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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  








By Robert Cardullo

Fifty Years After: Some Thoughts on The Graduate and the New American Cinema





When Mike Nichols’ second film, The Graduate, was released on December 21, 1967 (fifty years ago, which is hard to believe), it proved that he was a genuine director—one to be admired as well as to be concerned about. It also marked the screen début, in a title role, of Dustin Hoffman, a young actor already known in the theater as an exceptional talent, who here increased his reputation. Also, after many months of prattle at the time about the New American Cinema,1 The Graduate gave some substance to the contention that American films were coming of age—of our age.

To wit, during the two years prior to the release of The Graduate, there had been a considerable shift in the filmmaking climate. American movies usually reflected the truth of American lives without intending to, because movies manufactured as commercial entertainments were nonetheless inescapably the products of contemporary psyches. But in the mid-1960s many American films started, quite consciously if not always successfully, to come to grips with various social phenomena and certain psychic states. (I’m speaking of a change in well-budgeted theatrical films. Underground films had always tried to treat those matters; one of their reasons for existence was to compensate for the lack of such honest encounter in aboveground films.) This is not to say that psychical substructure had disappeared from these new films, but much that used to be implied or that only seeped into movies because it couldn’t be kept out, was now there by explicit design.

Obviously some “personal” films had been made in the United States before this time, but there was now a strong new direction of which Mike Nichols’ The Graduate was the first visible marker. Let’s define a “personal” film (yet again) as one made primarily because the maker wants to make it, not as a contract job: analogous—as far as the conditions of the medium permit—with a poet’s writing a poem or a sculptor’s making a sculpture. In most of these films from the mid-to-late sixties and early 1970s, the subject is some aspect of American society or some experience of the filmmaker’s that he wants to investigate and correlate with the world. In more of these films than is usual, the director wrote or collaborated on the script.

Here are some of those pictures from the years 1967 to 1969, the period immediately surrounding The Graduate: Greetings, Last Summer, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Putney Swope, Medium Cool, The Learning Tree, The Rain People, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Midnight Cowboy, Alice’s Restaurant, and Goodbye, Columbus. All these films were (and are) of widely varying quality and proved yet again that to make a film “personally” is no guarantee of artistic success. A straight, contemporaneous commercial film like Hot Millions (1968) or Funny Girl (1968) is still a lot more rewarding than the trite and sentimental Learning Tree (notable only because it is an autobiographical film by a black man about his boyhood). And, in the cases of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and Medium Cool, the free souls were shown to have their own falsities and self-indulgences to beware of. Still, the promise in this new artistic situation could not be denied.

The reason for such a change in the filmic mainstream was, I believe, the 
presence in the audience of the millions
who had been pouring out of colleges since World War II and, perhaps 
more especially, the millions who were in colleges at the time: their growing interest
in the cinema, their reliance on it as they 
relied on no other art; their rejection of
the ludicrousness of the commercial formulas or at least their refusal to accept them as the totality of film (as they were then the totality of television); their concern with the society in which they were living and with themselves in that society; their shame at the difference between what was happening in the best postwar European film and what had been happening in the United States. The fulcrum on which the production change turned, the essential component, was of course the mind of the financier. He had seen where the money was; at least he had seen that the money was not unfailingly where it dependably used to be; and in his bewildered thrashings-about, he now sometimes thrashed toward the personal film—and a needed avenue was thus opened.

There were at least two possible results of this change. First, critical standards began to be applied to American film that were cognate (not identical) with those for any other art; as a result, there was less need for a lopsided critical theory like auteurism, imported from France and deliberately built askew so that it could slide past commercial distortions to judge whatever of merit was left inside. Second, as I point out above, American cinema started to engage, as consciously and explicitly as any other art, with social and psychical matters. Much, of course, remained mysterious and uncontrollable, perceptible only after the event, like so much in all art and in life. But the equation had shifted. More aesthetic matters now moved into the area of design and control; and what was left down there in the uncontrollable depths consequently resounded even deeper.

Now let’s talk about the place of The Graduate itself in this seismic cinematic shift. The film’s screenplay, based on a 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Webb,2 was written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. The latter man, like Nichols, was an experienced satiric performer. (Henry appears in this picture as a hotel clerk.) The dialogue is sharp, hip without rupturing itself in the effort, often moving, and frequently funny except for a few obtrusive gag lines. The story is about a young cop-out (in the jargon of the period) who—for well-dramatized reasons—cops at least partially in again.

Benjamin Braddock is a bright college graduate who returns from the east coast to his wealthy parents’ home in Pasadena and flops—on his bed, on the rubber raft in the family pool. Politely and dispassionately, he declines the options thrust at him by bourgeois, barbecue-pit society: a scholarship to graduate school and a position in the plastics industry, among others. His mother and father, however, are keen for their son to get on with his life and are only interested in talking up his academic success, athletic prowess (as a track star at school), and possible future. Mrs. Robinson, the bored wife of his father’s law partner, then proceeds to seduce Benjamin, though he is increasingly uncomfortable in the continuing affair—for moral reasons of an unpuritanical kind. The woman’s daughter, Elaine, comes home from college and, against the mother’s wishes but in obedience to his parents’ insistence, Benjamin takes her out. Indeed, he falls in love with the girl, which is predictable but entirely credible. Eventually he is blackmailed into telling Elaine about his affair with her mother and, in revulsion, she flees—back to her university in Berkeley, in northern California, for the fall term. Benjamin follows, hangs about the campus, almost gets her to marry him, loses her (through her father’s interference), pursues her, and finally gets her.

To dispose at once of the tedious subject of frankness, I note that some of the language and bedroom details pushed that frontier (in American films, at least) considerably ahead, but it is all so appropriate that it never has the slightest smack of daring, let alone opportunism. What is truly daring, and consequently refreshing, is The Graduate’s moral stance. Its acceptance of the fact that a young man might have an adulterous affair with an older woman and still marry her daughter (a situation not exactly unheard of in America in the 1960s although not previously seen in the American cinema) is part of the film’s fundamental insistence: that life, at any time in our world, is not worth living unless one can test it day by day, by values that ring true to the day.

Moral attitudes at the time, far from relaxing, were getting stricter and stricter among a certain segment of the population, with the result that many of the shoddy moralistic acceptances that dictated mindless actions for decades were being fiercely questioned, especially by the young. Benjamin himself is neither a laggard nor a lecher; he is, in the healthiest sense, a moralist: someone who wants to know the value of what he is doing. He does not rush into the affair with Mrs. Robinson out of any social rote of “scoring” any more than he avoids Elaine Robinson—because he has slept with her mother—out of any social rote of taboo. In fact, although he is male and eventually succumbs, he sees the older woman’s advances as part of the syndrome of a suspect society. The result is that the sexual dynamics of the story propels Benjamin past the sexual sphere; it forces him to assess and locate himself in every aspect of his society.

Sheerly in terms of moral revolution, all of this would have seemed pretty commonplace in the late sixties to readers of contemporary American fiction. But we are dealing here with an art form that, because of its inescapable broad-based appeal, follows well behind the front lines of moral exploration. In the United States the cinema follows less closely than in some other countries, not because American audiences are necessarily less sophisticated than others but because the great expense of American production encourages a producer to cast the widest net possible. None of this is an apology for the film medium; it is a fact of film’s existence. One might as sensibly apologize for painting because it cannot be seen simultaneously by millions the way a movie can.

Hence the arrival of The Graduate in 1967 can be viewed two ways. First, it was an index of moral change in a substantial segment of the American public, at least of an awakening of some doubts about past moral acceptances. Second, it is irrelevant that these changes were arriving in the cinema a decade or two decades or a half-century after the other arts, because their statement on film makes them intrinsically new and unique. If arts have textural differences and are not simply different envelopes for the same contents, then the way in which The Graduate affects us makes it quite a different work from the original novel and from dozens of novels of moral disruption or exploration around the time it was made. Nonetheless, some literary critics in the sixties deplored the adulation by young people of “serious” films, saying that the “messages” they got from Bergman, Antonioni, and Godard—and subsequently Nichols—had been stated by the novel and even the drama thirty or forty years earlier.3 But this is not really true: for if art as art has any validity at all, then the cinema’s peculiar sensory avenues were giving those “old” insights a presence—in sight and sound, time and space, intimacy and scope—they could not otherwise have.

Let me concentrate for the moment on the very novel from which the film of The Graduate was adapted. Besides the fact that a great deal of Webb’s good dialogue (which comprises most of the book) is used in the screenplay,4 the structure of the first two-thirds of the book—until Benjamin goes to Berkeley—is more or less the structure of the movie. The longest scene in the picture—the bedroom one in which Benjamin comically tries to get his mistress to talk to him—is taken almost intact from the novel. But Mike Nichols and his screenwriters rightly sensed that the last third of the book bogged down in a series of discussions, that the novel’s device for Benjamin’s finding the place of Elaine’s wedding was not only mechanical but also visually sterile, and that in general this last third had to be both compressed and heightened.

Doesn’t the film split in half as a result? This has been a recurrent question about The Graduate over the years, and it requires comment. Benjamin does not change, in my view, from the hero of a serious comedy about a frustrated youth to the hero of a glossy romance; he changes as Benjamin. It is the difference between the women in his life that changes him. Being the person he is, he could not have been dignified and assured with Mrs. Robinson any more than he could have been ridiculous and uncommanding with Elaine. We can actually see the change happen—during the scene with Elaine at the hamburger joint where Benjamin puts up the top of his sports car, closes the windows, and talks. Talks—for the first time in the film at any length. Those who insist that Mrs. Robinson’s Benjamin should be the same as Elaine’s Benjamin are denying the effect of love—particularly its effect on Ben, to whom it is not only joy but escape from the nullity of his affair with her mother and the impending nullity of himself. There is even a cinematic hint early in the picture of the change that is to come: our first glimpse of the nude Mrs. Robinson is a reflection in the glass covering her daughter’s portrait on a wall.

In character and in moral focus, then, the film does not split, but there is a fundamental weakness in the novel that the movie tries, not entirely successfully, to escape. The pivot of the action shifts, after the story shifts to Berkeley, from Benjamin to Elaine. From then on, he knows what he wants; it is she who has to work through an internal crisis. It was Nichols’ job to dramatize this crisis without abandoning his protagonist, to show the girl adjusting to the shocking fact of Benjamin’s affair with her mother, and he had to show it with, so to speak, only a series of visits by the girl to the picture. To make matters worse, the environment—of the conventional campus romantic comedy—works against the seriousness of the material, the revisionary nature of this particular romantic comedy. The library, the quad, the rooming house, the classroom corridor have to be overcome, in a sense. Nichols never lets up his pressure on what he feels the film is about, but the obliqueness of the action at this point and the associative drawbacks of the locale never quite cease to be difficulties.

Charles Webb himself objected to the film of The Graduate on the ground that, unlike his novel, the movie does not take a moral stance.5 He based his objection on the fact that, in the book, Benjamin arrives at the church in time to prevent Elaine’s marriage to another man, and in the film he arrives after the ceremony. I myself don’t understand how the author of this book could equate morality with marriage licenses. In any event, not only does Nichols’ solution avoid the destructive cliché of having Benjamin get there Just in Time, but it is also completely in character for Benjamin: he has impertinently had an affair with the married Mrs. Robinson, and now—at least for the time being—he will impertinently be having an affair with the married Elaine.

There is one point in Webb’s novel, however, that I wish had been made explicit in the film. The author makes sure we know that Benjamin is not a virgin when he goes to the hotel room for the first time with Mrs. Robinson.6 I had always assumed that Benjamin was not “intact” simply because of his age, his kind, and the time period (again, the late sixties), but there is no evidence in the film one way or the other. Moreover, I know from anecdotal evidence that there are still many people who assume he is a virgin, and this makes a great difference in their view of the first hotel encounter. If that is a scene about a novice, it is a conventional skit about sexual initiation; if Benjamin is not a novice, then the scene is about the distress of a young man torn between shock—after all, this woman probably wheeled him around in his baby carriage!—and his sexual urges. Such a conflict, between rigid social conventions and surrogate Oedipal drives (Mr. Robinson says at one point that he regards Ben as a son), is the source of a deeper, darker comedy.

This brings us to the central artist of the entire enterprise, Mike Nichols. In his first picture, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), he was shackled by Edward Albee’s famous 1962 play and by the two powerhouse stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; but considering these handicaps, he did a creditable job, particularly with his actors. In The Graduate, uninhibited by the need to reproduce a Broadway hit and with freedom to select his cast, Nichols moved fully into film. Here he is perceptive, imaginative, witty; he has a shrewd eye, both for beautiful imagery and for visual comment; he knows how to compose as well as to juxtapose; and he has an innate sense of the manifold ways in which film can be better than he is and therefore how good he can be through it—particularly through its powers of expansion and ellipsis.

From the very first moment, Nichols sets the key. We see Benjamin’s face large and absolutely alone. The camera then pulls back, we see that he is in an airliner, and the captain’s voice tells us that it is approaching Los Angeles; but Benjamin has already been set for us as alone. We follow him through the terminal—aptly, on the airport treadmill, or moving walkway, but at the far right of the frame, not in the center where we would expect to see the protagonist (and with his image soon to be replaced by that of his suitcase on the conveyor belt). Benjamin seems just as completely isolated in the crowd here as he does later, in a scuba-diving suit at the bottom of his family’s swimming pool, when he is huddling discontentedly in an underwater corner—literally as well as figuratively “underwater,” “all wet,” or “out of his depth”—while his twenty-first birthday party is being bulled along by his father up above. (Glass will often be used in the film, be it the glass of a scuba helmet, a window pane, a car windshield, or the fish tank in his room, as a barrier to suggest Benjamin’s isolation or separation, entrapment, and even suffocation.) Indeed, particularly in such sequences as his welcome-home party—where the handheld camera stays close to Benjamin and pans with him as he weaves through the crowd, moving to another face only when he encounters it—it is as if Benjamin’s narrow or tunnel-like or closed-off attention were controlling the camera’s. The effect is balletic, in that Nichols here is seeking out quintessential rhythms, and quintessential states, in commonplace actions.

So much was this director seeking out such rhythms and states that he gave his cinematographer, Robert Surtees, license to experiment with filming techniques, as when the latter shoots Benjamin at some distance running straight at the camera—a technique that makes him look as if he is getting nowhere even though he’s running. (This effect is accomplished with a very long telephoto lens, which foreshortens distances in relation to the camera.) Even though Ben is running very fast as his character races to prevent Elaine’s marriage to someone else, the effect of the shot is to make him appear to be furiously running in place, getting nowhere—which is exactly how he feels at this moment. In another scene, Benjamin is walking from the right side of the screen to the left, while everyone else in the scene is moving from left to right. In Western culture, people or things that move from left to right seem natural (think of the direction in which one reads words on a page), whereas those that move from right to left seem to be going the wrong way. Such a visual technique thus echoes one of the film’s points: that, from a conventional point of view, Benjamin is going the wrong way and getting nowhere in life.

Along with visuals, Mike Nichols also understands sound. The device of overlapping sound is somewhat overused (beginning the dialogue of the next scene under the end of the present one), but in general this effect, much like the match cuts (cutting from Ben lying on the raft in the family pool to him lying in the hotel bed), adds to the dissolution of clock time, creating a more subjective time connected with Benjamin’s drifting, “timeless” consciousness. And Nichols’ use of nonverbal sound does a good deal to fix subliminally the cultural as well as temporal locus: for instance, a jet plane swooshes overhead—unremarked—as the married woman precipitously invites Benjamin into her house for the first time.

The musical soundtrack, in the case of this film, combines the nonverbal with the verbal, as it consists of folk-rock songs sung and played by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.7 The lyrics, it’s true, deal a bit too easily with such matters as God, angst, the “sound of silence,” and social change, but at least they deal with these matters rather than just tugging at our heartstrings or otherwise cueing us emotionally, as most movie music does. Moreover, Simon and Garfunkel’s tunes are typical of the musical environment in which Benjamin, and Elaine, live; this is the music that, in 1967, they themselves would have been listening to on records or the radio, and that some young men are in fact listening to on a car radio in the parking lot of the hamburger joint.

I want now to make much of Mike Nichols’ ability to direct actors, a factor generally overlooked in appraising film directors—many of whom, unlike Nichols, did not begin, let alone remain, in the theater. (Nichols’ began his stage career as a comic performer, and his subsequent Broadway directing credits include Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park [1963], Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians [1976], Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing [1984], Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden [1992], Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull [2001], and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman [2012].) Some famous directors—Alfred Hitchcock, for example—can do little with actors; they get only what the actor can supply on his own. Sometimes—again like Hitchcock—these directors do not even seem to be aware of bad performances: think only of Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) and of almost all the principals in Topaze (1969). Nichols, by contrast, helped the otherwise histrionic Anne Bancroft to a quiet, strong portrayal of the mistress, who is bitter and pitiful beneath her predatory exterior (as suggested by her leopard-themed or animal-print wardrobe). With acuteness he cast Elizabeth Wilson, a sensitive comedienne, as Benjamin’s mother. And from the very pretty Katharine Ross, Benjamin’s girl, he got a performance like none she had ever given before or has given since: of sweetness, dignity, and a compassion that is simply engulfing. Even the actor playing Ben’s father, William Daniels, whose WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) caricature is a staple item in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967), is helped by Nichols to give that caricature new life here.
In the leading role, Nichols had the sense and the courage to cast Dustin Hoffman, unknown (to the screen) at the time, physically slight, and unhandsome, and to surround him with the blue-eyed, blonde-haired adonises associated with southern California—one of whom you might have expected to see in the part of Benjamin himself. (Webb’s novel says that Ben is 5’11” or so, and, in addition to being a track star and head of the debating club at college, he’s a WASP8—unlike the Jewish, and Jewish-appearing, Hoffman.) Hoffman’s anti-heroic face in itself is a proof of change in American film of the late 1960s, for it is hard to imagine him in leading roles ten years earlier. How unimportant, how interesting this quickly becomes, because Hoffman, when well directed, is one of the best actors of his generation: subtle, vital, and accurate. Certainly he is the best American film comedian (comic actor, not jokester of the kind embodied by Robin Williams or Steve Martin) since Jack Lemmon, and, as theatergoers discovered before he entered film, Hoffman has a much wider range than Lemmon, appearing in the 1960s in plays as different as Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow (1954), Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities (1923), Murray Schisgal’s Jimmy Shine (1968), and Ronald Ribman’s Journey of the Fifth Horse (1966)—to be followed later by Hoffman’s performances in films as varied as Madigan’s Millions (1968), Little Big Man (1970), Tootsie (1982), Wag the Dog (1997), Perfume (2006), and Boychoir (2014).

With palpable tact and lovely understanding, Nichols and Hoffman and Ross—all three—show us how this boy and girl fall into a new kind of love: a love based on recognition of identical loneliness on their side of the generation gap, a gap that irrefutably existed despite the fact that it was often sillily exploited in the politics and pop culture of the day. When Elaine’s father is, understandably, enraged at the news of his wife’s affair with his prospective son-in-law and hustles the girl off into another, “safe” marriage (to a medical student named Carl Smith), Benjamin’s almost insane refusal to let her go is his refusal to let go of the one reality he has found in a world that otherwise exists, for him, behind a pane of glass. The filmic metaphors of the chase after the girl—the endless driving, the jumping in and out of his sports car, even his eventual running out of gas—do have some slapstick about them, making The Graduate rise close to the surface of mere physicality. But at least the urgency never fails: the urgency of a young generation’s belief—still amply manifested all around us—in the value of romantic love in an arid world.

At the wedding, when Benjamin finds it—and of course it is in an ultra-modern church, in Santa Barbara—there is a dubious hint of crucifixion as he flings his outspread arms against the (literal) pane of glass that separates him from Elaine, and thus from his very life. But this symbolism is redeemed a minute later when, with the girl, Ben grabs a large cross, swings it savagely if not sacrilegiously to stave off pursuers, then jams it through the handles of the front doors to lock the crowd in behind them. The pair jump onto a passing bus (she is still in her wedding dress) and sit in the very back, as the aged, uncomprehending passengers turn and stare at them, dumbfounded. Benjamin and Elaine sit next to each other, breathing hard, not even laughing, just happy—and the film ends.

Nothing is solved—none of the things that bother Benjamin, in any event—by this ending, by the fact of their being together; in fact, one could say that their troubles have only begun, because Elaine is legally married to another man: Carl Smith. (In addition, her parents are divorcing; one can be fairly sure that the law firm of Braddock and Robinson will be splitting up as well; Ben has yet to face his parents about any of these matters; and neither Ben nor Elaine has a source of income.) But, for Benjamin, nothing would be worth solving without her. We know that, and she knows that, and all of us feel very, very good about it. The chase and last-minute rescue (to repeat, just after the ceremony is finished) are contrivances, to be sure, but they are contrivances tending toward truth, not falsity, which may be one definition of good art.

Nichols played to his strength in The Graduate, which is comedy; with all its touching moments and its essential seriousness, this is a very funny picture. To some viewers, a comedy about a young man and his father’s partner’s wife immediately seems adventurous, while a comedy about a young man and a girl automatically gets shoved into a pigeonhole. We have only to remember (and to me it is unforgettable), however, that what is separating these young lovers is not a broken date or a trivial quarrel but a deep taboo in our society. For me, therefore, the end proof of the film’s depth is the climax in the church, with Dustin Hoffman (even more moving the more times I see him) screaming Elaine’s name from behind the glass wall. A light romance? I don’t think so. This is a naked, final, dramatic cry to the girl to free herself of the meaningless taboo, to join him in trying to find some possible new and better truth by which to live.

Some elements of slickness and shininess in this widescreen color film are disturbing, it has to be said. I disliked Nichols’ recurrent affection for the splatter of headlights and sunspots on his lens, as well as his weakness for a slightly heavy irony through objects. (The camera holds on a third-rate painting of a clown after Mrs. Robinson walks out of the shot, not the first such painting we see in the film. When Elaine leaves Benjamin in front of the monkey cage at the San Francisco zoo, the camera, too luckily, catches the sign on the cage—Do Not Tease—and then cuts to a few shots of the animals themselves just to make sure we know that a monkey has been made of Ben.) And a couple of times Nichols puts his camera in places that merely make us aware of his cleverness in putting it there: inside an empty hotel-room closet, for example, looking out past the hangers. Additionally, there are some really egregious gags or gag lines: “Are you here for an affair, sir?”9 the hotel clerk asks the confused Benjamin in the lobby.

Other considerable charges were made against The Graduate at the time and have been repeated through the years. Some complained that neither Benjamin nor his parents seem aware that his behavior is not exactly unusual for a college student in the late 1960s10; there is no reference—by California parents—to “Berkeley” behavior or dropouts or hippies. I agree that this is a slight omission—the landlord of Ben’s Berkeley rooming house does ask him if he is one of those “outside agitators”11—and it touches on the credibility of the environment Nichols wants to create: what’s missing somewhat is an objective correlative for Ben’s confusion, anomie, even paralysis in the material, imperialist world of mid-twentieth-century American capitalism. (Such a correlative is missing from Webb’s novel as well, which strains, like the film, to make Ben’s alienation and depression a response to the social scene: to the corrupt mores, bankrupt consumerism, and mindless conformity of contemporary American society. But, to be fair, the book was published in 1963, before the political turmoil that began in 1965 with the race riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the assassination of Malcolm X in Harlem, the public harassment by police of homosexuals gathering on the streets of San Francisco, and Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of U. S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.)

Still others objected that, precisely, there was no mention of the Vietnam War then raging12; but if there had been “mention” of it, in a film about domestic problems that would persist long after the end of the Vietnam conflict, The Graduate would have been accused of tokenism. Additional critics argued that Benjamin was too “straight,” that a film about a radical would have been more significant.13 On this point I certainly disagree: what interested me in Benjamin was precisely that he is “straight” and that it doesn’t protect him: the bottom falls out for him anyway. There would have been less drama, and not necessarily any more social truth, in having these events occur to a member of SDS, the student group that during this era organized “teach-ins,” anti-war demonstrations, and other political activities across the United States in the name of creating a more democratic society.

Related to this, some have said that The Graduate is not about real change but about a little rebellious excursion that ends with happy mating and conformity.14 I don’t find such an assertion supported in the film. There is a happy ending, but, as noted, it is a qualified one: Benjamin’s smile on the bus gradually turns into an enigmatic, neutral expression as he gazes ahead, not looking at Elaine; and Elaine, after lovingly looking at Ben, notices the expression on his face and turns away with a similar one on hers. (In a 1970 interview, Nichols said, “When I saw those rushes [of the ending] I thought: ‘That’s the end of the picture. They don’t know what the hell to do, or think, or to say to each other’.”15)

Despite the defects, then, The Graduate bears the imprint of a filmmaker, alive, hungry, and properly ambitious—a whole filmmaker, warts and all. This is a very different imprint from that of a number of Nichols’ highly praised, cagy, compromised American contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s. The defects here show that he is not entirely sure of himself, that he is still feeling his way toward a style of his own. And the kind of cleverness or artiness (sometimes becoming grandiloquence) found in The Graduate did plague Nichols in his other early films, but it more or less stopped with Carnal Knowledge (1971)—ironically, his last genuinely important picture. His subsequent, far more commercial movies—among them Working Girl (1988), Regarding Henry (1991), The Birdcage (1996), and What Planet Are You From? (2000)—stopped taking the risks that sometimes result in artistic flaw and proved that he had always been only a good director who looked for things, other people’s things, to do, not an auteur-like filmmaker who had things he wanted to do because he himself had something to say.

Still, what’s important is not Nichols’ subsequently revealed shortcomings or the shortcomings of The Graduate itself, but the extraordinary basic talent that the man showed in this film: humane, deft, exuberant. All the talents involved in The Graduate make it soar brightly above many other pictures made during the period, and since, and make it, by virtue of its cinematic skill, thematic intent, and sheer connection with its audience, what I called it at the start of this essay: a visible marker, or milestone, in American movie history. Milestones do not guarantee that everything after them will be better (the New American Cinema, after all, quickly became old course when some personal films—the fuddlers, fashion-mongers, or arty fakers—didn’t make money, just as the French
New Wave ebbed quickly when so many of those pictures lost money); nonetheless, they are ineradicable.

Box-office receipts themselves neither prove nor disprove anything about ineradicability, let alone quality, but they do prove something about immediacy; and the financial facts about The Graduate at the time of its release are staggering. As of January 7, 1970, the first and second movies on Variety’s list of “All-Time Box-Office Champs” (rated by distributors’ receipts from the United States and Canada) were The Sound of Music (1965) and Gone With the Wind (1939), with $72 and $71 million respectively.16 Third was The Graduate, with $43 million. Third place in only two years, compared with the longer periods that the first two pictures had been in release. (With its receipts adjusted for inflation, The Graduate was still number 22 on the same list as of July 4, 2016, behind the likes of Avatar [2009] and Titanic [1997], the new number one and two17—but, I’m sad to say, with few pictures of artistic quality anywhere else on the list of 500 that I examined.) Consider, too—which even those who dislike The Graduate probably would not deny—the difference in ambition between this film and the only two movies up to 1970 to attract bigger audiences, and then the impact of Nichols’ picture becomes all the more staggering.

If, as some believe, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) was instrumental in attracting young Europeans to film in the late sixties,18 the equivalent American landmark was Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, whose romantic tale continues to attract “graduates” today (in an America whose social fabric is unraveling for different reasons, but whose politics is as contentious as ever, on the national as well as the international level). This was the film that attracted me, that’s for sure. I saw it alone on a spring evening in 1968 (shortly after I myself had temporarily dropped out of college and was facing the military draft), stayed up all night thinking about how wonderfully different it was compared to all the other American movies I’d seen, then promptly saw the picture again the next day—with my girlfriend. I’ve been re-seeing The Graduate, and reflecting on it, ever since.


1See, for example, Jerzy Toeplitz, Hollywood and After: The Changing Face of Movies in America (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1974); Diane Jacobs, Hollywood Renaissance. (Cranbury, New Jersey: A. S. Barnes, 1977); and Axel Madsen, The New Hollywood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975).
2Charles Webb, The Graduate (New York: New American Library, 1963).
3Stanley Kauffmann, Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 38.
4Clifford Terry, “Charles Webb—Not a Household Word,” Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1969, Section 5: 10.
5Charles Webb, Letter to the Editor, The New Republic, 158.18 (4 May 1968): 40.
6Stanley Kauffmann, Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 44.
7“The Sounds of Silence,” “April Come She Will,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Singleman Party Foxtrot,” “Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha,” “On the Strip,” “The Folks,” “A Great Effect,” “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” and “Whew.”
8Sam Kashner, “Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of The Graduate.” Vanity Fair, 25 February 2008. Accessed 4 July 2016 at
9Buck Henry, The Graduate: Final Draft of the Script, 29 March 1967. Accessed 4 July 2016 at,-The.html
10See Kathleen Carroll in the New York Daily News of 22 December 1967, as well as Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times of 26 December 1967.
11Buck Henry, The Graduate: Final Draft of the Script, 29 March 1967. Accessed 4 July 2016 at,-The.html
12See Bosley Crowther, “Tales Out of School: The Graduate,” The New York Times (22 December 1967): 44; see also A. D. Murphy in Variety of 17 December 1967.
13See John Simon, “The Graduate,” in Simon’s Movies into Film: Film Criticism, 1967-1970 (New York: Dial Press, 1971), 103-106; see also Pauline Kael, “The Graduate,” in Kael’s Going Steady: Film Writings, 1968-1969 (London: Marion Boyars, 1970), 124-127.
14See Andrew Sarris, “The Graduate, ” Village Voice, 13.11 (28 December 1967): 33; see also Hollis Alpert, “The Graduate Makes Out,” Saturday Review, 6 (July 1968): 14-15, 32.
15Joseph Gelmis, “Mile Nichols Talks about The Graduate,” in Gelmis’s The Film Director as Superstar (London: Secker & Warburg, 1970), 289.
16“All-Time Box-Office Champs,” Variety, 7 January 1970: 25.
17Source: Box Office Mojo, an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) company. Accessed 4 July 2016 at
18See Roy Huss’s introduction to his edited volume Focus on Blow-Up (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 1-6.


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About the Author:


For twenty years, from 1987 to 2007, R. J. Cardullo was the regular film critic for the Hudson Review in New York.  He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950, What Is Dramaturgy?, and In Search of Cinema:Writings on International Film Art. He is also the chief American translator of the film criticism of the Frenchman André Bazin. Cardullo took his master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University and received his B.A. from the University of Florida. He taught for four decades at the University of Michigan, Colgate, and New York University, as well as abroad.










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