The Graduate

Dec 7, 1987

Occasionally in the arts, a work manages to speak to its contemporaries in a powerful and timely way that seems to capture the essence of its era. The usual fate of such works is that they become historical artifacts, of interest only to historians and sociologists. A few works, however, manage to continue to speak across time, renewing their hold on each generation because of their richness, complexity, and treatment of universal concerns and experiences.

This ability to transcend different eras is what makes a work a classic. In American film history, one such work is The Graduate, originally released in 1967.

In the more than two decades since it first became a box-office phenomenon, The Graduate‘s reputation as one of the great American comedies has grown and deepened. Its treatment of a young man’s initiation into the mysteries of sex at the hands of an older married woman has become a model for this common fantasy. Even more important is its sympathetic probing of the angst felt by so many college-educated American youths.

The Graduate is what Hollywood in later years would call a “high concept movie,” that is, one that takes a basic story and gives it a memorable twist. In this case, the boy-meets-girl/boy-wins-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-wins-girl structure is given new life by the fact that the reason boy-loses-girl is that he’s been sleeping with her mother! This startling concept is what made the film seem scandalous at the time. What is sometimes obscured is the fact that, long after people ceased to be shocked by this twist, the film continued to attract new audiences. This is because the film is, at its core, an otherwise-traditional story dealing with desire that is first thwarted and then fulfilled through true love.

The Graduate is a classic demonstration of filmmaking as a collaborative process. Produced by the always-innovative Lawrence Turman for the always-daring Joe Levine, the person who drew all of the film’s elements together was, of course, its director, Mike Nichols. After achieving fame as a standup comedian with Elaine May, Nichols had become a celebrated Broadway director of comedy, but had made only one film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had not done much to prove that he had any particular aptitude for the medium. With The Graduate, however, Nichols proved that he had thoroughly mastered cinematic technique.

There is, for example, the startling montage of the affair between Benjamin Braddock, the film’s protagonist, and the wife of his father’s best friend. Cutting back and forth between hotel bedrooms and his parents’ swimming pool, it ends with the young man diving into the pool and, in a perfectly matched cut, landing on top of his mistress in her bed, at which point we hear the voice of his father ask, “Ben, what are you doing?” Justly lauded by critics and historians, the scene was the result of careful collaboration between Nichols and Sam O’Steen, one of Hollywood’s foremost film editors.

Although often neglected in discussion of the film, Charles Webb’s novel, The Graduate, was already very close to being a screenplay, and much of the dialogue in the film was taken intact from the book. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham faithfully made the transition from the novel, making significant contributions of their own to the story’s structure and characterization.

The cinematography of Robert Surtees is immensely complicated, masterfully using special lenses such as the zoom to capture the feelings of alienation, desire, and despair that are at the heart of its central character. Even the contributions of collaborators usually ignored by critics and audiences turn out to be crucial to the success of The Graduate. The production design by Richard Sylbert and the production supervision by George Justin, and even the costumes by Patricia Zipprodt, are tightly integrated into the overall effect of the film.

The two things everyone probably remembers most about The Graduate are the performance by Dustin Hoffman and the songs by Simon and Garfunkel. The portrayal of the film’s title character was Hoffman’s first major screen role. The New York Times immediately declared him “an amazing new star,” and the accolades were repeated by countless reviews. Anne Bancroft, who had won Tony and Academy Awards for her “good woman” roles, created in the film one of the all-time screen villainesses, the bitchy but seductive Mrs. Robinson. Finally, Katherine Ross, who doesn’t make her entrance until one hour into the movie (as Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin falls in love) achieves a level of performance that has seldom been equaled in an ingenue.

Simon and Garfunkel songs make the musical score of The Graduate one of the most haunting and popular since Casablanca. There are only four songs, yet they perfectly evoke the protagonist’s dilemma, and, for long stretches of the film, they make dialogue totally unnecessary because they express more emotion than many pages of dialogue could possibly have done.

Comedies are notoriously undervalued by the motion picture industry when it comes time to give Academy Awards. The fact that the film received seven nominations and that Nichols, still a relative newcomer, received the “Best Director” award demonstrate that even the usually serious Academy recognized that The Graduate was a remarkable achievement deserving of special recognition.