The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Graduate (1967)


On tour around the UK at the moment is a stage version of The Graduate. The film itself celebrates its golden anniversary this year, so it seems timely to take a look back at the film. 

Based on the 1963 novella of the same name by Charles Webb, it's the story of Benjamin Braddock, a young man who has just finished college and is looking for a direction in life. Into his life comes Mrs. Robinson, an older woman who is the bored and neglected wife of one of Benjamin's father's work colleagues. Despite the age difference- she is twice as old as him- Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson start an affair. However things become complicated when it is suggested that Benjamin dates Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine.

Working from a script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, The Graduate was director Mike Nichols' second feature film (his first was the searing Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?). The cast- featuring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft- have become indelibly linked with these characters, although the end result could have been quite different. 

The Graduate is Dustin Hoffman's second film role and he's great as the nebbishy unfocused Benjamin, literally drifting through his life. Apparently, Hoffman's audition didn't go very well; one of the producers thought he was a messenger boy! He was asked to perform a love scene with Katharine Ross (who plays Elaine Robinson) but had never done one before, and later said 'a girl like her would never go for a guy like me in a million years.' Despite this disastrous start, Nichols saw something in the performance that convinced him Hoffman was right for the part. Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were among the top choices for the role of Benjamin, although Beatty turned the film down due to his filming commitments with Bonnie And Clyde (and that's not the only time you'll hear that particular reason for someone not being cast). Nichols felt that Redford didn't possess the underdog quality he was looking for in Benjamin; when Nichols asked Redford had he ever 'struck out with a girl', Redford responded 'what do you mean?' (let's face it, Redford- with his stereotypical movie-star looks- could have had his pick of women). Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins, Gene Wilder, Albert Finney and Brandon DeWilde were all considered, whilst Charles Grodin turned the role down due to financial considerations, and Burt Ward (then playing Robin in the Batman TV series) had to pass due to his filming commitments. 

As the sultry Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft absolutely shines. You do have to wonder how much Bancroft's amazing performance led to the fact that 'Mrs. Robinson' has now passed into common lexicon for an older woman who is involved with a younger man (and it's so much nicer a term than 'cougar'). Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson as a woman angry with herself for giving up on her own passions and desires (her interest in art, for instance) to marry a man who is wealthy and will provide security. Sure, she has the trappings of wealth- but she's lonely, bored and aching to be loved. It's only at the end that she becomes a villain, forcing Elaine into marriage, but it's a beautifully nuanced performance throughout. And despite the age difference in the script (Mrs. Robinson is meant to be in her mid-forties with Benjamin turning 21 shortly), Bancroft was 36 and Hoffman was 29 at the time of filming! Rumours persist that Doris Day was Nichols' original choice for Mrs. Robinson- she was approached but turned the role down due to the nudity involved. Nichols' actual first choice was the French actress Jeanne Moreau (as, in French culture, it is often an older woman who 'train' younger men in matters of sex) but the producers baulked at this idea. A veritable Who's Who of 1960s Hollywood were either considered or expressed interest in the role- Joan Crawford, Geraldine Page, Patricia Neal, Grayson Hall,  Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Angela Lansbury, Simone Signoret, and Audrey Hepburn all enquired about or were considered for the role. Ava Gardner reportedly petitioned for the role and met with Nichols in her hotel room, only to tell him 'first of all, I strip for nobody!'


Whilst Bancroft and Hoffman get the lion's share of the attention, it means that Katharine Ross' lovely supporting turn as Elaine gets overlooked- and that is a shame. By turns vulnerable, confused, torn, forthright and determined, Elaine becomes more than a match for Benjamin- much to her mother's disapproval. Aside from Ross, there were several actresses considered: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Natalie Wood and Patty Duke all turned the role down as did Faye Dunaway (due to her commitments with Bonnie And Clyde). Candice Bergen screentested for the role (opposite Robert Redford), as did Jane Fonda and Goldie Hawn, whilst Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Hayley Mills, Lee Remick, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld were all considered before Ross was cast.

In the role of Mr. Robinson, Gene Hackman was originally cast but replaced just before filming began as it was felt he was too young; this meant he could take a role in Bonnie And Clyde (which garnered him his first Oscar nomination) instead. Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Jack Palance, Frank Sinatra, and Walter Matthau were all considered before Murray Hamilton was cast. For Benjamin's parents, Susan Hayward was considered for Mrs. Braddock but the role was given to Elizabeth Wilson; whilst Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Robert Mitchum, Karl Malden, Christopher Plummer and Ronald Reagan were considered for Mr. Braddock, with the role going to William Daniels. 

One of the many iconic things about the film is the soundtrack which utilises several songs from Simon & Garfunkel, including the mournful 'The Sound Of Silence' and the exuberant 'Mrs. Robinson' (changed from Simon's original 'Mrs. Roosevelt'). Initially, 'The Sound Of Silence' was only used as a pacing device for the edit before Nichols realised that it worked really well and captured the mood he was after. The soundtrack album reached the top of the charts in 1968.

Leslie Caron presenting Mike Nichols with his Oscar
The film was lauded at the 1968 awards season. Despite being nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actor for Hoffman, Best Actress for Bancroft, and Best Supporting Actress for Ross) it won one- Mike Nichols for Best Director. Nichols also won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Directors' Guild Award. To date, it is the only film to win Best Director and no other award. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture- Musical or Comedy (although I take issue that it can be considered a comedy; for me, it's much more of a drama) and the BAFTA for Best Film. Willingham and Henry's script won the Writers' Guild Award and the BAFTA, whilst also being nominated for the Golden Globe. Hoffman won both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer (and was nominated for the Best Actor- Musical or Comedy Golden Globe) whilst Bancroft won the Best Actress- Musical or Comedy Golden Globe and was nominated for the Best Actress BAFTA, and Ross won the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe and was nominated for the same award at the BAFTAs. The soundtrack also won a Grammy. 

In 1996, The Graduate was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress as part of the National Film Registry. This honour is given to 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films' and The Graduate is indeed culturally and historically significant. Cinema in the 1960s started to look at more social and societal issues. Alongside The Graduate at the 1968 Oscars, the other Best Picture nominees featured Bonnie And Clyde, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night (the eventual winner)- films that look at issues of race and gender and American society at large. The other film was Doctor Doolittle, which shows there's still always space for cosy escapism.

If you've never seen The Graduate, it's definitely worth a look. A great soundtrack, superb performances and expertly directed. Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson!


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