Back to School

Once again, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson

For boomers going back to see an old favorite, watching The Graduate (like, say, watching Twilight Zone reruns) will resemble dining on "comfort food." Benjamin mucking up his patch of the upper-middle-class universe evokes nostalgia not merely because of his revolt, but because it's tied into a vision of that class at its most confident and powerful. The superb production designer, Richard Sylbert, gives the sanitized cushiness of Beverly Hills imposing size and weight; Benjamin may realize he's not up to it. Nichols also provides a vision of this class at its most self-consciously "moral." Of course, the movie deftly parodies the Braddocks' self-satisfaction and prestige-mongering. But Benjamin is smug in his own way, and so are the novel and the movie. The juiciest irony of the rerelease would be if those who once identified with Benjamin start to think, "Wow, our parents really gave us something to rebel against -- how can we do that for our kids?"

The most uncomplicated and lasting change the counterculture wrought was the alteration of upper-middle-class style -- the doffing of the de rigueur white shirt and sport jacket and the proper image that went with them. That's roughly clean-cut Ben Braddock's transformation; the offbeat casting gives it zest. Benjamin could be characterized as a schlep -- that's how he comes across in the screen tests preserved for our amusement on the Criterion Collection's superb laser disc edition (to which I'm indebted for some of this information, and which includes a letterboxed transfer of the film and an array of details about everything from its development, financing and production to its promotion and reception).

But as played by Hoffman, Benjamin is comic dynamite, albeit with a farcically long fuse. The laser disc also includes a Village Voice column by the late Stuart Byron, who was a publicist at Embassy at the time of the film's release. Along with the item about "Chicago money," Byron divulged how worried the company men were about Nichols's "eccentric idea for a leading man" and how disdainful the young publicists were about the movie's lack of "relevance." Then they saw Hoffman on film and realized that the relevance was in his characterization, combining "Jewish nightclub offhandedness with a core of both insecurity and strength," and redefining "handsomeness" as an expression of "sexiness, toughness, character." The Graduate comes off as it always did -- as two-thirds of a hilarious movie -- but Hoffman's performance, once feared to be its millstone, turns out to be its biggest milestone.

The Graduate.
Directed by Mike Nichols.
With Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross.
Rated R.
105 minutes.

Showing at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 5, and 1 p.m. Saturday, September 6, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, as part of the "CinemaScope Sixties" series.

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