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Here's to you Mrs Robinson

Simon Evans looks back at The Graduate, one of the most fondly-regarded films of the Sixties

FEW FILMS have managed to capture their era as effectively as The Graduate. Released in late 1967, amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and an ever-widening generation gap, Mike Nichols’ film came at just the right time for an America that was having to ask serious questions about itself.

The anxieties and uncertainties experienced by the graduate of the title, Benjamin Braddock, may have been minor compared to those being experienced by young people bundled off to fight in Vietnam, but they were real enough to strike a chord with middle America.

Having left college Benjamin feels rootless and aimless, but nevertheless not ready to surrender to suffocating middle-class respectability just yet. Enter Mrs Robinson, an older woman, and friend of Benjamin’s family, who offers temporary solace and escape. That is until Benjamin falls for the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine, which is when his problems really start.

While Benjamin is no ‘long-hair’, being in many ways the model of middle-class respectability, his doubts and fears were nevertheless those of a Sixties generation suffering a major identity crisis.

America may have been economically affluent but for young people like Benjamin there was a darkness at its core, which prompted many to drop out of society and look for other ways of living, be it drugs, communal living or Eastern religion.

When Charles Webb’s novel, on which the film was based, was published in 1963, the work of the Beat poets was becoming evermore popular on college campuses, and no respecting early Sixties student could afford to be without Allen Ginsberg’s extended poem Howl or Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

Sure enough, in the original book Benjamin takes off on a three-week road trip – de rigueur for angst-ridden college students in the early Sixties – to ‘find himself’, after which he embarks on the affair with Mrs Robinson.

Paul Simon, who would later contribute the songs for the film, dismissed Webb’s book as “bad Salinger” (a reference to JD Salinger, the celebrated author of the classic The Catcher In The Rye), and anyone inspired to read the original novel after seeing the film would, indeed, have been disappointed.

That the film was such a vast improvement on the novel was partly down to the screenplay – the final version of which was mostly written by Buck Henry, story editor for spoof TV spy series Get Smart – but also to director Nichols who, at the time, was one of the hottest names in Hollywood, having directed the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Because of the success of that earlier film Nichols had many of the leading actors of the day queuing up to play Benjamin, with Robert Redford, Albert Finney, Steve McQueen and Jack Nicholson all considered for the role. But Nichols wanted an outsider, an underdog, and bravely plumped for a small, Jewish unknown actor with a nasally voice, about as far removed as it was possible to be from the character in the original novel. It was Dustin Hoffman’s first major role and so funny, sensitive and delicately shaded was his performance that it made him a star.

“I don’t know of another instance of a director at the height of his powers who would take a chance and cast someone like me in that part,” Hoffman said later. “It took enormous artistic courage.”

The fact that, at 29 (he was meant to be 21) he was only six years younger than Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs Robinson, who in turn was only eight years older than her screen daughter, Katherine Ross, did not seem to matter. Bancroft was already an established actress, having won an Academy Award for the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, but she faced fierce competition for the role of Mrs Robinson from Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn. At first Anne was reluctant to take on the role but was persuaded by her husband, Mel Brooks, who was working on Get Smart with Buck Henry and was just about to start shooting The Producers.

In the end the casting was just right; as indeed was just about everything else to do with the film.

Nichols knew that music would be important to the movie, conveying Benjamin’s inner state rather than just providing a backdrop to the action. He was a fan of the Simon and Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which had been released in late 1966, and asked Paul Simon to provide some songs. Despite his reservations about Webb’s book, Simon was impressed by Nichols’ track record, and had been a fan of his comedy double act with Elaine May earlier in the decade.

Unfortunately Simon was in the middle of a major writer’s block and was also touring extensively so, as a holding operation, Nichols placed various Simon and Garfunkel songs at key points in the film so his team could edit around them.

When Simon eventually submitted the songs Overs and Punky’s Dilemma for the movie, Nichols decided he preferred the songs he’d already chosen, which included The Sound of Silence and Scarborough Fair. Frustrated, Simon played Nichols a fragment of a song he was still working on, called Mrs Roosevelt. Nichols loved the song and used it in the film, even though it was still unfinished, and demanded it be renamed Mrs Robinson. It would go on to be one of Simon and Garfunkel’s biggest hits.

When it was released, just before Christmas 1967, The Graduate was an immediate hit, and was nominated for six Oscars, Nichols eventually triumphing in the Best Director category. It would also become the highest-grossing film of 1968.

In these days before video, soundtrack albums of hit films often did brisk business for cinemagoers wanting a souvenir of a movie they enjoyed. Simon and Garfunkel’s record company, Columbia, wanted to rush out an album of the film music but there were two problems; firstly all the songs, with the exception of Mrs Robinson, which only appeared as two brief fragments, were old and secondly there wasn’t enough to fill two sides of an LP.

The solution, much to Simon and Garfunkel’s initial horror, was to pad it out with Dave Grusin’s schmaltzy incidental music. Not surprisingly they looked more fondly on the record when it went straight to Number One, only being supplanted at the top by their new studio album Bookends (which included the full version of Mrs Robinson). Indeed, for several weeks Simon and Garfunkel had the top two albums in both the United States and the UK, such was the power of The Graduate.

One person hated the film though, Charles Webb, who didn’t receive any royalties from it. That didn’t stop him writing a strange, rambling sequel 45 years later, which, rightly, bombed.

The film, however, has enjoyed a second life as a wildly successful stage production, both on Broadway and in the West End. This added several scenes that had not featured in the film or book, and starred Kathleen Turner as Mrs Robinson in the initial London and New York runs.

Nichols followed up The Graduate with Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge, both of which featured Art Garfunkel, whose participation in both movies, ironically did much to precipitate the break-up of his partnership with Paul Simon. Nichol’s later films included Silkwood, Primary Colours and Heartburn and he also directed several Broadway productions including Spamalot and Annie, but The Graduate remains his crowning achievement.

Not long before his death three years ago, Mike Nichols reflected on the success of The Graduate and the effect it had on his subsequent career.

“I was just thinking about how happy we were making The Graduate. What was different? Of course, we were different then. There’s nothing better than discovering, to your own astonishment, what you’re meant to do. It’s like falling in love.”

Do you remember? 

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