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Back to School

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

Over the last few months, 30 years after its mixture of cheekiness and sappiness created a nationwide box-office sensation, The Graduate has been rematriculating in movie theaters (and will show this weekend as part of the Museum of Fine Arts's "CinemaScope Sixties" series). Produced by Joseph E. Levine's faltering Embassy Pictures with $3.1 million of (as one employee put it) "Chicago money," the movie featured two unknowns, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, as mixed-up post-college kid Benjamin Braddock and his true love, Elaine, and a terrific non-superstar actress, Anne Bancroft, as Ben's sexmate and Elaine's mother, Mrs. Robinson. It also had a simple, salable premise -- "the madcap adventures of a well-heeled young man and his 'family affair' with two generations of pulchritude" (to quote the cover of the hardback reissue of Charles Webb's 1963 novel).

Because of the movie's sprightly assembly, viewers hooked by that line didn't feel cheated when they found the "madcap" laced with anomie and melancholy. And the film had two hot cultural properties: the director, Mike Nichols, who'd trumped his Broadway-comedy golden boy image with a prizewinning film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and, on the soundtrack, Simon and Garfunkel, who were in the ascent as purveyors of tuneful alienation. Put these pop-art question marks and exclamation points together, and what you got was an inexorable pull factor -- naughtiness wrapped in an ambiance of "class" and cutting-edge attitude.

Embassy's cunning logo for the film was a college man in baccalaureate robes and mortarboard framed in the crook of a woman's leg adorned with nothing but a half-off high-heel shoe. Sex and smarts are what the movie promised, and although it turned cuddly and lost its nerve (just as the novel did), the movie never lost its cleverness -- it kept promising sex and smarts right up to the final shot, which handed audiences a topic of nightcap conversation: "Are Ben and Elaine really going to be happy?" (After all, unlike Ben and Mrs. Robinson, they barely know each other; they haven't even slept together.) With its flashes of nudity and its undeniable sophistication (Nichols could nail the frat world better in one shot than the National Lampoon guys could in a whole movie), The Graduate managed to stake out "mature" new American film territory while enthralling undergraduate (and high school) audiences. Columnists used the movie to explain America's young to grownups, while impressionable pre-graduates thought it explained themselves to themselves.

These days, the scenario of a neglected wife having an affair with the son of her husband's law partner would be too tame for a TV talk show. In The Graduate, the wife, Mrs. Robinson, is treated as a monster, though she's the movie's most sensual and complex character. Nichols wanted Jeanne Moreau for the role, but he got something more apt: Bancroft here is a sensational American Moreau, with a quicksilver erotic ambiance plus tinges of warmth and lightness that cement her crack bits of comedy. The running joke in the movie is that Benjamin wants to talk and have what future cosmopolites would call a "relationship," while what Mrs. Robinson wants is sex, pure and (not so) simple. But Bancroft at least shows that Mrs. Robinson likes the sex: Rubbing her hands over her lover's chest, she expresses the pleasure this woman takes in being so close to a strong, young body. When Benjamin disrupts the church where Elaine has just married a medical student, Mrs. Robinson smiles and says, "He's doing it," as if approving his attempt to save her daughter from a false, empty institution. Soon, though, she's snarling like a banshee. From the source material on, the story is conventional; the unfaithful woman must be punished, the true lovers must have their day. (Novelist Webb went so far as to object to the mildly racy alteration of Benjamin's wresting away Elaine after she says, "I do.") No matter how effectively it peddles youthful romance, The Graduate doesn't have the inner coherence of a great film; you can feel its freshness fading away as the filmmakers demonize Mrs. Robinson.

But amazingly, the farce elements of The Graduate haven't faded. Despite the Berkeley setting of the film's final section, Nichols ignored any repercussions of the Vietnam protests or the Free Speech movement, so the film has no befuddling topical references. Its view of Benjamin's and the Robinsons' ritzy Los Angeles milieu is both exact and heightened -- a stylized fantasy of wealth. And Nichols's and Buck Henry's appropriations of Webb's seduction scenes (Henry shared screenplay credit with Calder Willingham) still effervesce. The Mrs. Robinson sequences (the comic ones, anyway) really do blend intelligence, sensuality and high jinks -- that's where Nichols's work has had a benign influence on young filmmakers, as Flirting with Disaster writer/director David O. Russell said it did on him, and as Albert Brooks acknowledges when he riffs on Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in his dreary Oedipal-nightmare movie Mother. On the other hand, Joe Ruben, director of such biting horror comedies as Dreamscape and The Stepfather, once told me that The Graduate made him want to get into movies because he, like Benjamin, fell in love with Katharine Ross. In his own career, Nichols has often served up sentimental corn (Working Girl, Regarding Henry), and rarely returned to the prime satiric form of the best parts of The Graduate. Even in his recent smash, The Birdcage, his characters laugh through tears until the brisk, spoofy climax featuring Nathan Lane as Barbara Bush.

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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