Movies Into Film 1967-70: The Graduate


"A lot of people see my films and say, `I don't get it.'" Robert Altman's quote could not be more appropriate than for John Simon's review of The Graduate. For although he refers to the satire in the movie, he reviews it as a melodrama - that everything should be taken literally. Simon is like one of those people who wonders why Picasso didn't "put the nose in the right place." The clash between his literal mind and Nichol's satire makes for hilarious reading!

One would like to be able to say that with The Graduate Hollywood has finally graduated; if so, the film merely demonstrates the need for postgraduate work. A few taboos are, indeed, broken; but does that make for a good film? I have not read Charles Webb's novel and cannot say how many of the film's flaws are inherited from the book. There again, though, what does it matter? The movie's principal weaknesses are oversimplification, overelaboration, inconsistency, eclecticism, obviousness, pretentiousness, and especially in the pentultimate section, sketchiness. Let us examine these one by one.

Oversimplification is the easiest to spot: all the adults in the film are ludicrous, corrupt, mean, or, at the very least, ineffectual; the two young lovers, on the other hand, are honest, idealistic, pure, lovable and, if you don't look very closely, not particularly deficient mentally. When they finally run off with each other, the film labors to make us feel that, thanks to them, there's hope for the world; without perciptible resources or qualifications, though, and with familial ire pursuing them, it is an exigous Eden they can look forward to.

Overelaboration runs throughout the entire film. When the pilot's voice in the very first shot announces over the plane's P.A. system, "We are about to make our descent into Los Angeles," the film's only moment of subtlety has been used up. Forthwith we descend into underlining, overdoing, dragging out. The party his parents give for Ben, the new graduate, is sheer hyperbole. True, the unsavory genus big businessman, especially the garish California species, complete with females even deadlier that their castrated males, is quickly pinned to the screen. But must the pins be driven into the specimens with a hammer?

Concomitantly, Ben is presented as an idealistic, sensitive, confused innocent, as well as an inordinately tongue-tied, slow-on-the-uptake simpleton, innocence becoming tantamount to obtuseness and clumsiness. I don't think the director, Mike Nichols, intended the youth to be a yokel, but either his comic technique requires such overstatement, or he and his scenarists felt the public cannot comprehend innocence in any less dripping form. For that matter, can we, nowadays, buy the notion of a graduate - even from an Eastern college - who is still a virgin?

Ben mumbles through a large part of the film. His father, oily and officious, must nag and embarrass him without surcease while Mom supplies an obbligato of fluttery giggles. Mrs. Robinson, Dad's partner's wife, the predatory dipsomaniac who seduces Ben, is represented as a sexy gargoyle with perhaps two seconds' worth of incipient humanity allowed her. Many of the scenes are carried to the level of grotequerie, as, for instance, Ben's birthday party at which he is obliged to give a humiliating exhibition of the frogman outfit his father has bought him. We must crawl inside the rubber suit with Ben, breathe stertorously and galumph with him, dive into the swimming pool with him, watch through his visor, and later even from underwater, his family making asses of themselves. There is a line where satire ends and oafishness begins, and The Graduate keeps crossing it as if it had diplomatic immunity.

Inconsistency is at the very core of the film. Many have pointed out that it breaks in two somewhere around the middle - when from outrageous comedy or flagrant farce it switches to sentimental near-drama. Others, championing the film, have argued that the two elements are interwoven throughout, and that true love for Elaine, the Robinson daughter, is supposed to transform Ben into a romantic figure and justify the partial change in tone. I myself am not so concerned with maintaining the unity of the tone as I am with safeguarding a certain consistency of character. Here is Ben, the nonstop fumbler, suddenly turned into a master slueth: the ingeniousness with which he elicits information about the place of the wedding from various people - particularly his resourcefulness with Dr. Smith's answering service at a time of utmost physical and emotional strain - tax my credulity beyond endurance.

This may not be incredible if we assume love makes men out of boys overnight, but we cannot suppose so swinging a film would hold so square a notion. Yet, naively and sentimentally, if not duplicitously and jesuitically, that is just what the film proposes. Even here, however, it is inconsistent. The upright and sweet Elaine, for all her love of Ben, allows herself to be hustled off by her monstrous parents to marry another beau - an elaborate, formal wedding, by the way, which, we are to believe, was arranged for and celebrated in something like thirty-six to forty-eight hours.

Minor inconsistencies abound. After carrying on a copious affair with Elaine's mother, Ben still addresses her, even in bed it seems, as "Mrs. Robinson." Mrs. Robinson, who carries on with Ben as she presumably has with many others, casually and out of boredom and frustration, nevertheless is so demonically possessive about him that she will go to satanic lengths to prevent him from a happy marriage with her daughter. The California WASPs are shot through with little New York Jewish touches - as when Ben exclaims in amazement about the Robinson's mating habits, "In the car you did it?" Finally, the supreme inconsistency is not in any of these lapses, but in the basic impossibility of accepting the sudden change of Candide into an amalgam of Romeo, Don Quixote, and Lochinvar. And in the triumph of such a chimerical figure (lion's courage, serpent's wisdom, goat's stupidity) over the hostile monolith of society.

The old device of pantomime shot through a windshield after the convertible top has been lowered is resorted to at the very moment when hearing the words that bring Elaine and Ben, that car's occupants, together would be most helpful in establishing their supposed intelligence and idealism. And that car, Ben's red Alfa Romeo, a linear descendant of all those obiquitous, scene-stealing cars in Godard's and Lelouch's films, is on screen more than any other character save Ben. Photographed with everything from reverse angle to helicopter shots, and with Simon and Garfunkel's songs obstreperously dogging it, the car very nearly drives the film to vehicular suicide.

Obviousness and pretentiousness appear either in a pure state or commingled. After Ben's father tells him his marriage plans seem half-baked, and Ben, with his typical cute stolidity, replies that they are fully baked, two pieces of toast pop up from the toaster. In a Berkeley frat house, every boy has to be as blond as the California sunshine. Paul Simon's lyrics alternate between nauseating poeticism ("Hello darkness, my old friend ... Silence like a cancer grows ... The words of the prophet are written on the subway hall ... The sound of silence") and trashy folksiness ("Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson: Jesus loves you more than you could know"), and are set to his and Garfunkel's music that is not so much rock as rock bottom. Nichols kept reprising these decompositions, until the soundtrack resembles the streets of New York during a garbage collector's strike. And for supreme pretentiousness, we get a protracted shot of Ben crucified against the plate glass of the choir loft at Elaine's wedding. [See Dustin Hoffman's quotes on the true story of this scene]

Sketchiness afflicts the whole long Berkeley section of the film. The stages of Ben's and Elaine's romance are much too elliptical to convince anyone not a raving swinger or abject square. Sketchiness creeps into the characterizations and performances as well. Dustin Hoffman, a remarkable character actor, is clearly uncomfortable when reduced to a passive booby. Katherine Ross, thanks in large part to the scriptwriters, Caulder Willingham and Buck Henry (the final script, we hear, is almost all Henry's), emerges as a pretty cipher. The part of Mr. Robinson is a bundle of dark, inchoate hints. William Daniels does much for the obvious part of Ben's father; the role of the mother is too thankless to give Elizabeth Wilson a sporting chance. Anne Bancroft burns with a black flame as Mrs. Robinson, and succeeds in making this outre Fury very nearly human and believable.

The Graduate, in fact, has some effective moments: parts of Ben's seduction, and the entire scene in which Ben tries for precoital conversation with Mrs. Robinson, are pertinent, pungent, and not without poignancy. In the end, though, the film is a piece of calculated psuedo-innocence. Clearly Hollywood has overdone the What Are Our Kids Coming To? posture (and imposture) of righteous indignation. For the first film that considers the generation gap from youth's point of view to go outrageously - and, I think, with a shrewd eye on the box office - in the opposite direction seems equally indefensible.

Ben and Elaine are a younger Bonnie and Clyde, not forced into crime, but just as specious in their heroism, and pitted against just as simplistically villainous society. That is the trouble with our middle-brow culture and its artifacts: the notion of a corrective is to go to the opposite extreme. If the picture hangs crooked in one direction, those who set out to straighten it push it awry in the other.

February, 1968

by John Simon, ©1971


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