Marvelous movie vs. unremarkable play

January 14, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

One word: Context.

As a 1967 movie, The Graduate helped define an era, capturing a contemporary moment so perfectly that it's impossible to talk about the film without also talking about the time in which it was created.

As a 2004 play, The Graduate is a curiosity, at best an entertaining piffle, and critics of the production (at the Mechanic Theatre through Sunday) have greeted it as such. Perhaps it never had a chance.

There's no disputing that The Graduate is still a wonderfully funny film with pitch-perfect performances (it started Dustin Hoffman's career and made Anne Bancroft an archetype), wryly directed by Mike Nichols. But seeing it in 1967 was a revelation; young audiences, especially, identified with Hoffman's Benjamin, adrift in a world for which he has little use, desperate to find a place for himself that doesn't simply mimic what his parents had and to establish an identity that's his and his alone.

Throw in the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack and factor in the film's setting - how much more '60s counterculture can you get than Berkeley? - and you have a film embraced by its audience as both wise and hip, a rare combination that, when achieved, is like capturing lightning in a bottle. The result is a movie to be cherished.

"The picture that became the symbol of the movie is that one of Bancroft's leg, with Hoffman looking through it," says Wayne Hepler, an associate professor of mass communications at Harford Community College. "That picture is the '60s, the sexual revolution, the college campuses. That is a combination of things that proved too powerful not to carry through the years."

That may explain some of the negative critical reaction to the play; people of a certain age feel very protective of The Graduate, because they feel the film, in a way, is about them. How dare someone come alone and start messing around with their life story?

"It's a beautifully written, beautifully directed and well-acted film," says Larry Mintz, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. "It's all about a youth finding himself, against and in relation to society, and that's an enormous theme in American society - a person trying to establish himself as an individual, set against a society that has its expectations, its enticements, its corruptions."

As for the play, some argue that it errs in shifting the focus from Benjamin Braddock, the college graduate seeking meaning and direction in his life, to Mrs. Robinson, the older woman seducing him, because she has nothing better to do (after all, it's called The Graduate, not The Older Woman). It's a shame, others point out, that the production had to resort to a 30-second nude scene to generate interest, while still others note that all the good jokes are direct lifts from the screen version.

Not that the film was universal in its appeal. "I don't think it's as emblematic as we like to think of that period," says Mintz. "A lot of those generalizations really break down when you start looking at them in terms of racial groups and ethnic groups. The closer you look at them, the more suspect they become. ... But when you're dealing with the zeitgeist, with the spirit of the times, you have a tendency to make generalizations that sound awfully good."

Still, the film's appeal goes far beyond its reflection - good, bad or indifferent - of the times. Many movies captured the spirit of the '60s without becoming the same sort of universally adored classic. "Some iconic films hold up over time, and some do not," says Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. "Easy Rider, for one, does not hold up very well, but it definitely does encapsulate the '60s in a certain way."

The Graduate marked a fortunate confluence of theme, talent and luck, a film that had the good sense to tap into the national consciousness, the good pedigree that usually signals a Hollywood hit (Nichols had just directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bancroft was an Oscar winner for The Miracle Worker) and the good fortune to catch an actor beginning his ascendancy to major stardom.

That would be Hoffman, who was making his first film. Like many of the other movies that have been seen as perfect encapsulations of a given period, The Graduate featured a future star whose rise happily coincided with its release. Think of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. All would go on to become major stars, and it was in no small part their performances - filled with the promise of even greater things to come - that made the films something special.

But in the end, it may be each generation's fondness for its own youth that turns movies into pop-culture touchstones. Not everyone in the '50s was as angst-ridden as James Dean, not everyone in the '60s was as confused as Dustin Hoffman, not everyone in the '70s was as silky smooth on the dance floor as John Travolta. But thinking they were makes them in touch with their cultural pulse, in tune with the popular perception of their times, and who doesn't want that?

"I think all those things are only visible after the fact," says Turan. "I don't think you can know what an iconic film is until the era is over."

For Baltimore, at least, the play's era ends this weekend.

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