"Are you here for an affair sir?"
Continuing my look at the 1967 Best Picture race, I turn to the most financially successful of the films, and the one that launched nearly as many careers as yesterday's Bonnie and Clyde, Mike Nichols' The Graduate. Mike Nichols had a very successful and lucrative career in the late 50s and early 60s as half of a comedy team with Elaine May. When their act split up, Nichols turned to directing for the stage, starting with Barefoot in the Park for which he won a Tony Award. When it came time to make his film debut as a director, he was chosen for 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A daunting task for any director having to deal with the larger than life egos of its stars Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Nichols was more than up to the task, turning the film into a financial and critical success. It also gave him the clout he needed to tackle a project he'd been milling over since the early 60s, a film adaptation of Charles Webb's novel The Graduate.
The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate from an affluent family in California, who returns home with no real direction in life; He might go to graduate school, he might go to work, he might lounge in his parents' pool for the rest of his life. On the night of his parents' party to celebrate his graduation, he drives home the wife of his father's business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Upon arriving at the house, she seems to be doing everything in her power to seduce the young man and offers him the chance to sleep with her whenever he feels ready to. The next day he calls her from The Taft Hotel and asks to take her up on her offer. They begin an affair that lasts until Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns from school.
Ben's parents and Mr. Robinson are encouraging Ben to take her out on a date, but Mrs. Robinson forbids him to do so. Feeling forced by his parents, Ben eventually caves and takes Elaine out on a date that starts disastrously, but once he realizes that Elaine is a kindred spirit, another aimless wanderer like himself, they hit it off. Mrs. Robinson becomes furious and controlling, telling Ben he has to stop seeing Elaine immediately or she will tell Elaine the truth about their affair. Scared of losing Elaine, Ben tells her the truth and is forced away by her.
What follows is essentially Ben realizing he's found something that he wants to do with his life, namely being with Elaine, and he fights for it with everything he has. This is the quintessential tale of the aimlessness of American youth. Anyone who's ever been young enough to have seemingly endless opportunities but either a lack of purpose or drive or desire will be able to relate to Ben.
Dustin Hoffman became a megastar after this film and it's easy to see why. He handles the comedy and the drama so deftly and effortlessly, he's a joy to watch on screen. He infuses Ben with the right amount of pity and empathy so as to make him a character worth rooting for. When he finally decides that he can't let Elaine go at any cost and is trying desperately to reach her before she marries someone else, we see in his eyes the purpose and drive he has lacked throughout the entire film. He's a man on a mission, determined, and nothing will get in his way.
What makes this quest even more brilliant however is the last 60 seconds of the film. Ben succeeds in tracing Elaine down at a church in Santa Barbara where she's just been married. The scene is so parodied and copied now that it seems ridiculous at first, but it's so effectively done. He screams for her from the top of the church repeatedly, until finally, wonderfully, Elaine screams back and they run off together. Ben uses a cross to prevent anyone from following them out of the church, they run down the street, elated, and hop on a bus, he in a torn jacket, she in a wedding dress. They draw curious stares from everyone on the bus and as the bus pulls away, they couldn't be happier. They are the picture of bliss. If the film ends here, it's a perfectly good movie. What makes the film a masterpiece however is the fact that the camera lingers on them for another minute. Their faces give themselves away. They are two terrified kids who have essentially just turned their backs on their families, and they are scared. Their smiles give way to looks of terror and finally resolve. These two kids that we wanted to end up together seem doomed to end up just as unhappy as the parents they're running away from.
Mike Nichols won the Best Director Oscar and it's plain to see why. He uses tons of angles and setups and the film is always incredibly visually interesting. His use of Simon and Garfunkle is also brilliant. I would wager to say you could set just about anything to Simon and Garfunkle singing "The Sound of Silence" and it would look amazing, but Nichols compliments the music at every given opportunity. He uses that song and "Scarborough Fair" multiple times in montages, and they never feel overused or hackneyed. This was one of the first uses of popular music in this way and, again, it's so copied in modern cinema that it seems like it shouldn't work, but it does.
Another lovely moment in the film is when Ben accompanies Elaine to the zoo, against her will, and she meets up with, presumably, her new boyfriend. The two walk off, leaving Ben standing alone by the monkey house. Right next to him on the fence is a sign that reads "Do Not Tease." It's a brilliant little moment and it's never called attention to, as the full sign isn't visible in the shot of Ben watching them leave, but if you look at the fence it's there and it's just one more example of Nichols' brilliant direction.
The Graduate, like Bonnie and Clyde, holds up incredibly well, and I hate to sound like a shill for blu-ray, but MGM's 2007 blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic. Do yourself a favor and watch The Graduate again. It's better than you remember it.
Tomorrow we'll continue the 1967 Best Picture race with Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.