One of the things that the Criterion Collection spotlights within it’s library are all the various different movements that sparked a change in cinema throughout the years. These movements, largely sparked by European innovators that broke all the rules of normality in filmmaking, would go on to become part of the mainstream in the years after, and today many filmgoers wouldn’t even know how much the language of film was so drastically changed by the movies of that era. These included the Italian Neorealism movement and the French New Wave, both of which redefined the kind of stories that you could tell on film and how we are able to put them together through unorthodox photography and editing. Over time, audiences began to really respond to this change in cinema, and before long, these rule-breakers were beginning to change the rules of the industry as a whole. This change was also spurned on by a point in cinema history where the old Hollywood system was starting to lose it’s mojo. The catastrophic runaway productions of movies like Cleopatra (1963) were breaking the bank for the major studios, and they were finding out audiences no longer were interested in the big, lavish productions of the past. The times were a changing, and with a younger, Baby Boomer generation wanting to see movies that felt truer to their counter culture tastes, the industry had no other choice than to pivot and embrace the new wave that was already prospering across the pond in Europe. Thus, American cinema experienced it’s own New Wave movement, which would go on to define the next half century of cinema, and also bring to the forefront some of the greatest filmmakers ever to ever work on a movie set. There are quite a few movies that many can pinpoint as being the film that sparked the American New Wave, and Criterion has a few of them in their library, like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969, Spine #545) or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969, #925). But, I think the movie that really stands out as the true spark of the New Wave Hollywood is the classic Mike Nichols film, The Graduate (1967, #800).
The Graduate was a watershed moment in Hollywood history. While there were many rule-breakers made outside of Hollywood beforehand, The Graduate was the first time that a major movie studio actually invested in it themselves. United Artists saw the opportunity to redefine their output of films for a newer generation and they found the ideal choice in a screenplay written by humorist Buck Henry and co-writer Calder Willingham. Taking full advantage of the end of the Hays Code restrictions that limited free expression in the Hollywood system for decades, Henry and Willingham’s script was one of the frankest, and fearless explorations of sexuality ever to cross the desks of a major Hollywood executive, and it was even not afraid to make fun of itself either. It was a story about an married older woman grooming a younger man into having an affair with her, and that younger man later finding himself in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having the affair with. Suffice to say, this would never have made it off the page and onto the screen in the old Hollywood system, so it’s arrival came at just the right time. The United Artists executives, seizing on this boundaries pushing screenplay, tapped Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols to bring The Graduate to the big screen. Nichols was already an acclaimed stage director and had successfully adapted the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to the big screen a year prior in his filmmaking debut. The Graduate was going to be a gamble even under the changing audience tastes, because no film prior had put people’s sexual activities to the forefront of the narrative. Though there were no actual sex scenes in the movie, the film still was pretty frank about what was going on, and in contrast with old Hollywood, it didn’t cast any prejudgment on people’s sexual lives. There are consequences of course, but the way The Graduate handles the touchy subject of sex in it’s movie feels more in tune with a changing world that was trying to shrug off the repressed standards of the previous generation.
The movie focuses on, you guessed it, a recent college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his first leading role) who has returned home without knowing what to do next with his life. His father (William Daniels) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson) throw a party to celebrate his accomplishment, with a lot of their friends and neighbors in attendance. One of the guests at the party is Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who towards the end of the night needs someone to drive her back home. Benjamin, wanting to escape the party that he’s not quite enjoying, offers to drive her himself. Once at the Robinson home, Mrs. Robinson offers Benjamin a drink and asks him to stay a while. It dawns on Benjamin pretty quickly what Mrs. Robinson is trying to do, saying very frankly, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” He tries as politely as possible to leave her unfulfilled and heads home. However, after a few aimless days of post-graduate life weighs down on him, Benjamin calls Mrs. Robinson and takes her up on her offer. Though he awkwardly sets up an initial hotel hookup with Mrs. Robinson in the beginning, the two continue their secret affair for weeks, unbeknownst to Benjamin’s parents and Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton). However, complications arise when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Kathrine Ross) returns home from college. It becomes increasingly harder for Benjamin to keep his affair secret and complications arise as he begins to have feelings for Elaine. In addition, Mrs. Robinson becomes increasingly possessive of Benjamin, and refuses to let him get any closer to her daughter, threatening to expose what both of them have been doing as payback. Things do go south pretty soon, and Benjamin finds himself alone and wayward once again, but after a while, he finds that pursuing the love of Elaine is worth the risk and he sets out to declare his love. The only question is, can he overcome his own inadequacies to make it possible.
When The Graduate premiered in 1967, it really became a watershed moment in cinema. The movie went on to become a box office smash and firmly cemented in the New Wave in Hollywood. And that’s largely because for the first time, the Boomer generation was seeing themselves finally represented on the screen. It was a movie that finally ushered in themes that were considered a generation ago to be too taboo for the big screen, like male fragility, women taking charge of their own sexuality, the consequences of adultery, predatory sexual behavior, and even just the frank discussion of sex in general. The movie was also about breaking out of barriers set up by society and encouraging rebellion against unjust standards, which really spoke to the younger audiences of the day. For one thing, the movie puts men and women on an equal footing when it comes to sexual activity, with the women of the movie having just as much of an authority over their wants and needs in a relationship as the men do. Mrs. Robinson is certainly the antagonist of the movie in many ways, in the way that she manipulates Benjamin to get what she desires, but the movie also posits that Benjamin is just as flawed in allowing Mrs. Robinson to go as far as she has, and that his own warped sexual awakening has the potential to be toxic towards any other woman, including Elaine, who rightfully sees the potential danger of letting Benjamin to deeply into her life. And while there are some heavy themes throughout the movie, it is surprising to find that there is a lot of humor involved as well. This is, after all, a script co-written by Buck Henry, one of the most celebrated comedic writers of his era. Making fun of sex itself was also a refreshing thing for audiences at that time, because it was also honest. There’s a perfect moment that illustrates just how well the movie balances it’s tone: when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in their hotel room, she lifts off her blouse and he reaches to feel her breast. However, she doesn’t even notice and instead tries to rub out a stain on her collar, which Benjamin instantly recognizes as something his own mother would do. Suddenly he becomes self conscious and embarrassed and begins banging his head on the wall. It’s that awkwardness that perfectly sums up what The Graduate represented, and it’s part of what has made it an enduring classic ever since.
It was an especially monumental film for all involved. Mike Nichols would go on to win an Oscar for his direction, becoming at the time the youngest winner ever in that category, and it led to a decades long successful film career thereafter. Dustin Hoffman would of course continue to excel as a leading man, and over the next decade he would become one of the most in demand stars of the 1970’s and 80’s, as well as a beloved character actor ever since. One of the groundbreaking things about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Benjamin was the fact that he was atypical as a Hollywood leading man. He was short stature and not exactly a pretty boy matinee idol either. But, for the story to make sense, you had to believe that Benjamin had an awkwardness around women. Initially, the studio wanted Robert Redford for the part, but Mike Nichols rightfully argued that it would be far less believable in the movie to have a guy like Redford play the part, because it’s unrealistic that a pretty boy like him would ever have a hard time having women find him attractive. The movie also changed things dramatically for Anne Bancroft. She was already a well established star of the stage and screen, and an Oscar winner to boot for The Miracle Worker (1962), but after The Graduate, she could add sex symbol to her long list of accolades. Mrs. Robinson was an iconic performance for her, and one that allowed her to flaunt her beauty as well as her finely crafted acting skills. One of her most memorable moments is the first scene where she seduces Benjamin, and the shot under her outstretched leg framing Dustin in the background is as iconic as it gets. And of course, you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning the now legendary Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. The folk music duo’s songs are forever tied to this movie and they were indeed one of the things that helped to turn this film into the box office hit that it is. Whether it’s the haunting refrain of “The Sound of Silence” which becomes the heartbeat of the movie, or the bouncy melody of “Here’s to You Mrs. Robinson,” the soundtrack brings extra weight to the story that in many ways elevates the movie to an almost mythic status. Sure, a lot of this does make the movie a relic of it’s time, clearly cementing it as a late 60’s film, but it’s a portrait of another time that itself has grown more beautiful with age.
The Criterion Collection certainly benefits when it is able to add a well known, beloved classic to it’s collection, and given that this is coming straight from the archives of a major Hollywood studio, it helps them considerably in their ability to deliver a beautiful looking presentation. Criterion was able to source their transfer from a brand new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative completed by the MGM/UA archives, allowing them to the ability to work with an image as close to the original as possible. The restoration was conducted under the guidance of Mike Nichols, who signed off on the color timing of the movie before his passing in 2014. Given the fact that the movie comes straight from the negative itself, the new transfer looks absolutely immaculate and clean of all the wear and tear of 50 years of aging. In particular, the colors really pop out in this high definition transfer. Mike Nichols, working with color film for the first time in this movie, really takes advantage of the color scheme of the era. The Southern California locales in particular shine in this transfer, with the widescreen format really taking advantage of the wide open vistas, especially in the driving scenes of Benjamin on the coastal highway as he sets out to halt a wedding in the climax. Even the subdued night time scenes have their own sense of beauty to them. Nichols also gave approval to the new surround sound mix for the movie. The original film, given it’s tight budget for the time, was never able to have a dynamic sound mix to them, and the Criterion transfer retains a fully restored, uncompressed recreation of that original monoaural soundtrack. But, the 5.1 surround mix is absolutely worth listening to as well, and nothing benefits from it more than the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. The surround mix just gives the songs so much more presence in the presentation. It’s one of the changes that adds to the film rather than takes away, and I think it’s the preferred mode to watch the movie, given that Mike Nichols signed off on it himself. With a beautiful looking restoration, and an even more dynamic sound, The Graduate arrives into the Criterion Collection with a presentation that lives up to their high standards.
Of course, Criterion doesn’t hold back on the extra features as well. Some of them are welcome holdovers from previous DVD editions of the movie released through MGM Home Entertainment. Two of these holdovers are audio commentary tracks that are definitely worth a listen. One is from 2007 and it features Mike Nichols in conversation with another acclaimed filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh. The two discuss the making of the movie, with Mike giving some very interesting first hand insight into what went on during filming. The second track comes from an earlier Laser Disc release of the movie from 1987, featuring film scholar Howard Suber, who goes into more detail about the movie’s lasting legacy, which at the time of recording was only 20 years after the fact. It’s interesting hearing a Reagan era perspective on a movie crafted during the Vietnam era. There are a couple of documentaries also carried over from the previous DVD extras, like a short documentary called “Students of The Graduate” which looks at all the filmmakers influenced by the movie over the years, as well as another making-of documentary called “The Graduate at 25″ which was produced in 1992 to commemorate the movie’s anniversary. There are also some vintage features that also put the movie in context within it’s era. These include a 1966 interview between Mike Nichols and Barbara Walters for the Today show, as Nichols was beginning development on the film, as well as an appearance by songwriter Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, discussing the hit music he and Garfunkel wrote for the film. Criterion did create some new features exclusive to their edition, including brand new interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Buck Henry, producer Lawrence Turman, as well as film historian Bobbie O’Steen, talking about the work of her late husband Sam O’Steen as the film’s editor. Rounding things out, the Criterion edition also includes an original film trailer, as well as screen tests of the cast. Overall, it’s a nice, robust blend of bonus features both old and new, and it meets exactly what you would expect an iconic title like The Graduate would get under the care of the Criterion Collection.
Fifty years and change on from it’s original release, it may be hard to see why The Graduate was such a revolutionary movie for it’s time. Attitudes towards sex and sexuality on the big screen has certainly changed since then, and to some modern day audiences, the movie may even seem quaint in retrospect. But for it’s time, The Graduate was a revelation for audiences that was tired of the repressive moralization of Old Hollywood. If this movie wasn’t the spark of sexual awakening in the counter culture movement of the sixties and seventies, it certainly got the conversation started. In many ways, what really spoke to the audiences of that era was the disillusionment of Benjamin’s place in the world post-graduation. Distrust erupted across America against institutions that were perceived to be limiting opportunity. Counter culture was a response to the whitewashed view of civil post-War American culture, something that Hollywood had a hand in propping up over the last couple decades. With movies like The Graduate, the old barriers began to come down, and people were now finally able to address issues on topics like sexuality, race, and political ideology that they were not able to in the past. And Mike Nichols was the first of many new voices that would help shape the New Hollywood that emerged out of this change in the culture. He may not have been the most outrageous voice in the room, but he was certainly one of the most skilled, delivering a story as groundbreaking as The Graduate with such a grounded, humane sensibility. Seen today, the sexual politics may not be as shocking, but the story itself resonates. In this #MeToo era, we are still coping with the complexities of sexual relationships, and the lasting effects that a toxic sexual awakening can drive people to do. What I think is the most poignant thing about The Graduate is it’s final haunting moment. The movie ends with Benjamin and Elaine running off together, escaping her family in a triumphant moment of rebellion as they ride off in the back of a bus. But, instead of cutting on that triumphant note, Nichols makes the daring choice to hold on that moment and keeps rolling the scene further. Suddenly, the tone changes, and becomes less hopeful and more introspective. It’s in that moment that Mike Nichols brilliantly posits the “What Now?” question into the audiences’ mind. Is it really happily ever after for these two? By being vague in that final moment, Mike Nichols asks that question to the audience; what responsibility do we carry after we’ve turned the world upside down. And it’s in that where the movie finds it’s ultimate poignancy. The Graduate is a revolutionary story that at the same time asks it’s audience to think a little deeper, and because of that, it is rightfully celebrated as one of the greatest, and most influential movies ever made. Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.