Mike Nichols, Buck Henry, and everyone else involved in The Graduate knew that they were making more than just another romantic comedy. But they didn’t know that they were capturing the zeitgeist of their times, creating a cornerstone of film history, and producing one of the biggest box office hits of the decade.
Beverly Gray, the author of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, is a member of that generation – a college senior when the movie opened in December of 1967. Her book is short, knowledgeable, carefully researched, thoughtful, and immensely enjoyable. She occasionally puts herself in the story, talking about “youthful fans like me.” Fifty years older and wiser, she can now see the film and the original audience in perspective. The book is subtitled How “The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation.
Like Citizen Kane, The Graduate was made by a young, successful stage director playing gleefully with a new medium. It broke rules right and left, not only with the camera and editing table, but with sexual content and surprising casting.
And because it was a hit, it influenced the industry. It helped bring sex into American movies. It put popular songs on the soundtrack in ways that had never been done before. And riskiest of all, it starred an unknown, short young man with a nose and a name that screamed Jewish! There were Jewish leading men before Dustin Hoffman, but they looked gentile.
Gray splits her book into three very distinct sections.
How it came to be
The first part, Making the Movie, tells the story of the film’s creation. Much of this is covered in Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, but Gray goes into more detail about the business end and the risks taken. Producer Lawrence Turman becomes a much bigger part of the story. We learn more about director Mike Nichols. It’s always worth reading another writer’s perspective.
The story begins with Charles Webb’s novel, written in 1962 and published the following year. Lawrence Turman buys the film rights and convinces Nichols to direct, and the two of them – along with screenwriter Buck Henry – break every rule in the book.
On the set, Nichols played with forced perspective, zoom lenses, and other tricks to better capture the characters. Cinematographer Robert Surtees – a three-decade veteran of many conventional Hollywood films – found that he loved trying new things for the first time.
The Graduate changed the use of popular songs in movies, but it didn’t make that change without a fight. Executive Producer Joseph E. Levine (who does not come off well in this book) was appalled at the use of already-familiar Simon and Garfinkle tunes. “Every kid in America knows these old songs. You’ll be laughed off the screen.” Turman and Nichol ignored his cries, “with consequences that were to alter Hollywood’s whole approach to film music.”
Nichols’s choice of the unknown Dustin Hoffman was the biggest risk of all. Leading men were supposed to be tall and blond. Early press reacted to his appearance with scarcely-hidden anti-Semitism. Life Magazine described his “schnoz that looks like a directional signal” and “slight 5-foot-6” height.
Gray offers some reasonable skepticism concerning one famous tale about the casting. “The oft-repeated story – which I’d love to think is true – is that Nichols, trying to explain to [Robert] Redford why he wasn’t right for the role, inquired about the last time the young actor had struck out with a member of the opposite sex. Asked Redford, totally nonplussed, ‘What do you mean?'” (For what it’s worth, Nichols himself tells the story in his Criterion commentary.)
A commentary track worth reading
The book’s second section, The Screening Room,” at first seems pointless. It describes the film, scene by scene, in close detail. If you’re reading this book, you’ve probably already seen the movie.
But as you keep reading, you discover something else at play here. This is Gray’s readable commentary track. As she describes what’s going on, Gray provides her own insights into the movie. “Despite all the frank sexuality built into the script, both Bancroft and Hoffman remain essentially shielded from our gaze…The bodies of the two lovers remain hidden; so do – more importantly – their souls.”
Gray also discusses Elaine strangely submissive behavior, pointing out that she “has just been through the trauma of learning that a young man she fancies has been sleeping with her mother, so she can perhaps be forgiven for behavior that verges on the passive-aggressive.”
How a movie becomes a legend
The third section, After the Lights Came Up, covers the huge and positive response to the movie, and how The Graduate has been referenced over the decades. Here people talk about how the film effected their lives, and wonder what Ben and Elaine did after they got on that bus.
The film changed Hollywood, and not only by putting songs on the soundtrack. “By the early seventies, studios were busily greenlighting projects specifically tailored to my generation of youthful moviegoers.” And many of those movies had clearly ethnic leading men, including Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert De Niro. And then there’s the question Gray could not answer: “Who knows how many…young men have scored because of this film?”
This section also covers what happened to the people who made the movie. Dustin Hoffman apparently became, at least for a while, a complete jerk. Novelist Webb, fearful of becoming wealthy, gave away money as it came to him.
And yes, Gray discusses the strangest irony about The Graduate. The movie became a blockbuster because it hit a cord with rebellious youth. But the young characters in the movie aren’t very rebellious – certainly not by 1967 standards. There’s no long-haired men, no pot, no sexual revolution, and no talk about Vietnam. The film could be set in 1962 (the year Webb wrote the novel). But there’s a sense of personal rebellion in the film that just happened to hit the right cord.
The book contains a few errors, but not many. The Graduate came out less than a year before the introduction of the rating system. It didn’t receive a rating until 1977, and Gray seems surprised that “despite the film’s reputation for being outrageously adult,” that rating “was a mild PG.” She should know better. PG was not considered mild in 1977; just watch Annie Hall.
Overall, this is a must for any fan of The Graduate, and a good read for anyone interested in how the 1960s changed our culture…and our cinema.
Seduced by Mrs. Robinson goes on sale Thursday, November 7.
Note: I have made some minor corrections since this article went live.