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The Graduate

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

Brilliantly-directed film concerning the misadventures of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), an upper-class college graduate who returns to his posh L.A. family home with little thought of what to do with his future. In fact, his first day home, his parents throw him a welcome-home party populated by all the parents' friends, but Benjamin feels like a fish out of water, although he fatefully decides to drive home Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), and thus the virginal Benjamin begins a sensual trip down the rabbit hole with the unhappy, alcoholic older woman. Things really come to a head when Benjamin realizes that he prefers the company of Mrs. Robinson's college-aged daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), but Mommy will stop at nothing to keep the "kids" apart.

Although The Graduate is wonderfully-acted and is based on a sparklingly-witty script by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, it's really Mike Nichols' fastidiously-entertaining direction, in conjunction with DP Robert Surtees and song score team Simon & Garfunkel which helps keep the film miles ahead of the competition to this very day. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the direction and cinematography of this film are among the finest ever seen in cinema history. Right from the opening shot of Benjamin arriving at and leaving LAX, he's framed in the corner of the image as an outsider, while "The Sound of Silence" plays over the credits. After Ben arrives home, most of the scenes are done in long takes with incredibly-beautiful-and-deeply-thematic photography utilized to draw you into Ben's "world of silence". He just doesn't relate to life back at home, and as each scene plays out in its own excitingly-creative style, even the casual viewer can see the importance of pre-planning the visual complexity of all the scenes for maximum emotional impact. To me, The Graduate is a comedy, first and foremost, a satire of the rich, complacent California lifestyle second, and a powerful human drama third. The script and Dustin Hoffman really make it pay off as a comedy, but it's the rest of the cast which adds to its satiric weight, not the least of whom is Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughn in Jaws) as Mr. Robinson. Let's not forget that other Jaws connection, Richard Dreyfuss! But weighing the whole thing to the Earth and making it much more poignant is the complex way that Nichols and Surtees shoot the film, and then the way that Nichols utilizes Sam O'Steen's editing, along with the songs, to assemble a film which far outdoes the French New Wave at their own game.

Mike Nichols blew my mind with his first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Coming from a theatrical background, Nichols did show off his cinematic skill subtly in that film, but he reigned himself in to make what was ostensibly a play-shot-on-film (although it was far more intense than both most plays and most films). The Graduate could not be more highly-cinematic. The musical montage of Ben and Mrs. Robinson sharing their silent hotel bed, intercut with Ben at home in his own bedroom and floating in his swimming pool, still retains the pristine power which exemplifies why film lovers love film. It truly can do things which no other art form can do to both engage your senses and your soul. Well, music can too, but music helps push this film over the top in its cinematic grandeur.

Before I sound too much like a Mike Nichols sycophant (OOPS! Too late!), I'll admit that The Graduate cannot maintain its intensity all the way through the film. When it transfers to Berkeley in the second half, some of the air is let out of the balloon. Even so, compared to most films, this latter section of The Graduate is excellent, but some of the musical and editing repetiton becomes apparent. Luckily, The Graduate does contain one of the more intense final 15 minutes in film, involving a sequence where Benjamin drives back-and-forth, totalling over 1200 miles in less than 18 hours, to try to make things right with his true love, all the while dodging the cops and the Robinsons' attempts to marry off Elaine. It all climaxes in one of the better endings of all time.