The book, "The Graduate", by Charles Webb, is basically quite poor. The film, "The Graduate", by Mike Nichols, is also basically quite poor. And therein lies its major merit. It is faithful to its source.
"The Graduate" is the latest in a long line of recent American films that proclaim themselves part of a "new breed" of intelligent, provocative, and daring innovators. Think of the inverse racism and subhuman sentimentality of "In the Heat of the Night" or "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." As depictions of Negroes, both these films are about 100 years behind "Birth of a Nation," which at least presented a reality, a life, that had a texture besides a color. And think of "In Cold Blood," with its cliche-ridden vapidity and postured liberal piousness.
It is extremely disappointing that "The Graduate" even exists at this point in Hollywood's development. Just when art-by-committee was beginning to show some awareness of film form, in "Bonnie and Clyde," "Point Blank,' and "The Trip," for instance, along comes a film by Mike Nichols that not only could have been done in the 1930's but which contains in delightful microcosm at least half of all the things that have ever been wrong with commercial cinema.
If the movie itself is unfortunate, it could still at least be quickly dismissed as a mediocre bloated TV skit. That the film has met with such widespread acclaim is tragic and calls for sharper examination. Every cinematic cliche, every formula plot device, every pseudo-intellectual ploy, every sentimental gimmick, every prefabricated, sure-fire box-office ingredient designed to empty pocketbooks and dampen hankies and "compliment" the audience on its intelligence and taste is present in this fairly despicably film under the false guise of "sophistication."
Let us get the plot out of the way. It is about a graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who comes home from college with no idea of what he wants to do, except that he wants to be different from the gauche, plastic Beverly Hills scene he lives in. Consequently, he does nothing. Except lose his virginity with the wife of his father's partner (Anne Bancroft), with whom he then commences an emotionless drab affair. All out of sheer boredom.
Trouble ensues. He just happens to fall in love, for real this time, with the wife's daughter (Katherine Ross). Suddenly imbued with tenacity and purpose, he takes on the situation full gear. She refuses to see him when he finally tells her of the affair with her mother; he follows her to Berkeley (where else?); just when he's almost convinced her to marry him, her father finds out, takes her out of school, and arranges her marriage to a rich, snobbish "someone else." However, in the end, through a Herculean series of feats good old Benjamin, the lovable dumb graduate, gets the girl.
If only we could dismiss all this as poor camp. But its reception and its whole technique seems to demand that it be dealt with as an impressive, satirical look at the generation gap and a daring presentation of a provocative triangle.
"The Graduate" is dishonest; both in technique and principle it is a lie, a farce. It does more to retard the state of film than advance it. It is acknowledgement of TV's influence on film: abandoning characterization for cue, passing off glibness for wit, making an "art," even an obsession, of selling itself. The film itself is not half as dangerous as the claims being made for it by a victimized public.
Mike Nichols has become famous by placing himself about cliches. The success of the Nichols-May comedy routines was largely based on a process of exploiting and ridiculing cliches in everyday behavior. The "cultural" and "sophisticated" expressions of people are made to seem phony and ludicrous, as though they were put-ons or false fronts to hide a frightened, vacuous interior.
The technique, of course, is extremely effective. It elevates Nichols to a position above the rest of us, as though he is not vulnerable to cliches and is lifting a veil of pretensions that hide our weaknesses, catching us with our pants down.
Second, we, as a listening audience, identify not with the fictional characters but with Nichols. This allows us to feel superior along with him, to be in on the joke, to laugh at clichés and weaknesses as though they have no relation to us but pertain only to the other guy.
Subconsciously we are grateful to Nichols for creating an environment in which we can step outside ourselves and pretend — for the duration of the skit, at least — that we, too, are superior and hip, and can see the sham all around us. Finally, we are grateful to Nichols for ridiculing the "sophisticated," the fashionable, the "cultural," because it assuages the fear that we don't measure up, that we're just "average" people oppressed by society's unfair emphasis on sophistication. Thus Nichols accomplishes a double hoax: he bolsters our ego by allowing us to feel "in the know" about current cultural fashion, and then he offers us escape by suggesting that everything "sophisticated"‘ or "cultural" is suspect.
It is nothing less than disgusting, then; that a man who made a career of outlandishly spoofing human weakness should achieve further artistic recognition with a film that is cliche from start to finish, that does not even possess the added dimension of satirizing its own platitudes, but simply offers them up as if they were gold. "The Graduate" is guilty of virtually every social-artistic transgression Nichols ever satirized. It is skillfully and subtly aimed at the very audience Nichols allegedly, despises. It is as empty and hypocritical as the barbecue-pit society it, claims to be chiding.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Nichols has packed his deceitful package with something for everyone: the good-hearted but bumbling fellow who pursues the girl throughout the film, suffering countless insults and humiliations, but (I-told-you-so) wins her in the end. There's the suave, intelligent well-dressed "otherman" who nearly marries the girl but (I-told-you-so) loses her to the good-natured anti-hero in the end. There's the scene in which the bumbling kid goes into the girl's house at night and (I-told-you-so) bumps into a coffee table. There's a grumpy but lovable landlord. The list goes on and on.
Of course, the rich people are gauche, loud, materialistic. Thus while identifying like mad with wealth and leisure, the audience is allowed to take solace in the fact that money does not buy class and that they have not been corrupted by wealth.
The climatic chase sequence, the will-he-or-won't-he-make-it slapstick "bit" is perhaps the most predictable, cowardly way to achieve suspense, tension or drama of the lowest order.
Some people might like to think that Nichols is playfully spoofing all these plot ploys, in fact, maybe ridiculing the whole seriousness of the generation gap. Well, if so, he's completely lost his touch as a spoofer. There are countless passages that show what we're supposed to consider poignant emotion, there are numerous borrowings from other filmmakers used to offer "striking" images of moments of human truth.
The heaviest, stupidest use of symbolism comes at the end. An incredible bit utilizing a church, Ben's outstretched arms against a pane of glass in an "unmistakable" gesture of crucifixion, alienation, and confession.
As for the music, comprised of old Simon & Garfunkel songs, already proved successful, Nichols obviously identifies himself with whatever prestige S & G command. He congratulates himself for having the taste to use their music, without taking a chance.
One sequence serves to define the film. Attempting to seduce the unwilling Ben, Anne Bancroft at one point walks into his room completely nude. The camera looks over her Shoulder at Ben's astounded face. This is intercut rapidly with flash shots of her breasts and navel. The technique of course cries out for a shot of her pubic region — is the idiot looking only at her breasts and navel? — attempting too much for too little, ultimately defeats itself.
Try weighing these objections against the heaps of praise that have been given to "The Graduate." Compare Mike Nichols with other filmmakers, such as Antonioni, Penn, Godard, Fellini. If you are honest with yourself and with the art of cinema, such comparison will seem ridiculous.
Nichols is not a filmmaker to be concerned about; but neither is he to be ignored. We must guard against him and what he represents … the fiend.
Source: Amherst Student archives