**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels
screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, based on the novel by Charles Webb
directed by Mike Nichols
by Walter Chaw Bonnie and Clyde's counter-cultural bridesmaid, Mike Nichols's The Graduate is the "easy" version of Arthur Penn's American nouvelle vague classic. It's too "straight," too deadpan--a safer Harold & Maude (think of it as doing for cradle-robbing what Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? did for miscegenation) with a similarly "hip" period soundtrack of previously-released hits (there Cat Stevens, here Simon & Garfunkel). 'Nuff said that the film failed to offend Bosley Crowther. Bonnie and Clyde is the blueprint for Quentin Tarantino--The Graduate is the blueprint for Wes Anderson; and while both 1967 pictures find a goodly portion of their bedrock in images mined from Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, and the rest of the film-brat arthouse pantheon, it's only Bonnie and Clyde that speaks at all to the culture in revolt at the close of the Flower Power generation. By the climax of Penn's picture, the rebellious youth, contemplating integration into the society at large, are betrayed by The Father, gunned down in cold blood by The Law. By The Graduate's finale, there's just that old, one-second reconsideration of the wisdom of vowing to spend the rest of your life with an unbelievably beautiful, fresh-faced starlet in the full bloom of her attractiveness.
Yes, The Graduate is filmed beautifully, especially as applied to a picture this thematically muddy. Its opening-credits sequence--set to "The Sounds of Silence" and recorded instructions on the proper use of the moving runway that recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in his film debut) rides into the body of the movie--is a masterpiece of mood and a particularly relentless bit of visual humour. The Graduate is such a good domestic comedy that it's rather a shame it's so often mistaken for a statement about something beyond the milk-fed adolescent blues. It's a burden that the film can't/shouldn't shoulder. Nichols establishes Ben as a character in total isolation from the spirit of the times: he's not going to Vietnam for whatever reason, he doesn't appear to have done drugs, and a scene where he brushes his teeth nervously before the arrival of his partner in illicit activity (family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)) has been hijacked innumerable times since by über-hip dudes like Alexander Payne. Nichols shoots Ben in various stages of remove, framing him against an aquarium before Ben dunks himself, self-contained, into the depths of his parents' pool. Many mistake this for a commentary on the generation gap, yet there's no idealism in Ben and no suggestion that there's a dream in him to die. Ben's just a schlub. He's more an exhausted sigh from the Eisenhower era than a burned-out Yippie.
There's a cunning use of cigarettes, a nice way with non sequiturs ("Plastics!"), and a keystone performance by Hoffman that predicts the malaise at the end of the Nineties more than it does the implosion at the end of the Sixties. It's a comedy well ahead of its time--the more time that passes the more this is apparent: time enough for the Simon & Garfunkel tunes to stop being limp and start being campy; time enough for the artsy farting around to seem prescient instead of pretentious; time enough to recognize that it's the best Woody Allen film Woody Allen had nothing to do with; and time enough to see that the true hero of the film is Mrs. Robinson. Not that The Graduate hasn't aged, but it's an enduring piece of pokerfaced, post-modern slapstick. Pointedly, the film that arguably appropriated this picture the most precisely in terms of dialogue, performance, and execution, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, tackles the father/son dynamic with unparalleled sensitivity whilst repositioning the Ben/Elaine (Katharine Ross) relationship as, appropriately, vaguely incestuous. Subsequently, it didn't enjoy the same popular success. If the picture was revolutionary, it's only revolutionary in that it's early proof that it's possible to sell arthouse so long as the subject and its treatment hint at controversy but manage to comport themselves as un-controversially as possible (see: American Beauty).
Seriously, though, Mrs. Robinson hardly deserves the '60s maxim of not trusting anyone over 30. Witty, acerbic, weighed down by too much wisdom and exhaustion, she's the most developed character in The Graduate's extended stand-up routine (like when landlord Norman Fell asks if listless Ben is an "agitator"--at Berkeley, no less), as well as the only one really worthy of any measure of compassion. Only Mrs. Robinson knows which way the wind's blowing. For her part, Elaine is a pretty cipher, while Ben is a feckless idiot who has decided, Lloyd Dobler-like (Cameron Crowe is another who's taken this film as the template for a career), to make a pretty girl his lone aspiration and primary occupation. Indeed, it's not too precious when Nichols compares Ben to monkeys in a cage. The Graduate is often hilarious and lighter than air to boot; the confrontation between Ben and cuckolded husband Mr. Robinson (the great Murray Hamilton) is played for cheap yuks, and that final moment with Ben "rescuing" Elaine from a marriage she doesn't want in favour of a man she doesn't love, simply because her daddy disapproves, rings amazingly callow. Of course Ben should be with Mrs. Robinson's daughter (Elaine (Katharine Ross)) instead of Mrs. Robinson--but what a trick it would've been had the picture decided to have him rescue his Oedipal lover from the church. Hark back to the two rooms, Ben's and Mrs. Robinson's: each prominently displays a self-portrait. These two deserve one another, and it fits a little with the nuclear nihilism of the late-Sixties were it played that way. But there's the sense undeniable that Nichols lacks the muscle to pull that particular trigger.
Remastered for DVD in anamorphic widescreen in honour of its 40th anniversary, The Graduate docks on the format again courtesy the auspices of MGM. The new 2.40:1 transfer is simultaneously sharper and more film-like than previous efforts, the softer edges and properly-saturated colours rendering the shadow detail more logical. Compression artifacts are gone and the print quality is pristine, though there does appear to be some filtering going on, stripping the image of too much grain. A 5.1 remix in DD and DTS flavours is lovely and warm, and although the information remains centred in the front channels, the Simon & Garfunkel primo-emo tunes flood the soundstage nicely. The first of two yak-tracks specially prepared for this release pairs Hoffman and Ross in a vaguely awkward dyad long on Hoffman's musings and short on Ross saying much of anything. (During the initial seduction sequence, as Hoffman relates that Bancroft lifted her leg in such a way that Hoffman could see her underwear, I was stunned to recognize the interrogation sequence from Basic Instinct. Meanwhile, Something's Gotta Give hijacked the introductory nude scene. Good Christ, the ripples from this pebble spread wide, don't they?) Nichols is identified as a perfectionist--and ultimately precious little of analytical import is revealed. The second yakker, featuring Steven Soderbergh and Nichols, does, however, fill gaps left by the first, with Soderbergh proving a wonderful, knowledgeable, and passionate interviewer. It's an essential listen.
"Students of the Graduate" (26 mins.) initiates the slew of featurettes with a talking-heads piece consisting of guys like Harold Ramis, Marc Forster, the couple who did Little Miss Sunshine, David O. Russell, and EW's Owen Gleiberman, in addition to a couple of college professors assembled to wax rhapsodic about the film. Missing--conspicuously for me--are Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, but it's not a bad hagiography as these things go. "The Seduction" (9 mins.) is more of the same, this one focusing on the aspect of the film that speaks best to people just graduating from college and wondering what the hell to do with the rest of their lives. A "One on One with Dustin Hoffman" (23 mins.), recycled from the 1992/25th anniversary tape and LaserDisc, finds the actor discussing his experiences on the picture. "The Graduate at 25" (22 mins.) is more of the Hoffman interview interspersed with further reminiscences from Buck Henry. Meh. I'm officially sick of hearing that Charles Grodin was initially cast as Ben and that Hoffman worried that a role tailor-made for Robert Redford went to this little Jewish kid. An original theatrical trailer, punched up to better-than-passable, rounds out the first platter along with an awards-trailer. The second disc is actually a "CD Sampler" containing four of the Simon & Garfunkel tunes used in the film. Seems like kind of a waste: I'd wager that even non-fans have "The Sounds of Silence" somewhere on their iPod. The whole shebang comes packaged in a swingtray keepcase that slides into a cardboard slipcover. Originally published: October 16, 2007.