What Mike Nichols achieved with ‘The Graduate’ was unique


Upon the passing of director Mike Nichols, I find myself marveling yet again at “The Graduate,” and how there’s just nothing else like it in the history of film.

How do you describe it? A farce, a drama, social commentary? If so, it was like no other farce or drama or social commentary I’ve seen. I like this description from the AP:

Mixing farce and Oedipal drama, Nichols managed to capture a generation’s discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights or any other issues of the time. But young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was paved with “plastics” or at Benjamin’s lament that he felt like life was “some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

At the time, Nichols was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of “The Graduate.” ”It wasn’t until when I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable.”…

Yeah, well… they thought they were just cranking out something routine with “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” too… Maybe you can only achieve greatness when you have humble intentions.

How does something work as comedy — as heartwarming comedy… when it’s about a guy who falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having sex with? More than that… How do you come to love a movie like that, to want to see it again and again, because it strikes a chord in you, even though God forbid you should ever be in a similar situation?

And that is what makes it unique: That it is such a universal cultural touchstone for members of my generation. It’s not that it was topical — as the quote from AP mentions above, it doesn’t mention any burning issues of the day. That’s one of the many things that separate it from self-consciously “topical” films that end up being eminently forgettable — such as, say, “Getting Straight.” Oh, you don’t remember that one? Then you’re making my point.

What makes that connection? What makes the film essential to our sense of that time? Is it Simon and Garfunkel? Aside from it being my favorite soundtrack ever, is the music essential to the film’s appeal? Would it be “The Graduate” without “The Sounds of Silence” or “Mrs. Robinson?”

No, it wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be “The Graduate” without Anne Bancroft, or Dustin Hoffman, or even Buck Henry’s hotel clerk (of course, Henry’s main contribution is as screenwriter). Or the “plastics” guy. Or that wonderful long camera shot of the Berkeley campus.

SPOILER ALERT (In case there’s someone left who hasn’t seen it): The closest thing to social commentary on the ’60s that I can think of is the film’s enigmatic, excruciatingly ambivalent ending. The young lovers have triumphed! They’ve dramatically left behind the corrupt older generation and its agents and all it stands for (even to the extent of using a cross as sword, then as a lock to keep them in their church)! They’re together! They’re free! So they laugh uproariously; Ben claps his hands in glee. Then, you can see the thought enter their minds — what’s next? When you’ve rejected all that went before, and must now make your own life, your own way of living, your own morality — what then? And they stare straight ahead, with a smile still occasionally flitting across their faces, alternating with the stare of people who are overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead. What now, indeed?

It comments on the sexual revolution and on the delegitimization of institutions, and the consequences those developments entail, without words. Just with looks.

The only film I can think of that does anything like it, or does it as well, is “Carnal Knowledge” — also directed by Nichols. Of course, that’s much darker, and hence not as beloved — although nearly as admired. And that one beats you over the head with the point, not least in the title — although it does so magnificently.

Carnal Knowledge” is a great film. I’m also really fond of the way Nichols brought Catch-22 to the screen. (And it just hit me — Art Garfunkel plays a key role in each of the three.)

But if he had never done anything but “The Graduate,” Mike Nichols would still be one of the great filmmakers…


18 thoughts on “What Mike Nichols achieved with ‘The Graduate’ was unique

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking to uniqueness…

    When Netflix tries to offer me “More Like: The Graduate,” its algorithm goes off the rails. It comes up with “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “Trainspotting,” “Valley of the Dolls,” and “Heathers.”

    Really. I am not making this up. See for yourself.

    Netflix would be more honest if it just gave up and showed a clip of the robot in “Lost in Space” saying, “It does not compute!” With smoke coming from where its ears would be, were it more anthropomorphic…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    You know, I’ve just about had it with Netflix. The selection is really poor. I wanted to watch the original Back to the Future the other night, and Netflix came up empty. If it didn’t have such a good selection of children’s movies, I would bag it. Heck, I might even bag it anyway.


    I’m officially looking for a candidate to run against Netflix in the upcoming media provider election. The lack of constituent service is killing me. Amazon Prime is looking like a possibility. Anyone have any tips? I hear some people use Roku or AppleTV.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, I use both Roku and AppleTV — for watching Netflix.

      Yep, the limited selection is frustrating. More often than not, when I search for something I really want to see, it’s not available.

      I mean, it’s great that “The Graduate” is available, but where’s “Carnal Knowledge?” “Catch-22” USED TO be on it, but not any more.

      I find it most valuable for TV series I never saw when they were on. Such as “West Wing,” which is easily the thing I’ve enjoyed most. Now I’m making my way through the later seasons of “House.” The “hour-long” TV show works perfectly for my 40-minute workouts on the elliptical trainer.

      I enjoy a lot of the British series that are on the service, such as the original “House of Cards,” “Foyle’s War” (which went away but came back), and “Inspector Morse.” That stuff keeps me attached to Netflix…

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      I use Amazon Prime anyway, and they do have HBO back catalog, but the other freebies are not much.
      We get one Netflix DVD at a time, plus Netflix streaming and never lack for great choices.

      Brad, The Graduate is unique, and why you might like it is different from why someone else might. Some like the 60s vibe, some like the iconoclasm, some like the comedy style….Some like Mike Nichols, some like Dustin Hoffman….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And the remarkable thing about that “60s vibe” is that there are no overt references to the era, except maybe when landlord Norman Fell says he won’t tolerate any of those “outside agitators” in HIS rooming house.

        Everybody has short hair. Nobody is even slightly trendy. The fashions and cultural references are mostly those of the older generation, or timeless. (You get the impression that Ben does not have and has never had friends his age, starting with that weird welcome-home party consisting entirely of his PARENTS’ friends…)

        Even the sex isn’t about youthful rebellion, it’s about a member of the older generation — whose adult life was shaped by premarital sex back when SHE was in college in the Dark Ages, back before sex was invented, to the minds of Boomers — seducing the initially reluctant, horrified young man.

        And yet… it’s inextricably part of the popular culture of that time. And the connection is nothing more substantial than, as you say, a “vibe”…

    3. Kathryn Fenner

      We have a Roku. There are some free channels on it, but we never use them. We use it for Netflix and Amazon Prime.
      Hulu Plus is supposed to be good for old and current TV shows, fwiw.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    The really brilliant thing, the master stroke, was casting Dustin Hoffman.

    I’ve never read the novel, but as I understand it, Benjamin Braddock is supposed to be a tall, athletic, handsome WASP. Nichols was originally thinking of Robert Redford, who would have been a disaster.

    Hoffman had more doubts than anyone, especially after he met Katharine Ross — the very idea of someone who looked like HER falling for someone who looked like him.

    Hoffman later described his thoughts this way: “I’m not supposed to be in movies. An ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York in an ethnic off-Broadway show. I know my place.”

    He was extremely ill-at-ease in his screen test, and that’s what made it work. That was just the quality Nichols was looking for — a guy who was completely uncomfortable in the world he inhabited…

      1. Mark Stewart

        It would have been a disaster in that The Graduate would therefore miss out on that unmoored angst Hoffman exuded that made it so compelling to watch. I could see Redford in the role (albeit as a very different sort of character); but I cannot see the movie then being remembered as an iconic representation of change.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I actually have trouble picturing Redford in the role.

          Trying to imagine him delivering the line, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” With him, the subtext would seem more like, “This happens to me a lot…”

          None of the comedy would work. The whole scene with Buck Henry at the hotel, with Ben just squirming with insecurity and embarrassment, just wouldn’t work.

          I’ve seen Redford try to do comedy. It’s less than awe-inspiring…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              But sexual incompetence was not part of the comedy — unless you count his character in “The Sting” sleeping with a woman who had been sent to kill him…

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              The Sundance Kid did for Redford what The Graduate did for Hoffman — made him a star.

              The odd thing about that is that Sundance was unlike any other character Redford ever played. His usual character was as the guy who was so straight and stiff you could hardly stand it. His Gatsby with his awkward “Old sport.” The character in the aforementioned “Barefoot in the Park.” His Woodward to Hoffman’s Bernstein. The quintessential WASP in “The Way We Were.” Just a born straight man.

              Sundance was his only character who was COOL, and kind of dangerous, while at the same time being affable and unintentionally comic at times.

              Not to mention his only character to wear a mustache, which gave him a whole different aura…

            3. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, he kinda was.

              In the course of the film he encounters other characters who are colorful, but he is the opposite. You get the sense that he went up into the mountains to live alone because he was so painfully shy.

              He speaks his lines as though he were a foreign speaker reading from an English phrase book, uncertain which words should get emphasis. There’s almost a lifelessness to it.

              I believe this was intentional. He was trying to play Johnson as a very plain man. And he squeezed “plain” until it screamed…

  4. Bill

    ‘The Graduate’ was awful.Dustin Hoffman’s one good one ,’Little Big Man’.Movies are not art,but they’re a good distraction for dimwits,which explains why you’re incapable of making a logical argument.

    1. Brad Warthen

      I’m going to assume that inexplicable comment is aimed at me, and allow it. If such ad hominem lashing-out were aimed at anyone else here, I would not.

      And if the ones aimed at me continue, I won’t allow them, either. I find that in the aggregate, they tend to run off other thoughtful, civil readers, because they just don’t like that kind of atmosphere…

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