That’s probably the most memorable line from The Graduate. A question and a plea.
In 1967, the story of a mature, married woman initiating an affair with a young man was pretty racy, as they would say.
And yet, every actor and actress wanted to be in this film. Well, except for a few. Doris Day as Mrs. Robinson? She turned down the role, or rather her husband turned it down for her, before she had even seen it. Patty Duke said no to the role of Elaine. Warren Beatty as young Ben? He said no, too. Gene Hackman was cast as Mr. Robinson but was replaced during filming, because he was deeded to young for the role. He had to settle for a key part in Bonnie and Clyde. A lot of actors and actresses lobbied for roles, including some of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood, including Raquel Welch, Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner, even though she said she didn’t take her clothes off for anyone.
It’s hard to think of a film more 1960s than The Graduate. Thematically, the music, the editing (think overlapping sound), the fashions, the conflict of values, and the lack of communication. The film was edited and photographed to illustrate the swirling story elements as Ben evolves (or devolves) over the course of the summer.
The first time I saw the film in its entirety, I was sitting in a college film class. For some reason, I had never seen the entire film. Bits and pieces, sure. I knew the soundtrack and the story. I knew the film without having ever seen the film from beginning to end. How’s that for a cultural thing?
The most famous word from the film is plastics.
Also, that word that may help bring the end of human life.
Mrs. Robinson was Stifler’s mom before Stifler had a mom. The French were known for older women teaching younger men the facts of life. Mrs. Robinson was not the original cougar, but in modern film, she is the most famous. And this wasn’t some tawdry coming of age film.
As I did an in-depth read about this film, one of the striking things is how many of the principals felt the story was about them. Author James Webb felt he was Ben Braddock. His mother-in-law felt she was the basis for Mrs. Robinson. Director Mike Nichols, producer Lawrence Turman and screenwriter Buck Henry all identified with young Ben, the guy who didn’t quite fit, and which caused them to work twice as hard in life to overcome the doubt. “The book haunted me. I identified with it,” Turman once said.
The film connected with people on different levels. This was more than just a sex romp between a young man and older woman. This was a very wide-open look inside generational relationships against a time of great change and uncertainty. Every relationship changes in the run-time of the film, and the values holding those relationships together are stood on their head. The differences between the parents (the Greatest Generation) and the college students (Baby Boomers) are like Perry Como and the Jimi Hendrix. At the beginning of the film, you see the first cracks and by the end, the chasm is like the Grand Canyon. Not only are they miles apart, they fail to be able to convey to each other the meaning of the values under their feet, or the inability to even talk to each other about them.
While age is a reference point, it is really about differences in values, and looking through different ends of the telescope at life in America. The characters in the story fail to hear each other, talk passed one another and totally miss the challenges going on between them. Ben and his parents are on different planets. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson communicate through a thinly veiled language of hostility toward each other. And they try to shield their daughter (Elaine) from any of life’s disappointments, the ones they experienced. Even Ben and Elaine fail to communicate at first, but at the end of the scene at the drive-in restaurant, when they pull up the car top and close the windows to escape the noise, they have connected. Ben and Mrs. Robinson are drawn together by sex, but cannot relate to each other and even come to despise the other, and perhaps themselves. Very uplifting story.
Nichols, of the Nichols and May comedy team, had spent the first part of the 1960s directing Broadway plays before tackling the direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, not an easy undertaking considering the sensitivities of the subject matter and the Taylor/Burton team. Next came The Graduate, which rewarded Nichols with his only best directing Academy Award, although he was nominated numerous times.
Turman optioned the book in 1964 for $1,000. He approached Nichols, offering him half of the eventual profits to come aboard as director. Turman couldn’t find a studio interested in backing the film until Joseph E. Levine agreed. Levine was a distributor of drive-in type material, but was gravitating toward more highbrow fare and made the deal, Turman said, because he wanted the cache that Nichols possessed.
Next up came adapting the book, which Turman liked, but felt needed a lot of work to be a film. Turman hired novelist and screenwriter Calder Willingham who’s draft increase the sex and added more kinkiness. Dissatisfied, Turman then hired Buck Henry, a comedian and co-creator of Get Smart! That proved to be the right move. Henry went back to the core of the book and developed it from inside out. He came up with the plastics scene, maybe the most 1960s film scene.
There are some good reference materials for The Graduate that I consulted for this blog. Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation (2017) by Beverly Gray PhD., is a great read. Also, a great Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner, Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of the Graduate (2008). I’ve been a film historian for forty years and know a great deal about films from this period, but I found these materials helpful in background context.
One of the pivotal ingredients in the making of the film was the casting of The character of Benjamin Braddock. The story turns on the believably of young Ben and his quest to emerge as an outsider in his own environment. Even though Ben is a success in college and to his affluent family, he is struggling to find his compass setting. At first glance, Dustin Hoffman was not the ideal lead for the only child an affluent Southern California family. A WASP like Robert Redford was, but he didn’t fit the character and the story. Ben wasn’t classically handsome, he possessed an awkwardness and uncertainty in life. It were these qualities that Mrs. Robinson picked up on as a sexual predator, able to control Ben. Until he met her daughter and everything changed.
Nichols knew what he wanted for Ben. “He had to be the dark, ungainly artist. He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people?” According to Henry, Ben wasn’t a native of California. His family had come from New York and he still possessed the qualities of a New York Jew. After they tested Hoffman, Nichols knew he was Ben.
Hoffman was 30 years old, not quite the age of a recent college graduate, but young enough in attitude to pass the age test. Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson was only 36, but played a character a decade older. Bancroft was encouraged to take the role by her husband, Mel Brooks, the co-creator of Get Smart!, the day job of screenwriter Buck Henry. Bancroft was reportedly looking for a sexy, adult role, after her recent screen roles. Boy, did she find it. Nichols said that despite all the actresses mentioned, Bancroft was the only one they offered the role. She understood the character’s backstory, her sadness, and than in part she was drawn to Ben because she had once been him, but had wasted her potential.
Nichols and Henry emphasized the look of the film to bring out character traits. For Ben, to emphasize his outsider feeling and disconnection, the camera followed him in his wetsuit to the bottom of the swimming pool, away from the party he didn’t want. He was also photographed through his aquarium and hidden behind objects in his environment, like part of the scenery. In Mrs. Robinson’s house, she is awash in artwork, her furs and animal prints. This is her environment where she is control. She was used to being in charge, a predator, ready to pounce on young Ben.
Cinematographer Robert Surtees knew early on that this film would challenge him professionally. Surtees had already won three Academy Awards for his work, and he would be nominated for this film. “It took everything I’d learned over thirty years to do it.” Nichols wanted each scene to convey a mood, an emotion, Surtees said. Surtees would write an article entitled, “Using the Camera Emotionally.” Nichols had in mind a film that looked like no other.
Mrs. Robinson is like many women of the era, married young, never used her education, and trapped in a marriage that gives her no fulfillment. Her power is her position and use of sex. Withholding it from her husband, and using it to entrap a young lover who she can control.
Mrs. Robinson hates small talk, she won’t do it with Ben, dispute his efforts. After a few encounters, she knows he is hooked. She manipulated him into not leaving, saying that he doesn’t want her anymore. Yes, the sex is great and it’s uncomplicated. But it really is not. After she admits that she had to get married, the subject of her daughter, Elaine comes up. This shifts the story. Mr. Robinson has been after Ben to ask her out, but Mrs. Robinson won’t hear of it. She makes him promise that he will stay away from her. Now, the power has shifted, to Ben.
Pressured to take Elaine out, Ben resents the way his is manipulated, and makes sure Elaine is embarrassed to the point of making her cry. Some honest emotion emerges, finally. Her tears breaks the self-destructive course he’s on. He like Elaine and they get along fine, until Mrs. Robinson intervenes. This sets the remainder of the film in motion. Ben wants Elaine, but Mrs. Robinson will see to it that he can’t have her. Ben pursues Elaine even though Mrs. Robinson works to poison the well, claiming that Ben raped her; and ensuring that Ben receives a threat from Mr. Robinson if he ever tries to see Elaine again.
Ben is on a collision course with his future. After figuring out where Elaine is getting married, naturally he shows up there, but is too late. Or is he? In the ensuing chaos, he fights off Elaine’s father, her new husband and his friends. He and Elaine escape and board a city bus going…somewhere. The ending is meant to be a bit ambiguous, will they make it? Roll credits.
The ending is the ultimate raspberry to their parents’ generation and way of doing things. Break the social conventions and mount a getaway.
Nichols’ brother had introduced him to the music of Simon & Garfunkel and he loved it. Nichols approached Paul Simon about contributing songs to the film. Simon, writing songs for the next S&G album, provided one that Nichols rejected, but hearing a few bars from a song in development, told Simon he like it.The song had a working title of “Mrs. Roosevelt” which Nichols convinced him to change to Mrs. Robinson. The song won a Grammy Award and the soundtrack, which included Dave Grusin incidental music, became a hand in glove to the film. An iconic soundtrack, and Nichols had the scenes cut to the pulse of the music. Absolutely remarkable blending of the story and songs. Essentially, the first music video.
This film was all about setting trends. I mentioned the overlapping editing where the sound of the next scene is heard before the scene appears. This inventive transition was used to blend scenes in a way that suggested something completely different.
In the marketing campaign. Suggestive photos showed Mrs. Robinson in stages of undress with a fully dressed Ben. The arched leg photo is quite famous as it Mrs. Robinson taking off her stocking, showing the leg, which actually belonged to Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing).
If the film had been made a year earlier, Turman might have run into some trouble because of the Production Code, which oversaw that could and couldn’t be shown on screen. The code had been thrown out by new MPPA head Jack Valenti, so at the moment there was no code and no required audience advisory, so the film entered the market with no restrictions, but great marketing and word of mouth. The film was the top grosser of the year. An became a classic.