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