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The Graduate

...It is The Graduate that diverges from the traditional Hollywood narrative the most..

Just about everyone who has ever investigated modern cinema knows that the beginning of the American New Wave starts with Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate, but of the two, it is The Graduate that diverges from the traditional Hollywood narrative the most.

On the surface, The Graduate tells a simple story. A seemingly bored, angsty, young man who has just graduated from college, has a brief sexual affair with an older woman who has seduced him. This situation is complicated by the fact that he later falls in love with this women’s daughter. The movie sounds like a low budget, coming of age dramedy that might have the familiar ring of a fifties or sixties teenage rebel movie. That or a situational comedy. But some things really set The Graduate apart.

The awkward young graduate, a 20-year-old Benjamin Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman, has returned home from college to a wonderful middle-class world of waspish America, resettling into what appears to be a Beverly Hills or Palm Springs environment, with swimming pools in the yard and cocktail-drinking parents. Not so obvious in this setting, but a subliminal tone none-the-less, is the uncomfortable truth of the American situation at the time, 1967. This included an ominous cold war that threatened to end the world as we knew it, and the real blood-spilling war going on in Vietnam, a war that sent American kids much younger than Benjamin home in coffins, and one that he, via a trip to college, had managed to avoid, and maybe caused his ennui. Facts to be avoided by the middle-class community if at all possible.

Although, the thing that really sets The Graduate apart from Bonnie and Clyde, and from most other movies of the day, is the cast, especially Dustin Hoffman. Movies often relied on star power for success and a major part of that power came from good looks. Even Bonnie and Clyde had the good looks of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, relative newcomers though they were, to help it along. Leading male actors of the sixties included, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery and Elvis Presley, and among the rising stars being considered for The Graduate were Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. Hoffman, described by a variety of people as a ‘3-foot’, ‘unkempt’, ‘Jew’ with a ‘big nose’, doesn’t come close. On top of this, Hoffman was thirty years-old, which made him closer in real age to the seductive mother, played by Anne Bancroft who was 36 at the time, rather than the daughter (Katharine Ross).

Robert Redford might have been a shoo-in for the part, given that he typifies the character in the novel much more than Hoffman; Hoffman himself initially rejected the part and suggested Redford because Benjamin was a “super-wasp”. But therein lies the rub: Dustin Hoffman had nothing to prove and was said to have had a great time during the filming. The resulting bumbling, hapless and awkward Benjamin makes for a funny, relatable character who we can find an endearing and cheer on as an underdog rather than an alpha dog. The Graduate opened the door to a new style of film, one where the lead character may not fit the stereotype and one where the story runs across the grain of the Bourgeoisie, neither with it nor against it. Without The Graduate, films such as Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ may not have been possible.

In the end, Mike Nichols took a big chance playing Dustin Hoffman against type in The Graduate, but it was one that really paid off. Nichols won an Academy Award; Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross were nominated, as were the producer, writers and cinematographer. It was also the highest grossing film of 1967, worldwide. Exactly why Nichols chose Hoffman, we may never know. It’s said that Hoffman had some physical similarities with Nichols, which probably helped, but perhaps it was also the realisation that French movies, very influential at the time, with the exception of Alain Delon, didn’t need beautiful male leads. The looks of Jean Rocherfort and Jean-Paul Belmondo weren’t bad, but they weren’t the prettiest either. French movies are and were more anchored in character. Had Nichols chosen the better known and better-looking male lead for the film, The Graduate would still have turned out as a good movie, or even a great movie, but it might not have been the world-changer that we know so well today. The success of The Graduate, and Bonnie and Clyde, re-ignited a Hollywood that was on the verge of a total shutdown. They kicked off a raft of new movies that are now known as a classical oeuvre called New Hollywood. As they say, sometimes the universe clicks into place.

Stephen Vega, August 2021.