Arts & crafts

‘The Graduate’ is Still a Master Class in Cinema

14 Jun 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

For our next Film Club meeting on Thursday 16th June, we will be chatting about The Graduate – a 1967 American romantic comedy-drama film based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Webb. Whether you’ve seen the film years ago or you’re considering watching it and coming along, Carolyn O’Donnell has a flavour of what to expect…

Even if you’ve never watched The Graduate (1967), chances are elements of this comedy-drama have worked their way into your psyche. From images of a young Dustin Hoffman anxiously staring at the stockinged leg of his mature seductress, to classic Simon & Garfunkel songs from the soundtrack, The Graduate has left an enduring mark on popular culture. Paul Simon was working on a new tune he’d titled Mrs Roosevelt until the film’s director Mike Nichols demanded that he rename it Mrs Robinson

One of those celebrated films that sprinkled a little gold dust on all who contributed, The Graduate enhanced the careers of its main cast, the screenwriters, and Nichols who won an Oscar for best direction. 

Possibly even better appreciated in the UK, it won five BAFTAs, including best film, screenplay and director. It was the highest-grossing movie worldwide in 1967 and is regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made. Even the original book, which initially sold around 2,000 copies, went on to shift millions once the picture hit cinemas. Including Simon & Garfunkel’s songs was unusual at the time and boosted the duo’s profile while indelibly adding to a potent cultural snapshot of California in the late Sixties. 

Robert Surtees, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, said Nichols pushed him to use everything he’d learned in 30 years of acclaimed work to achieve the visually inventive look of the film, conveying the isolation of its main character with camera angles and water imagery.

Combining angst and social satire, The Graduate tells the story of bumbling Benjamin Braddock, newly emerged from tertiary study in the East to spend days lazing around his parents’ comfortable home in suburban Pasadena and wondering what to do with his life. Advised the future is ‘plastics’, instead he pursues a destructive love triangle with the wife of his father’s law partner and their daughter Elaine. 

The predatory Mrs Robinson – dressed appropriately in animal prints – lures Benjamin into her home where he’s startled as she not only gives him a drink but puts on music as well. Informing him she’s a neurotic alcoholic, the uber-seducer then laughs as, framed by her bent knee, he anxiously blurts: “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me! … Aren’t you?”

She’s amused by Benjamin, then furious when he wants to date Elaine. Bancroft’s compelling performance as the bored, older housewife was Oscar-nominated, though when filming took place she was 35 and only 6 years older than Hoffman

It could have easily been a very different film. The producers struggled to get financing behind Nichols, who had a prestigious track record on Broadway but little traction in Hollywood. Actresses from Joan Crawford to Ava Gardner and even Audrey Hepburn wanted to play Mrs Robinson, and Doris Day said no. Julie Christie and Jane Fonda were considered for Elaine, eventually played by an Oscar-nominated Katharine Ross. 

Dustin Hoffman was an inspired – if initially unpopular – choice for the lead. Nichols wanted Robert Redford but realised no one would believe he’d be chronically inept with women. Hoffman’s performance as the insecure Benjamin made him a star. Frequently told he wasn’t handsome enough to be an actor, Time magazine said Hoffman represented a “new breed” of actors who challenged the idea of what a leading man should look like. 

Like all great works of art, it has a wonderfully ambiguous ending, which has been much-parodied and features a bus and a fight sequence with a large cross. Lauded as one of the great ‘coming of age’ films, part of The Graduate’s appeal is the way it lands for the viewer at different ages, as critic Roger Ebert – reviewing the film twice, 25 years apart – noted.

Younger viewers tend to identify with Benjamin’s rebellion against the stuffy order imposed by middle-aged authority figures. On reaching the age of those authority figures, Benjamin’s rejection of adulthood might appear almost petulant. When no longer identifying with the anti-hero, it’s possible to feel more sympathy for older characters such as Mrs Robinson, whose own ambitions were traded for a comfortable if empty existence. Viewers of any age today might be bemused by passive Elaine.

Whatever your age, whatever your outlook, The Graduate is one of those films that gives you something different each time you watch it. Most importantly, it’s still incredibly entertaining and a classic of American cinema.

If you have seen the film or plan to watch it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join us on Thursday 16th June at 4pm to share your thoughts and hear what opinions other members have about the film. Find out more and book your place here

A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.

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