By Alan L. Chrisman
Mike Nichols just passed away. He was an accomplished director in both film and theatre. He’s directed such films as Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, etc. as well as several plays on Broadway. But he’s probably most known for his film, The Graduate, in 1967.
Like in music, there are certain generation-defining films and The Graduate was that, and like Easy Rider later in’69, The Graduate expressed the feelings of the 60’s generation. For the main character, Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman in his breakthrough role) represented the questioning of society which many young people at the time were going through. It was the height of the Vietnam War and there were demonstrations on campuses and many college students were challenging the values of their parents’ generation.
The most well-known scene is, of course, the seduction scene, where Benjamin is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (sexily played by Anne Bancroft). It was director Mike Nichol’s idea to film Benjamin framed through Mrs. Robinson’s legs. It became an iconic photo which perfectly represented the film and also the temptation to go along with the “Establishment”. Traditional values still offered those carrots to middle-class students-get a university degree, serve in the army, get married, and have a secure career. Another famous scene expressed this too, the scene where Benjamin’s uncle tells him he should get a career in “plastics”. There was a conflict which was going on in American society, between the past and the future, and the film perfectly captured that.
Benjamin likes Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s beautiful, but innocent daughter (played by Katharine Ross), but when she finds out about his affair with her mother, she rejects him. Benjamin, after he becomes “tainted” by Mrs. Robinson’s temptations, for a while even becomes callous towards Elaine, whom he embarrasses by taking her to a strip club. Benjamin,eventually repents and tries to win Elaine back again. The Graduate then becomes a great love story and, against all odds and society, fights his way back to her heart. There are some of the most harrowing scenes as he drives by Elaine’s house, hoping to reach her, while on the soundtrack is playing Simon and Garfunkel’s sad song, “April Comes She Will”. Simon and Garfunkel’s songs, of course, make up the famous soundtrack, especially, “Mrs. Robinson” (it wasn’t made specifically for the film, but was called, “Mrs. Roosevelt” originally) and exposed their music considerably. Nichols picked the perfect music to go along with the film.
The Graduate became symbolically, the battle between the system and rebellion against society, which many young people were actually facing at that time and, thus became massively popular with youth. At the end of the film, like all heroic characters, Benjamin rushes in, just in time to save his damsel, Elaine (who realizes herself finally, Benjamin’s essential goodness and love for her). The audience cheers the heroic couple as they escape the corrupt Robinsons and the Establishment life they offered. The classic morality tale is up-dated for the times.
But what is most intriguing is the very last scene on the bus they’ve boarded to get away: Benjamin and Elaine look curiously perplexed for a couple who have just fought society and won. They each stare straight ahead and not at each other, a look of panic, even on their faces. Why? What was director, Nichols saying? I noticed this when I first saw The Graduate in 1967. But I wondered then and now, if most young people even noticed at the time. That last scene to me has always been the most fascinating one in the movie. For perhaps Nichols is hinting that for maybe Benjamin and Elaine (and perhaps symbolically, the 60’s generation), it may not be so black and white and simple a choice as youth thought their “freedom” might be. I still wonder all these years later what Nichols meant to say. But that is also why Nichols’ films like The Graduate still stand up- he always had a subtlety and psychological layers in his work. Something he perhaps learned as an actor himself, at one time, in improvisational theatre in Chicago and later as part of the influential comedy team Elaine May & Mike Nichols. Nichols was later married to TV journalist, Diane Sawyer. The Graduate is still ranked #17 of top American films by the American Film Institute and #21 on the highest grossing films in North America.
I have my own personal story, related to The Graduate. In 1967, I was attending a Midwestern U.S. university and questioning my own place in society. I had transferred the year before from another U.S. university where I was taking pharmacy, but had decided to change my major to political science and history, partly because I also began to question the Vietnam War and the direction society was heading in the 60’s. That same year, 1967, was the “Summer of Love” and The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ had been released and it too would become a generation-defining icon and symbol of youth and the changes taking place. I was a big Beatles’ fan and these two cultural events, Sgt. Peppers and The Graduate were to have a large effect on many of my generation and on me personally.
When I had transferred to this new university, I had been required to take a foreign language and I took French. But I was not very good at languages and the only thing that kept me going to the class was a pretty girl in my French course. So I asked her out. But it turned out to be a disastrous first date. For I was now an older 3rd year student because of my two years at the previous university, and this girl I arrogantly found to be too young and innocent (much like the character, Elaine, in The Graduate). A year later though, still required to take another course in French, which I was still terrible at it, we had to take our French final in a large auditorium. It was a stressful time because if I failed that oral final (which counted 50% of my grade), I would likely fail the course. I knew with the blaring speakers of the auditorium where it was given and with my worst aspect, being the oral part, that I was likely doomed.
I exited the auditorium, dejected. But whom do I run into there, but the same girl from that first French class and disastrous date the year before. And surprisingly, she’s quite friendly. For some reason, out of the blue (I figured what had I to lose after the day I’d been having!), I asked her out that night to a movie. And to my astonishment, she said, “Yes”.
We decided to go to a new movie in town that weekend, of which we knew little about. Well, it was The Graduate. We had no idea then that it would, as I say, become a generation-defining film. But we both loved it and we got along well after the film. This girl was now, to my now less-arrogant eyes, even more beautiful (she even looked like Katharine Ross, who played Elaine in the film), than I had remembered. We became close for the rest of my university days.
But unfortunately, those days were soon to become to an end. For with the failure of that French course and some others (school courses seemed pretty irrelevant any more, with all the changes going on in society and my growing opposition to the Vietnam War), I dropped out of university and now faced the American draft. Finally, when there were few choices left (Vietnam or jail), I decided to flee to Canada. And when I did finally have to leave, I asked this girl if there was anything I could give her for all her support, she said there was a special antique chair in my room that she had long admired, and I carried it in the snow to her place and said goodbye to her for the last time. So I will always associate The Graduate with this girl and the experiences we had and that bittersweet moment of having to leave her behind and face my own choices about society. And they were to help determine my own future, much like the characters, Benjamin and Elaine in the film, and ironically, reminded me of that haunting bittersweet look on their faces in that last scene of Mike Nichol’s The Graduate.
See Below Trailer For “The Graduate”: