Sunday, 20 September 2015

No 66. Mike Nichols - Part 1: THE GRADUATE (1967)


There’s a number of reasons why I deliberately chose 1967 as the beginning year of my favourite period in film-making. Aside from being a vital time in infusing film with the political and social engagement of western youth, it was also a hugely fertile era in the drug and music inspired counter-culture; the release of SERGEANT PEPPER (the birth of the concept music album) and experimentation with form and technique in movies. Another exciting mould-breaking aspect was in the casting of Hollywood and British films.

Already by the mid-‘60s, Britain had seen the rise of a new generation of working-class actors who challenged the long-held notion that only attractive and well-groomed, middle class Rank charm School-type actors could play leading roles. Till then, If you sounded ‘common’ or looked somewhat average, you were relegated into patronisingly depicted character parts who provided colourful cockney chimney sweep support, for example, to the heroic handsome leading man. Actors like Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, and Tom Courtenay not only emerged in films as viable bankable talent but in a period when working-class credibility contributed to pop music, fashion and more, their lives on screen became the focus of a film’s central interest instead of background detail. Films like SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING; THE LONELINELESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER and Michael Caine’s bespectacled, low-key anti-Bond in the spy thriller THE IPCRESS FILE all injected new life and interesting stories that better reflected the real world of the movie-goer.

State-side, Hollywood was somewhat slower to respond to this egalitarian shift…until Mike Nichols went looking for the main part of Benjamin Braddock in his film of THE GRADUATE. In Calder Willingham/Buck Henry’s script, Ben is very much the tall, blond athletic Ivy League educated WASP – essentially a Robert Redford type. In the film, you hear him celebrated on his homecoming by family and frends as the ‘track star’. Nichols was daring and shrewd in choosing the antithesis of this in Dustin Hoffman, a diminutive, dark-haired Jewish actor but who gave Ben more interesting qualities than someone like Redford would naturally. Hoffman suffered from veiled anti-semitism in the reviews of the film, his large nose drawing comment aside from other physical comparisons, but in his physicality and behaviour as Ben he is instantly sympathetic. Whilst Redford would not have been a loss in the role, his movie-star looks and an assumed appeal to college girls would have made his virginity and seduction by Mrs Robinson far less believable.

Hoffman’s appeal is an ill-at-ease fumbling, a willingness to do and say the right thing with his family’s friends, to be the model graduate student – and it’s unfair to say he doesn’t embody something of the winning physicality. He clearly trained hard to develop a good physique and tan for the role, but it masks a little-boy-lost who is all potential but no idea what to do with it when he comes home to begin his adult life. Amidst the excellent actors populating the older generation of his people are William Daniels and Elisabeth Wilson as his pushy socially-focused parents and Murray Hamilton as the glib Mr Robinson.

Nichols is skillful at ensuring we are on Ben’s side right from the opening, the camera tracking him closely from the airport travelator and on to his home. He is surrounded by a bombardment of family and friends all backslapping him and asking his plans, one well-meaning elder giving him the famously gnomic tip-off of the future: “One word. Plastics!”. His closely-followed vacation humiliation continues at his 21st birthday party when forced by his somewhat insensitive father to parade in a present of full diving gear. We see the partygoers from Ben’s point-of-view as he breathes loudly through the respirator going in and under the water , a brilliant technique that isolates us from their noisy good intentions and identifies with his. He leans against the pool wall enjoying the peace in a nice pull-back that reinforced how alone he is. The mood of this shot has been echoed by countless indie film-makers since.

The two female leads are equal to the task of matching Hoffman in striking and sympathetic characterisations of their own. As Mrs Robinson, Anne Bancroft is a perfectly-realised portrait of bored, spoilt, disappointed wealth. Her humdrum life is passionless, a monotonous directionless playing-out of routine dulled by alcohol. She is nobody’s fool though. Bancroft commands her space elegantly, her privileged lifestyle assuming the compliance of waiters, and of Ben with feminine wiles. She is beautiful but covers up a youth of crushed dreams, sidelined by the unexpected birth of their daughter Elaine and now distracted when she can with affairs to retain some ego boosting and booze to forget the rest. It’s not clear whether Mrs Robinson is accustomed to regular cheating when she seduces Ben. She is certainly practised at getting her own way and betrays nervousness at the activity – unlike him. The build-up to the consummation of the adultery is cringingly funny. Hoffman’s ‘phone conversations with her, his awkward relations with the hotel reception staff, the crippling need to avoid social embarrassment, all met with serene and puzzled grace by Bancroft, right up to the cunning way she goads him into taking her by mocking his perceived ‘inadequacy’.
As Elaine, Katharine Ross is not only gorgeous but also instills a male desire to protect her like a delicate flower. I don’t care if that sounds sexist. I defy any male not to feel huge empathy for her when Ben takes her out on their date unwillingly and subjects her to a rude inappropriate front-row show of a stripper swinging her tassles at her. Her innocent confusion and tears are heart-breaking. Ben is full of remorse, breaking though the pose of trying to put her off out of a deal he made to continue seeing her mother – realising that this truly is the woman for him.

Ben is then given a purpose for the first time since the plot started, to win Elaine at all costs, against her family’s opposition (the affair has been outed by Mrs Robinson, cynically spinning herself as raped to cause extra hardship for Ben) and Elaine’s hastily arranged marriage to someone she doesn’t love. Hoffman goes into overdrive, committing hell-bent to the emotional nakedness of his need for her, uncaring of the consequences. There’s a welcome cameo by Norman Fell as his temporary landlord, a slow-burning disapproving of Ben’s volatile love-life -  and a fleeting glimpse of young Richard Dreyfus as a nosy student offering to call the cops.

Hoffman amps up the stakes by literally running after Elaine and then turning up at the church in what has since become a staple climax of rom-coms. It’s a crowd-pleasing moment when he presses himself to the upper-window glass, screaming Elaine’s name as the wedding service ends. Amidst the cleverly-silenced ferocious curses of her parents, Elaine screams his name back primally like a mating call and they fight off the attendees to escape onto a bus. The closing image of them is a subtly-played and directed two-shot as their adrenaline gradually subsides into a dawning understanding that they no idea what their future prospects will be  - in a world without parental support and a love that is uncertain…

A special mention must go to the sublime, evocative Simon and Garfunkel songs liberally woven into the film. Wistful, urgent, clean and bright or darker-toned, their work is one of the best uses of pop music in modern film.

THE GRADUATE paved the way for actors like Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Richard Dreyfus, top talent whose appearance in a former age would have consigned them to playing heavies and character parts, to inhabit central roles that would immensely enrich the film they made. This film is deservedly a classic not just for its quality but for what it represents in breaking stereotypes…

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