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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mike Nichols' The Graduate

"Mrs. Robinson, you just seduced me."
Sometimes it's difficult to decided whether to write about the artist or their art. Do you write about Michelangelo or his ceiling? Do you expound upon Leonardo or Mona? Were it not for the art, the artist would never be remembered, yet were it not for the artist, the art would never have been created. Chicken and eggs anyone? That's the quandary I found myself in as I realized that among the American Film Institute's (AFI) revised list of the top 100 movies of all time, I'd written about every one of the top ten except number seven--Mike Nichols' The Graduate. This 1967 movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross was the second of the award-winning film director's twenty-two lifetime film efforts. It had been pegged at number seven on the AFI's original Top 100 List in 1998, then slipped to number seventeen on their 2007 list only to return to number seven on the AFI's most recent rankings. Although it's often considered Nichol's best and most memorable movie, I've never been particularly fond of it. But then, when your first directorial effort wins five Academy Awards, the question is, what do you do for an encore?
Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, very much looking their age today.
1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--
Nichols, Burton, and Taylor at their best.
Nichols first film was, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (right) starring Richard Burton and his wife, the inimitable Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Martha, for which she won her second Oscar as Best Actress. Nichol's version of Edward Albee's Broadway hit was hardcore, ground-breaking, profanity-laced drama, so powerful it was instrumental in triggering Jack Valenti's MPAA rating system two years later. Had the system been in place at the time, the film would easily have earned an "X" rating. Today, it's "R" rated. By way of contrast, The Graduate was a light, angst-ridden coming of age comedy casting actors either too old (Hoffman was thirty playing a twenty-year-old Benjamin) or too young for their roles. (Bancroft was thirty-six playing a forty-something Mrs. Robinson.) Even Katharine Ross was five years older than the character (Elaine) she played. The two films had in common the fact that neither could have been made as little as five years earlier--Woolf because of the language, and The Graduate because of its theme and content. Prior to Mrs. Robinson, middle-aged mothers weren't allowed to seduce their daughter's boyfriends, even in the movies.

Mike Nichols, 1967,
filming The Graduate.
The comedy team of Elaine May
and Mike Nichols, 1958
Born in 1931, Mike Nichols was born and bred for television, his improvisational nightclub act with Elaine May in 1958 morphing first into radio, then a recording deal resulting in three hit LPs (records), followed by TV guest appearances. In 1960, the two opened a Broadway show, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May. By 1961 however, the stress of performing together nightly caused them to split up, though they later collaborated on two movies and other projects. Contrary to popular belief, they were never married. Following the split, Nichols turned to directing, his return to Broadway, debuting as director of the hit comedy, Barefoot in the Park, which ran for 1,530 performances and won him a Tony Award. He went on to direct a second Neil Simon hit, The Odd Couple with Walter Matthau and Art Carney, winning the second of six Tonys for directing.
Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, Dustin Hoffman,
the  big climax...get me from the church in time.
Pretty well sums up the entire movie.
When the film mogul, Jack Warner, called him to Hollywood in 1966, Mike Nichols caught the first wave of a new morality as the first wave of adult baby-boomers (I was one of them) hit the movie theaters. Lucy and Desi's twin beds were laughable. Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson's bed was enticing, her iconic, stocking-clad leg so erotic as to become trite today (notice there's no picture of it here). The plot, set in the early 1950s, was based upon a 1963 novel by the same title written by Charles Webb, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham and comedian, Buck Henry (whom Nichols cast as a hotel clerk in the film). Aside from Benjamin's "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" (it was never a question), perhaps the most memorable line from the movie, spoken by an actor not even listed in the credits, was a single word: "Plastics." Far more memorable than all the dialogue in the whole film were the words set to music by Paul Simon, among them: The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, and Mrs. Robinson (which had originally been titled "Mrs. Roosevelt" and had not been intended for the film). The Graduate won a single Academy Award, an Oscar for Best Direction, a prize Mike Nichols been denied the year before when nominated for Virginia Woolf.
Spoiler alert--the clip below contains the final scene in the movie so if you've not seen the film, you might want to skip it.


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