Building My Movie Poster Puzzle: The Graduate
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
The Graduate is an iconic piece of pop culture from late 1960s America, right? And large parts of it are set in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Also, there’s the very famous Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. It’s about a disaffected, but naive young college grad who encounters the vagaries of the changing sexual culture of the time. And yet, really nothing about the movie reminds us of the hippie culture that is so associated with all of that stuff. Dustin Hoffman’s central character has more in common with the characters from Mad Men than with those from Hair. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but the twenty-five plus years between my last viewing and this one had allowed me to forget what its characters are really like. Let’s have a chat about it!
When taken in the context of today’s social landscape, it’s hard not to judge Benjamin Braddock and the rest of the cast of characters as the inhabitants of massive privilege. Ben has just graduated with honors from Stanford University at the film’s opening and everyone is congratulating him and offering him advice about how to handle his future. The world appears to be Ben’s oyster. His parents live in what seems to be a relatively upper class lifestyle and have the disposable income to buy him a convertible sports car and full scuba gear that he apparently didn’t even ask for. And yet, Ben is restless and uncertain about his life.
I guess that’s what can come from seemingly unlimited options. Well, in this case it also comes with an extramarital affair with one of his parents’ friends. This is the premise of the film, so if you’ve never seen it before I really wouldn’t consider these spoilers. In real life, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker, Great Expectations) was just six years older than Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie, Rain Man), but the characters are supposed to have something closer to a twenty or twenty-five year gap, with Ben announcing that he is twenty. Hoffman was fully thirty at the time, but plays younger effectively, and Bancroft’s mature look was enhanced with appropriate costuming and makeup, resulting in a reasonably realistic March/September pairing. According to Mel Brooks, he had cast Hoffman as the Nazi playwright in his movie The Producers, but was awoken the evening before shooting was to begin by the actor telling him he wanted to audition for a role in a Mike Nichols film instead. Brooks released Hoffman to audition, perhaps assuming that he was too old for the role opposite his own wife. Yes, Bancroft’s project stole Hoffman from her husband’s first feature film production. They appeared to weather the problem with little trouble, though as Brooks and Bancroft would remain married until her death in 2005.
As I mentioned above, The Graduate is one of the more iconic films associated with the Baby Boomer generation, and is widely venerated in that population. If you’re a cinema fan you have likely been introduced to multiple images, scenes, or lines from the film prior to actually seeing it. When I first saw The Graduate as a recent high school grad back in 1988, home video was still in its relative infancy, so what I saw was a pan-scan version on videotape. In contrast, my viewing a couple of days ago was in the full widescreen format and was digitally remastered. Despite this technological difference, the overall experiences of the story and performances were not significantly changed. Here, have a look at one of the film’s more famous sequences.
Now, all on its own that scene plays like a bit of screwball comedy, but that’s not the tone of the film at all. What struck me this time around was the slightly cold and formal tone of the movie’s opening scenes. This is almost certainly intentional in order to attempt to reflect the main character’s feeling of remove from the world around him. This not only is reflected in how the camera work is done, but in the performances of the actors. At first this struck me as a bit stilted and unnatural, but as the story progress and the characters are revealed in more detail, the performances soften as well. The Simon & Garfunkel songs mirror this gradual transition, with the stark “Sounds of Silence” dominating the early portions of the film and more lively or romantic songs such as “Mrs. Robinson” or “Scarborough Fair” taking over in telling the story later on.
I’m sure plenty of you have seen The Graduate before. What did you think of its construction, tone, and its largely unlikable characters?