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article imageOp-Ed: Mike Nichols' best-known movie really shows its age in 2014

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 30, 2014 in Entertainment
Ten days ago, we lost iconic comedian, writer and director Mike Nichols. His was a career rife with triumphs in theatre, film and TV, and he was one of only twelve people who'd made it into the esteemed EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
From his early days as half of Nichols and May, through his early stage successes directing Neil Simon's plays, through acclaimed movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge and Working Girl to latter-day gems like Angels in America and Closer, Nichols' art was always relevant and popular. But the one work for which he's arguably still best known – the one that may be most familiar to mainstream audiences, even those who've seen only the parodies and references – is also one that, ironically, plays like a fossil today.
I'm talking about The Graduate, of course. Released in late 1967, Nichols' blockbuster second film stars a young, then-unknown Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a confused young college grad who finds himself having an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the sultry wife of his father's business partner. Over Mrs. Robinson's objections, Ben later dates her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), and falls in love with her, leading to a breakneck climax in which (forty-seven-year-old spoiler alert) he snatches her from the altar and they run away together in a bus.
As recently as 2007, the American Film Institute listed The Graduate at number seventeen on its list of the hundred greatest Hollywood films of all time. Even if you don't know the movie itself, you've seen it spoofed on The Simpsons, in Wayne's World 2 and even in Jackie Brown; you're likely familiar with the image of Hoffman shot underneath Bancroft's close-up leg, saying, “Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!” And you've definitely heard the Simon & Garfunkel songs. The Graduate's images, lines and soundtrack have invaded our pop-culture lexicon so much that watching the actual movie for the first time today must be a weird mix of déja-vu and period shock.
I counted The Graduate among my favourite movies when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I fully identified with Ben's alienation and neurosis, with his uncertainty of direction and his utter cluelessness about women; I was also heavily interested in 1960s culture, or what I thought was 1960s culture. (And, of course, I wanted Mrs. Robinson to seduce me, too.) Upon Nichols' recent passing, though, it had been many years since I'd watched the movie.
Having popped in my twenty-something-year-old VHS cassette and watched The Graduate again, I can still say that it's a very funny movie – Nichols had a great gift for comic timing and cringe-worthy awkwardness that still holds up – but in terms of its sociocultural attitudes, it's also a curious time capsule. As opposed to other well-regarded Hollywood classics from the same era – say, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby or Five Easy Pieces – which somehow overcome their period trappings and remain relevant today, Nichols' film seems paralyzed in time.
To be sure, the late 1960s was an odd time in Hollywood film. Not unlike an adolescent boy struck by puberty (or even Ben Braddock on his own journey), American movies were going through a period of serious changes and maturation. The old studio system was dying, and young, independent-minded upstarts were starting to take over, ready to stomp on taboos and toss convention down the garbage chute. Many movies from this era have a strange transitional quality to them: sometimes they have the high production values of the old school, but with attempted edge or subversiveness to appeal to younger viewers, while other times, they're more low-budget and realistic, but hardly groundbreaking in terms of story. The voice of Hollywood was changing, in a way similar to that of any thirteen-year-old, pizza-faced geek. American film was finally catching up to the bold subject matter and experimentation of the European masters.
It's easy to see why The Graduate was a sensation in the '60s. Its savage satire of the gender gap and ineffective parental authority was topical and fashionable; its portrayal of sex was refreshingly blunt and open for the time; and it purported to embrace youth culture (the S&G musical sequences play like slow-paced music videos today). One critic who was taken in at the time was the late Roger Ebert, who initially called the movie “funny, not because of sight gags and punch lines and other tired rubbish, but because it has a point of view.”
Thirty years later, Ebert watched it again and was disappointed. “The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter,” he wrote in 1997.
For me, it's the first half of the movie, when Ben and Mrs. Robinson have their awkward, meaningless series of trysts, that still holds up as a hilarious social comedy. It's in the second half – during Ben's pursuit of Elaine's love – that The Graduate falls apart catastrophically.
One of Ebert's main issues was that Mrs. Robinson was, he felt, the only interesting and fleshed-out character – “the only person in the movie you would want to have a conversation with.” He was half right. In the first half, she comes off as fiercely intelligent and seductively vampish, with a desperately hidden vulnerability, and you can't help admiring the calculated, if unsubtle, manipulation she uses to get Ben into her clutches. But right from the moment when Ben hooks up with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson suddenly turns into a scheming comic-book villain, a one-dimensional, melodramatic harpy. She's so ruthless about keeping Ben and Elaine apart, she even resorts to making a false rape accusation (which is unthinkable in any mainstream movie today outside of Gone Girl).
Ben also inexplicably changes at that point, and his transformation is even more disturbing. Ebert called him an “insufferable creep” in his 1997 review, and now I understand why.
In the first half, Ben is likeable, if somewhat self-absorbed, in his confusion, awkwardness and sexual inexperience. There are many great laugh-out-loud moments as he fumbles his way through his first “date” with Mrs. Robinson: when he misunderstands her question, “Isn't there something you want to tell me?” and begins thanking her sincerely, when all she wanted was the hotel room number; when he spontaneously kisses her, unaware that she has a cloud of cigarette smoke trapped in her mouth; and Hoffman's utterly straight delivery of the line, “I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends.” His subservience to the older generation – politely holding a door for an endless line of bourgeois party-goers, or being intimidated by a curious hotel clerk (played by co-screenwriter Buck Henry) – is also true to life. Any man willing to remember what it was like to be young and clueless should see himself in Ben's reactions and behaviour.
But once Mrs. Robinson breaks him and Elaine up, Ben does indeed turn creepy. He actually stalks Elaine, first by hiding in the bushes and his car, then by driving back and forth between L.A. and Berkeley to pursue her. To his parents' understandable bafflement, he determines that he's going to marry Elaine without even getting her approval first: “It's a decision I've made... [although] to be perfectly honest, she doesn't like me. ” Not only are we supposed to laugh at this; we're actually meant to cheer him on, on some level.
To put it bluntly, Ben Braddock stops being a confused young man and turns into the personification of what we would now call male privilege. A lot of Ben's behaviour in the second half wouldn't pass muster in the post-#YesAllWomen era. He's the neediest of needy Nice Guys, using ostensible meekness to disguise his notion that he's entitled to Elaine's love. He thinks society owes him a beautiful woman, whether that's Elaine or her mother. Although 1967 audiences likely rooted for Ben's supposed defiance of conformist social norms (and his finally figuring out what he really wants out of life), it's obvious today that he doesn't care as much as a pair of dingo's kidneys what Elaine wants.
And what does Elaine want? Hard to tell, because her character makes no sense. She falls for Ben on the first date, despite his jerky behaviour (he takes her to a strip club and acts obnoxious, deliberately trying to sabotage a date that his family forced on him); she forgives him instantly when he admits to having an affair, but changes her mind when she finds out with whom he's having it; and after he pursues her to Berkeley – even after her mother has told her that he's a rapist – she somehow relents and considers marrying him. Why? What does she see in Ben? What's his redeeming quality? The movie never explains.
None of this criticism of their characters is meant as a slight to the performances of Hoffman, Bancroft and Ross, who are all great; Hoffman became a big star from this film, and he deserved it. But even Nichols' direction – which won an Oscar – has some questionable style choices. The second half is overrun by endless driving and running montages (set to S&G) that might have been hip in 1967, but are now painful to sit through. And cinematographer Robert Surtees' dated use of the zoom lens creates some awful, fuzzy visuals later on, such as when Ben and Elaine walk the streets on their first date, or when Ben first arrives on the Berkeley campus. A director like Stanley Kubrick managed to use the zoom frequently without making it look tiresome or too artificial, but here, it's just part of a self-conscious, long-gone trend.
Nichols' arty framing and editing impressed me as deep when I was younger, but now I can see the contrivance behind it. The “Sound of Silence”/“April Come She Will” montage transitioning between Ben's home life and his trysts with Mrs. Robinson is clever, but runs way longer than it should. There's also a lengthy dialogue scene set in a hotel room where Mrs. Robinson reveals her personal life to Ben, and Nichols uses the flicking on and off of the lights, as well as the physical space between Hoffman and Bancroft, to symbolize their emotional openness and distance. I used to see this scene as exquisitely and artfully staged; now, it just seems too obvious.
At best, The Graduate is only about half a movie classic. The other half is permanently lodged in a different era. Nichols was a great talent who undoubtedly deserved his fame and laurels, but let's focus our attention on his genuinely groundbreaking theatre triumphs and his great influence on American comedy, rather than on this film.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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