Director: Mike Nichols
Screenwriters: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry
Adapted from: The Graduate by Clifton Webb
Cast: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson
Nominations: Picture, Director – Mike Nichols, Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Actress – Anne Bancroft, Supporting Actress – Katharine Ross, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography
Win: Director – Mike Nichols
It was sometime in the mid-1990s when I first saw The Graduate. For whatever reason it was playing for what seemed weekly on VH1 (of all channels) and I think I watched it every Saturday night at 7 pm for a few months. At that time, I had seen Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) maybe a dozen times in the theater, but outside of that, The Graduate was the first movie I can recall having watched double-digit times. Fortunately—and unlike Tom in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)—it didn’t have that strong of an influence on my conception of romance (because, seriously, is there even one decent relationship in the film?), but it had an incredible influence on my conception of film. I’ve always loved the movie and watching it again (for the first time in quite a while…) ignited the dormant passion I’ve always had for it.
Of course, it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that in the film’s second half Benjamin essentially becomes a stalker, but if we’re applying presentism to Ben’s behavior we’d have to apply it to Elaine’s: she has just as much agency to report him to the police and/or tell him to stop. The fact that she doesn’t—and even seems to enjoy the attention—make Ben’s actions less abhorrent than they could be. Not to say that that redeems him, but every relationship is a two-way street of give and take. Of course, had Elaine approached anyone with the ability to reprimand/punish Ben there’d be no movie.
Moving past any problems that may be had with the film, let’s focus on the value The Graduate gives to cinema.
Mike Nichols’ direction is beyond reproach. His work in The Graduate is on the echelon of the greatest examples of film direction in the 120-plus-year history of film. From using water as a motif of being overwhelmed to zoom shots that highlight the loneliness of the characters to keeping character is shadow to emphasize their hidden motives, Nichols shows his mastery as a filmmaker. Granted, Nichols’ first film, the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, wasn’t half-assed, but he really shows his chops with The Graduate. Something as simple as having Ben moving right to left in the film’s second shot (on a moving sidewalk, no less) is a powerful visual display of theme. That alone is evidence that even the smallest, seemingly insignificant bit of camera or character movement can have such viability that reviewers and scholars will be analyzing it more than 50 years later.
Looking at Dustin Hoffman’s performance, it’s a fascinating turn from meek and mild college graduate to confident and determined man of the world. Despite having seen the film more than a dozen times, only on my most recent viewing did I notice that in the first half of the film Hoffman gave Ben an unassured whimpered—it’s along the lines of Tina Belcher’s (of Bob’s Burgers) worry groan—whenever he’s confronted with an uncomfortable situation. Much like Mike Nichols’ direction, it’s subtle and unobtrusive, but it tells us so much about the character and narrative.
As it is, the casting of Dustin Hoffman in and of itself does an incredible amount of telling us who Ben is. Robert Redford auditioned for the role, and even if he turned in the exact same performance that Hoffman did, The Graduate is an entirely different film. I think of Carl, who Elaine does marry at the end, and how Elaine’s choice becomes one good-looking blond against another good-looking blond. Benjamin is then less of an underdog and more of a guy who has to be more interesting than a pre-med college student. And let’s be honest, who’s picking a wayward, meandering childhood friend who slept with your mother over a closet sexist who didn’t sleep with your mother?
Much like All About Eve, The Graduate is a wonderful film that should be in any film lover’s frame of reference. So many films reference it in various ways, from the use of music and its signature shots to the iconic ending. For anyone who’s felt lost and unsure, it’s a film that can provide some guidance. Not a lot, to be sure—in all honesty, don’t run away with a bride/groom after they’ve been pronounced husband and wife—but enough that you might be able to find at least a bit of direction in a confusing world.