CR Movie Club: The Graduate

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This is CR Movie Club. Each week in quarantine, we’re revisiting a classic film from yesteryear to explore why we loved it in the first place and how it holds up over time.

As rain clouds clear and flowers begin to sprout, the arrival of May—and with it Spring—brings happy relief to many. For others, though, particularly those at the end of their academic pursuits, May Day is simply the first wave of the tide of existential fear soon crashing down upon them with an almighty force. Yes, the end is in sight, and the totality of it is all too damning. Such is the state of mind we find an anxious 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock in when the 1967 Academy, Golden Globe, and Grammy-award winning film The Graduate begins.

In the movie, Benjamin, played by a just-shy-of-30 Dustin Hoffman in his first major role, finds himself back at his parents’ house after finishing college on a high but with no plans set for after. On the night of his welcome home party, the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs. Robinson, seduces Benjamin, thereby starting an escapist fling between the two into the summer. At some point weeks later, Benjamin realizes he is not happy with Mrs. Robinson’s severeness nor the offense of their rendezvouses and decides to end the affair—but not before first going on a date with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine, and falling head first for her. (“Elaine, I like you. I like you so much. Do you believe that?” he tells her, almost in shock that one could feel anything other than dissatisfaction.”) In his attempt to woo the younger Robinson, Benjamin’s former-lover sets out to destroy the kids’ chances, resulting in two road trip sequences across the SoCal skyline and a church-side brawl where a cross is used to fend off a crowd and then to lock a door as the reunited-slash-runaway couple—Benjamin and Elaine!—flee toward happiness.

The Graduate is widely considered one of the best pieces of American cinema (the American Film Institute ranked it No.7 on its “100 Years… 100 Movies” list) not only for its lasting impact—”Mrs. Robinson” being the original “MILF” in our cultural lexicon—but also for its ingenuity in filmmaking. In the decades since its debut, film schools around the globe have used Mike Nichols’ classic drama as a study on symbolism, montage, and, of course, soundtrack use. While Hoffman as Benjamin is certainly The Graduate‘s hero, Simon & Garfunkel are its unseen supporting leads, guiding us throughout the entire two-hour-plus experience through a mix of existing and then-newly recorded soft rock at a time when musicians rarely collaborated with Hollywood. Perhaps the duo’s most popular hit to date, “Mrs. Rooselvelt” was renamed from its demo title to “Mrs Robinson” to fit into the plot.

But that’s not the only categorical drama for the film that ultimately became the 23rd highest-ever grossing movie in the states and Canada. Aside from Hoffman, the casting process for the other main roles was a revolving door of yes’ and no’s from the who’s who of Hollywood. Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, and Shirley MacLaine all officially turned down the role of Elaine, while Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, and Jane Fonda auditioned but were not right for the part. Apparently, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld were on Nichols’ shortlist before he ultimately gave the role to Katharine Ross. Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Howard Duff, Brian Keith, George Peppard, Jack Palance, Frank Sinatra, Walter Matthau, and Gregory Peck were all contenders for Elaine’s father, bur Mr. Robinson’s role eventually went to Murray Hamilton. As for the film’s infamous cougar?

As some stories go, Jeanne Moreau was the director’s first choice for his seductive villain, however the French actress turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson, whose first name is never revealed throughout the entire film. So did Doris Day, who didn’t want to be appear nude, as did Patricia Neal and Geraldine Page. While the list of other starlets being “considered” included Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimée, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Natalie Wood, and Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner was apparently so interested in the film that The Killers star phoned Nicholas about the part regularly.

Eventually, Anne Bancroft was chosen to star as Mrs. Robinson, and her performance as an under-loved, over-kept horny housewife is still chilling to this day. In an icy, Anna Wintour demeanor, Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson is unapologetically direct. Rather than proposing to have sexual relations with a boy her daughter’s age, she makes the thought nervously initiate in his own head and then, in turn, him feel guilty for doing so. When their romance is revealed to her daughter, Mrs. Robinson lies to Elaine and says that Benjamin had taken advantage of her one night when she had had too much to drink. As far as her own relationship with her husband, she reveals it was only a matter of circumstance.

But The Graduate is more than simply a story of extra-marital affair. As its now-iconic poster reveals, ultimately the movie is about our deep-seated fear of the unknown. Forget tomorrow, who knows what today will bring? We see it at the start of the film as Benjamin slumps glossy-eyed in front of his late ’60s fish tank in his darkened childhood bedroom and later as he floats defeatedly in a scuba suit underwater his parents’ pool and then again as he mechanically makes love to a disinterested Mrs. Robinson.

Even at the conclusion of the story, as Benjamin and Elaine romantically escape her wedding to another man to be together, the two smile and then quietly turn away from each other in deadpan as if to say what now? Slowly, “Sound of Silence” fills our ears once again. Despite the previous ten minutes, there is no happy ending to The Graduate, and that’s the point.

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