`The Graduate' has aged well

Essay: The 1967 movie, now a play coming to the Mechanic, is as engaging as ever but is no longer controversial.

January 11, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

These days, the scenario of a neglected wife having an affair with the son of her husband's law partner would be too tame for a TV talk show.

In the 1967 movie version of The Graduate, the wife, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), is treated as a monster, although she is by far the most complex and sensual character. The running joke in the movie is that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) wants to talk and have what future cosmopolites would call a "relationship," while Mrs. Robinson wants sex. But Bancroft at least shows that Mrs. Robinson likes the sex: Rubbing her hands over her lover's chest, she expresses the pleasure this woman takes in being close to a strong young body.

So it's not surprising that when this story was restaged for the theater (in an adaptation that premiered in London and has traveled to Baltimore with production and cast changes), the most dust was raised by who would play Mrs. Robinson (Kathleen Turner) and how much clothing she would doff (everything).

After all, over the past three decades, "I wouldn't mind being his Mrs. Robinson" has become a standard quip for good-looking matrons pursuing younger, masculine sex objects. In effect if not by design, the movie represents a triumph of experience over naivete.

Now that it's been installed as an official classic, has been mounted for the stage and is Broadway-bound, it's easy to forget that The Graduate, though wildly popular, was controversial. It won rave reviews from New York-based national magazines, yet also inspired an unusual special-guest dissection from Jacob Brackman in the New Yorker .

In an issue of the long-defunct Film Society Review from January 1970, a writer named Paul Seydor testifies that most of his friends, Benjamin's supposed peers, hated The Graduate for the way it portrayed Benjamin - a "bumbling, persecuted clod" - as "the Age's Triumphant Savior."

Seydor attacked Joe Morgenstern, then of Newsweek, for calling the picture "an unforgettable portrait of a boy caught in the full panic of self-discovery and dragged screaming into manhood." Seydor questioned why Morgenstern thought it was somehow undesirable for Benjamin to be "dragged" out of "social puberty" by his parents, and out of sexual puberty by Mrs. Robinson.

What I found hilarious when I ran across this old debate is that Seydor, then a graduate student and now an author (Peckinpah: The Western Films) and film editor (White Men Can't Jump), and Morgenstern, now a film critic for the Wall Street Journal, have since become friends of mine and of each other. I thought, "Here we go again: The Graduate is dividing friends who didn't even know they were friends."

Its ability to engage and amuse and also arouse anger may be part of the movie's lasting charm - as well as a welcome memory of an era when American movies could catalyze lusty arguments. At the time, most people recognized that it broke into two parts, with the first half gleefully sending up middle-class values circa '67, and the second half telling a tale of young love overcoming every obstacle.

Those who accepted the movie as a comedy felt suckered when it poured on the dewy sentiment. On the other hand, Joe Ruben, director of such biting horror comedies as Dreamscape and The Stepfather, once told me that The Graduate made him want to get into movies because he, like Benjamin, fell in love with Katharine Ross' portrayal of Elaine. And because the Mrs. Robinson sequences blend intelligence, sensuality and high jinks, Mike Nichols' work has had a benign influence on later filmmakers, from writer-director David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings) to Albert Brooks, who riffs on Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in his dreary Oedipal-nightmare movie Mother.

Of course, the movie was a bit of a gamble - as usually is the case with films that define the zeitgeist. Charles Webb's 1963 novel was no blockbuster. Both Hoffman as the archetypal post-collegiate mixed-up kid and Ross as his lady fair were total unknowns, and Bancroft, though a terrific actress, was no superstar.

But the movie had a simple, salable premise-"the madcap adventures of a well-heeled young man and his `family affair' with two generations of pulchritude." (Well, that's how the publisher sold it on the hardback reissue of the novel).

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