Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Graduate





Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman on the set







Katherine Ross







Anne Bancroft




Director Mike Nichols (center with glasses on his head) with his young actors







THE GRADUATE           A              
USA  (105 mi)  1967  ‘Scope  d:  Mike Nichols                    

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

—“Sounds of Silence,” Simon & Garfunkel, 1964, The Sound of Silence (Original Version from 1964) - YouTube (3:05)

An iconic American film, very much reflective of the times in which it was shot, the mid 60’s, just as the counter culture movement was about to get into full swing and just as Berkeley was about to become a household name for student demonstrations.  The shots of Berkeley campus were actually shots of USC in downtown Los Angeles, ironically a much more conservative private school.  Looking back on it today, people may see this as a stalker film, but there’s enough moral complexity to this movie to have to worry about that, as this film actually coincides with the rebirth of the feminist movement which really took off after the cultural impact of Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique.  And yes, this film is definitely about the “feminine mystique,” though expressed in different terms through hilarious satire.  Dustin Hoffman got his breakout role as Benjamin, a rich 21-year old college graduate whose parents buy him a flashy red Italian convertible sports car, a 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600, known as the Duetto (seen here:  Museo Storico Alfa Romeo omaggia i 50 anni di Duetto e “Il Laureato ... or here:  Original file), a guy who shows a great deal of anxiety about his future because he wants it to be “different.”  When his parents throw him a big welcome home party to celebrate, all Benjamin can think to do is hide, as his parent’s generation makes little sense to him, though he’s not at all sure what he wants to do, and therein lies the crux of the problem, as Benjamin is riddled with confusion.  To make matters more mixed up, he is seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson, brilliantly played by Anne Bancroft (in real life only 7 years older than Hoffman), and he spends most of the summer meeting her in hotel rooms under the alias Mr. Gladstone, a secret he keeps from his parents and everyone else, though one might grow curious how he’s paying for the rooms, since he’s completely supported by his own parents.  Their first night together is hilarious, as Benjamin is a nervous wreck, continually pretending to be someone different than who he is, usually lying to the desk clerk, Buck Henry, who actually wrote this amazing script. 

Initially Benjamin’s behavior is a little suspect, even to his parents, as all he does is lie around the pool drinking beer, and then run off to some undisclosed location in the middle of the night without a word, usually not returning until noon the next day.  When friends of his parents show up to offer their congratulations at his 21st birthday party, he conveniently sinks to the bottom of the pool wearing a ridiculous scuba diving outfit, looking like Buster Keaton from THE NAVIGATOR (1924).  He shirks all social responsibilities, remains stuck in a dilemma about his future, and sits around doing nothing all day long.  He certainly fit the criteria of the anti-hero, a peculiar change in the movie screen star persona in the 60’s to create characters that seemed more in line with everyday, ordinary people, an attempt to make movies more honest and believable, perhaps best represented by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970).  Benjamin is still more of a caricature than real, almost like a wooden Pinocchio that had to prove that he was human.  The audience never even takes Benjamin or the movie that seriously until he starts taking himself seriously, greatly increasing the complexity of the second half of the film.  Of course everything changes when he meets Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, the incredibly gorgeous Katherine Ross as Elaine.  What starts out as a date from hell, as Benjamin promised Mrs. Robinson he’d take no interest in her daughter, ends up in a full-fledged love affair, something that awakens something inside Benjamin, as he’s finally found someone who isn’t the least bit phony, something he’s been surrounded and consumed by all summer long. 

What works miraculously well in this movie is the music of Simon & Garfunkel, which captivated movie audiences with their beautiful harmonies and hauntingly melancholic tone, completely matching that of the film, featuring lyrics so poetically appealing that they actually help define the film’s message.  Benjamin’s rebellious streak, breaking away from his parent’s suffocating noose around his neck, leads him in the direction of “different,” even though he hasn’t a clue what it is, capturing the mood of the nation at that time where the social anthem of the time was Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”  This is, after all, the era when Dylan pissed off everybody by throwing away his Woody Guthrie folk roots and picking up an electric guitar to become a rock star.  The mood of the decade was anti-establishment, where kids rose up against the morals and values that their parents stood for, not knowing exactly what to replace them with, but knowing things had to be “different.”  So there was a lot of experimentation with different options, that included the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, putting a man on the moon, but also the heartbreak of dealing with the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, a period of social turmoil.  What stands out in Benjamin’s rebelliousness is his conservative look, always wearing a tie and a sports coat, with short cropped hair, where the guy was primed to work on Wall Street or any prestigious law firm.  And that’s what made this film so effective, as it crossed through so many social barriers to actually mean something to so many people.  Decades later, it still holds up and remains one of the smartest and most hilarious films of its era, listed at #9 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American comedies, AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Wikipedia.

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