could fight his way out of it except madness. And madness was what he found to save him.” With no firm postcollegiate plans, Benjamin returns to his parents’ luxe, Beverly Hills–ish home, where he idles away the summer floating in the pool and brooding in silence. The “madness” that rescues him arrives when he is seduced, not unwillingly, into a soulless clandestine affair with a middle-aged married friend of his parents’, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft, who was in actuality only thirty-five when the film was made). That liaison is soon complicated by Benjamin’s infatuation with a young woman of his own generation—the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Ross).
Though The Graduate upholds some of the classic tropes of Hollywood romantic comedy dating back to the 1930s—especially in its climactic deployment of a runaway bride—Benjamin’s paralyzing emotional disconnect from the world around him is what makes his story both fresh and particular to its own time. If “The Sounds of Silence,” the hit Simon & Garfunkel song that Nichols repurposed for the film’s soundtrack, indelibly captures the dehumanizing atmosphere of the affluent L.A. where Benjamin is marooned, the riddle of his profound anxiety may be aptly captured by a lyric from Bob Dylan’s 1965 “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is.” Even at the end of the film, when Benjamin has finally won what he thinks he wants, Hoffman’s suite of contradictory expressions tells us that he still doesn’t know what is happening, let alone what will happen next.
The Graduate was not an easy film to get made. “Nobody had any great hopes for it,” Nichols recalled in 2014, “and I wasn’t going to use big stars.” He had toyed early on with some known quantities, including Robert Redford and Candice Bergen, but ultimately decided to give a strenuous screen test to Hoffman, whom he’d caught playing “a transvestite Russian fishwife” off-Broadway. As the actor would later tell the writer Mark Harris for his book Pictures at a Revolution, “Nichols was wrong. I was not in any way right for that part . . . The guy’s name is Benjamin Braddock, he’s like six feet tall, he’s a track runner.” Hoffman was Jewish, nearing thirty, and nowhere near six feet. But Nichols’s instinct was right, and the actor, though not conforming to Webb’s Benjamin, made the character his own. Nichols saw that Hoffman had a quality he’d also found in Elizabeth Taylor: “What you see on the floor when you’re shooting is good, but what you see on the screen the next day is quite a lot better,” as if there were “a deal with the lab that they get better in the bath overnight.” It’s also likely that the director saw in this unknown actor the ability to portray an outsider—a fiercely smart, sharply observant onlooker always standing at a remove and stockpiling astringent judgments about everything happening around him. In a way, this description could also apply to Nichols, who was marked for life by his childhood emigration from Nazi Germany to New York, where he too found himself an outsider, unable to speak English and blend in.
The major studios all turned down The Graduate. The film was financed instead by an independent producer, Joseph Levine, who grew impatient as the shooting ran over schedule, into a fourth month. Levine exhibited scant optimism about the movie’s prospects, and some of the most influential critics, including Pauline Kael and John Simon, dismissed it, as later would a writer at the New Yorker, Jacob Brackman, whose screed went on for some twenty pages. But prodded by some favorable reviews and word of mouth, audiences embraced The Graduate wholeheartedly, particularly the huge boomer audience that had started to wield its enormous box-office clout.
This was the second time in 1967 that an iconoclastic American movie tapping into the incipient late-sixties mood had overridden some critical-establishment disdain to win large young audiences and Oscar nominations. The first was Bonnie and Clyde, whose director, Arthur Penn, and screenwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, were openly inspired by France’s New Wave cinema; it would be hard to imagine their neo–gangster movie without antecedents like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. That was not the style of The Graduate. While there is some bravura filmmaking along the way—a long montage capturing the alternately carnal and catatonic interludes of Benjamin’s lost summer, a final sequence that has become an icon of American movies—what would prove to be Nichols’s enduring directorial strengths are to be found in his movie’s crisp and witty screenplay, unerring casting, and the strong performances he elicited from the entire cast. Every role is memorably etched: William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson as Benjamin’s parents, Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson, Norman Fell as an agitated Berkeley landlord, and even Buck Henry in a cameo as a hotel clerk. Nichols often cited Elia Kazan as a role model, and he shared Kazan’s zeal for prioritizing the casting and directing of actors, as well as Kazan’s ability to bring off the usually hopeless task of translating great plays to film. It could be argued that, along with The Graduate, the most enduring works of Nichols’s long career are both stage adaptations: Virginia Woolf and Angels in America (2003).
It was for The Graduate that Nichols, then thirty-six, won his only Academy Award for best director, in 1968. While both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were nominated for best picture, they lost to a more conventional Hollywood slice of social realism, the Norman Jewison–directed In the Heat of the Night, a racial drama set in a small Southern town. Portentously enough, Oscar night that April had to be postponed two days because of the King assassination. Before long, American movies would more explicitly reflect a nation in the throes of tumult and sweeping change: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brian De Palma’s Greetings, and Richard Lester’s Petulia arrived in 1968, followed by Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, and Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant in 1969. The next year would bring Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, and Nichols’s own Catch-22.
Next to these films and those of the Coppola-Scorsese-Lucas-Spielberg New Wave soon to follow, The Graduate might seem to belong to another age. But in truth it straddles both the old and the new. It survives not just as a peerless Hollywood entertainment but as a one-of-a-kind cinematic portrait of America when it, like Benjamin Braddock at the edge of his parents’ swimming pool, teetered on the brink.