At the top of its class
It could have all been so different. Imagine ….. Robert Redford as the graduate of the title, the predatory Mrs Robinson played by Ava Gardner and Candice Bergen as her virginal daughter, Elaine. Not a bad cast, admittedly, but the parts went elsewhere and 50 years on from its original release, it’s hard to imagine The Graduate with anybody other than Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross in their respective roles.
When it arrived in 1967, Mike Nichols’ mix of comedy, drama and social satire was considered racy for its depiction of an affair between a woman in her forties and a young man half her age. Today, as it’s re-released in a newly restored version to mark its 50th anniversary, it gets a 15 certificate. Times have changed, but perhaps not quite as much as you would expect.
The graduate of the title is Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), back home after a highly successful four years at college and undecided as to what the future holds. Family friend Mrs Robinson (Bancroft) has her own ideas and, after his homecoming party, seduces him. An affair ensues, which ends when Ben starts showing an interest in Elaine Robinson (Ross). Her parents, and her mother especially, are determined to keep the couple apart at all costs.
Fifty years later, the film looks its age when it comes to the clothes, make up and social attitudes. But its performances, its wit and acute observations of people are timeless and, at times, priceless. Some individual lines and whole scenes have gone down in cinema history. Like when Ben, having just slept with Mrs Robinson, comes downstairs only to be engaged in conversation – by Mr Robinson! The young man’s words are punctuated by tiny squeaks of hysteria, all in keeping with his semi-permanent rabbit-in-the-headlights expression.
As a portrait of the older generation seen through the eyes of their children, it’s less than flattering. In the case of both Ben and Elaine’s parents, it’s closer to a nightmare. His mum and dad, while extremely proud of his achievements, are insensitive to the point of crassness, constantly embarrassing him and never giving him a moment’s peace. We see less of Elaine’s home life, but it can’t be a happy one, as the gulf between her parents is huge. Not only do they hardly communicate but what husband, knowing that his wife is an alcoholic, would have a constant stream of scotch on tap? Mr Robinson does. We never find out his first name, nor his wife’s. In fact, it’s only the young people who are called by their Christian names, further emphasising the distance between them and their parents.
Coincidentally, the film gives Simon and Garfunkel fans the first of a double helping of their music over the next few days. Baby Driver, which includes the eponymous track, is in cinemas from next week. For now, we have the soundtrack from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel that turned into a classic in its own right and which isn’t simply used as background but, in some cases, actually orchestrates dialogue-free scenes.
Given its near legendary status, it’s surprising that the film won just one solitary Oscar: the Best Director statuette went to Mike Nichols. There were nominations for Hoffman, Bancroft and Ross, as well as for Adapted Screenplay and Picture, but this was the year of In The Heat Of The Night, which had a re-release of its own last November. How do you choose between what have come to be classics of their time? It was also the only comedy to be recognised in the major categories that year, yet it’s more than a film that makes you laugh. It’s so frank about its subject matter that you almost wince – and find yourself wondering how much of yourself you’re watching on the screen.
The Graduate is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 23 June.