Seeing "The Graduate" again decades after an initial viewing is, appropriately enough, like attending a college reunion. Films are in a sense like old friends, and revisiting them years later inevitably raises the question of whether what you once enjoyed still brings you pleasure.
With "The Graduate," which will play theatrically across Los Angeles on April 23 and 26 in a new 4K digital restoration presented by Fathom Events as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series, the results are mixed.
There is no question that from a film history point of view "The Graduate" deserves this kind of 50th anniversary respect. Adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from the Charles Webb novel, it sprang initially from the passion of producer Lawrence Turman, who bought the rights to the book for $1,000 and sent it unsolicited to director Mike Nichols, who later said it was "the only time in my whole life that that ever happened successfully."
The result was a major box office success, nominated for seven Oscars including best picture and acting nods for stars Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, plus an Oscar victory for Nichols. Its effects on American culture are considered to be even more pronounced.
Among other things, "The Graduate" featured landmark soundtrack use of Simon & Garfunkel songs like "The Sound of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair," made "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" into a national catchphrase, helped pioneer a change in the nature of leading men and became a touchstone for young people feeling concerned, as recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock is, about their future and their place in the adult world they are reluctantly entering.
But looked at now, "The Graduate" is frankly a film you admire more than actually enjoy experiencing. Dark, pitiless and despairing, it plays stranger and more distant to me today than it did back in the day. So much so that one wonders if that was the plan from the beginning, when the fact that its mildly transgressive attitude seemed fresh and new disguised its essential nature.
Inevitably helping with the hiding was the formally impressive, borderline glib facility with the cinematic medium Nichols displayed in this, only his second film as a director.
That skill was enhanced by the fact that Nichols' below-the-line collaborators were an extraordinarily gifted group. A tip of the hat, please, for cinematographer Robert Surtees, editor Sam O'Steen, production designer Richard Sylbert and Tony-winning costume designer Patricia Zipprodt. Even the hair stylist was legendary: Sydney Guilaroff, who had done Grace Kelly's hair for her wedding to Prince Rainier and had credits ranging from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Some Like It Hot."
But none of this expertise could counteract the fact that Nichols' work always evinced a kind of coldness and distance that I've never, well, warmed to and that stood in the way of my completely embracing "The Graduate" this time around.
While my younger self may have identified with just-graduated Ben and his overly earnest concerns with his future and his self-indulgent determination to tell everyone in sight "I have some things on my mind," he now seemed callower than I remembered.
Also not wearing well were Benjamin's obtuse parents (played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and their Southern California friends, all mercilessly skewered as well-meaning monsters of self-involvement.
Things pick up immeasurably, of course, with the arrival of Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson, the wife of Ben's father's law partner and a woman whose predatory nature is deftly underlined by her preference for leopard-skin garments.
Both Bancroft and Hoffman (in reality only six years apart in age) had New York theatrical experience and play beautifully off each other. The choreographed interplay between her sureness and his awkwardness ("You're the most attractive of my parents' friends," is his idea of a compliment) remains immaculate.
Good as these actors are, the relationship between their characters is by definition a premise, setting us up for what comes later, and what comes later is a very different story.
Things do seem promising when the Robinsons’ college-age daughter Elaine (Ross) comes down from Berkeley, if only because she's the most recognizably human character in the entire film.
But not only does Ben's falling for Elaine seem completely arbitrary, even by movie standards, but the act also deranges him in a not particularly appealing way, turning this lost young man into more of a scary stalker than lovestruck swain.
Merciless toward its characters as well as the audience, "The Graduate" plays on a new viewing like a subversive, anti-romantic film best categorized as a bleak parody of the happily-ever-after genre. The next time it gets rereleased, this examination of the power of obsession should be put on a double bill with Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Vertigo." Believe it or not, it belongs there.
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