#10 — The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Famously, the casting for The Graduate was all messed up. Dustin Hoffman, in only his second film role and first of any significance, was thirty years old, nearly a decade older than would be expected to play a freshly minted college graduate. What’s more, the original conception of the WASP scion Benjamin Braddock was such that the likes of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were initially considered, neither of them quite as skilled as Hoffman, but miles away in appearance and physical stature from the diminutive Los Angelenos who had the gait and anxiety of a furtive New Yorker. As the first casting inclinations suggest, on paper Benjamin seems like a golden child beset by the tarnish of society, presented with privilege and mortified by the trap of spiritual stasis it hides. As embodied by Hoffman, he instead becomes a fount of dread, misplaced from a darker world in the light of a seemingly perpetual American sunrise. Similarly, Anne Bancroft is too young to played the middle-aged seductress Mrs. Robinson, a mere six years older than Hoffman. Indeed, she only has nine years on Katharine Ross, playing her idyllic daughter, Elaine. Vivacious, cosmopolitan, self-assured and wickedly intelligent, Bancroft makes the eventual flight away from an illicit affair with her to seek the comfort of her comparatively drab onscreen offspring seem like Benjamin’s most ill-founded decision since ignoring Mr. McGuire’s surprisingly sound single-word advice regarding plastics.
And yet. It’s of course all those jagged, unconventional turns in the creative process that make The Graduate so remarkable, not simply a sardonic put down of a generation poised to intermingle love and fury in astoundingly contradictory ways (and, more damningly, the preceding generation that boxed them into that corner with exhausting aspirations towards eternal betterment) but an encapsulation of the confusion of a whole society when the aftershocks of being the victors of the world were beginning to shake hope and confidence, always more fragile then they seem, off of the high shelves. In subtle ways, perhaps sometimes even unwittingly, director Mike Nichols constantly gives reasonable audience expectations just the slyest, gentlest shove. This simultaneously mirrors Benjamin’s chronic discontent and anxious confusion while setting up every wry turn that the plot offers up. In Hollywood films, the final, most decisive triumph involves getting the girl. That’s always a win for the hero. Well, The Graduate suggests, maybe not. The grind of life settles in after the celebration, often more quickly than anyone could anticipate.
Working from a screenplay by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham (adapted from the Charles Webb novel of the same name, released four years earlier), Nichols builds a visual palette that paradoxically bursts forth precisely because it is so tightly contained. There’s barely a shot that doesn’t comes across as deeply pondered upon before a single light was set or camera rolled into place, a fitting stylistic corollary to Benjamin’s misgivings about moving forward, his escape from impatient parental expectations that he will take his anointed place in their polished world by indulging in the most intimate connection to it, deeply intertwining himself, albeit secretly, within their social circle. And Nichols offers up this astute commentary and withering assessment with a well-honed comic timing that makes the film brisk, lithe and plainly delightful. At a time when much of American film, even the best of it, was tilting towards nihilistic lecturing, Nichols demonstrated that the same points could be hit with a rueful laugh. And maybe–just maybe–hit more effectively that way.