Mike Nichols' The Graduate is a reactionary's substitute for Bonnie and Clyde as candidate for American nouvelle vague honors of 1967. The comedy elicits some laughs and the steady pacing prevents boredom, but when the last shot has meandered off the screen. The Graduate lives on in the mind as a dramatic cheat and a vivid example of Hollywood besieged by the creeping uglies.
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) returns home a college graduate without plans for the future; he spends a few weeks stifling in suburbia, then begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner. Forced by his parents to date the Robinson daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) in deference to social amenities, Benjamin initially antagonizes the girl as per Mrs. Robinson's instructions, then falls in love with her.
The picture's potentially promising plot premise purports to be the problem of two people falling in love, the boy having slept with the girl's mother. For the twenty minutes of The Graduate that chronicle the initial stages of the Benjamin-Elaine courtship, Nichols hits his stride, providing a relevant contemporary romance different from the Hollywood norm, apparently setting the scene for a comic examination of the inevitable ensuing conflicts.
But Nichols and his two writers can't handle the ambitious and complicated issues they raise, and sideswipe their own construct at the halfway mark. The Graduate rapidly degenerates into frenetic melodramatics, ending in the all-too-frequent last minute chase, a triumph of love-over-everything guaranteed to warm even the hearts of a Brattle Theatre audience during the Bogart festival. Safe in the back of a bus from the irate witnesses to their elopement, Benjamin and Elaine stop grinning and stare ahead, each considering for the first time the seriousness of their act and the problems ahead; Nichols' muting of the otherwise conventional happy ending adds some honesty to the denouement, at the same time creating a sense of regret that similarly thoughtful moments don't characterize The Graduate's mindless, largely unmotivated, second half.
Structurally, the last hour resolves a conflict, but unfortunately not the conflict set-up in the first hour; The Graduate splits in two with scant transition, ultimately cancelling itself out. Nichols effects the break and abandons his premise by destroying the character of Elaine, reducing her to mere plot function. Elaine rejects Benjamin when her mother describes him as a calculating rapist, then promptly changes her mind when Benjamin denies the charges. Seriously questioning neither version of the affair (and our knowledge of Mrs. Robinson makes hard to imagine Elaine believing her mother in the first place), Elaine's amazing malleability and flirtatious indecision toward Benjamin when he arrives at Berkeley remain almost entirely unmotivated. At the same time, her behavior becomse increasingly important, as the action of the film hinges directly on her reactions to Benjamin, reactions we can only chalk up to excessive unexplained femininity.
The lack of direction in Elaine's characterization points up similar flaws and inconsistencies in The Graduate. Nichols' conception of Benjamin turns him into a high school sophomore. His confrontation with a hotel desk clerk reveals a fear and naivete inconceivable in a 21-year-old; and if we accept his high school gaucheness and inability to cope, we certainly can't accept his knowledgeable cool in the toughest strip joint on Sunset Boulevard, or his heroic initiative in wooing Elaine toward the end.
Equally inconsistent, Nicholas goes to pains to humanize Mrs. Robinson in the single-take hotel scene where Benjamin insists on talk before sex, then allows her to become a stock villainess who appears in the last hour for five minutes to serve an archetypal function as Dracula's daughter. Sensing the glaring omission of Bancroft, Nichols instructs Simon and Garfunkle to put her name in a song insert, a gratuitous gesture matched only by her one-line appearance at the wedding finale.
Combining this with the truly sloppy stereotyping of Benjamin's parents and Elaine's law-school suitor, The Graduate doesn't hold water dramatically or structurally, and ultimately says nothing. Nichols' satire of the uppermiddle class establishment dates back 15 years, and has the impact of a butter knife. A thematic cop-out, The Graduate's simplistic affirmation of love, honesty, and individual liberation provide the cold comfort of a second-rate Aesop fable.
Cinematically, the chief influence on Nichols remains the photographer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Haskell Wexler, also cameraman on In The Heat of The Night. When the sun shines, Nichols points his camera at it; if a car approaches the camera, Nichols bounces the headlights off the lens; should a character jump into the water, Nichols makes the camera jump into the water; and as mood becomes essential, well, Nichols can always shoot it with a shaky hand-held camera.
The problem goes deeper than Nichols' consistent substitution of trickiness for style. A great director, Rosselini or Hitchcock, plans his film as a totality, understanding instinctively how each shot relates to the film as a whole; a competent director of narrative films like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) plans shots with relation to the entire scene. Nichols, however, cannot plan past a given shot, and although a frame may contain an effective gimmick, camera angle, or background detail, the scenes themselves are purposeless and disconnected, largely due to awkward and self-conscious editing.
Nichols' dilemma is that of the director with ideas, but not enough knowledge of craft to successfully execute them. For Nichols, each cut becomes a major problem of how to move from one shot to the next, a question of alternatives and careful choice: a zoo scene ends dismally on coy shots of monkeys; a zoom pull-back of Benjamin waiting on campus for Elaine is effective until we realize that Nichols has included it in order to effect a trick dissolve transition to the next scene; unable to end a breakfast scene legitimately, Nichols covers it with an easy laugh by cutting on the carefully timed popping-up of a toaster.
More often than not, the camerawork reveals Nichols' ineptitude at choosing the right solution to filming a given scene: Benjamin's first exploration of the hotel room, opening doors and switching-on lights, is filmed in tight close-up, losing the potential of the quickly varying lighting effects, and inadvertantly showing us less of Benjamin's emotions than we would see were the camera ten feet further away (a similar scene is done to perfection in Truffaut's Soft Skin); a scene shot through a diving mask and one with six frame inserts of Mrs. Robinson's naked body are obtrusively self-conscious, since nothing in previous scenes has prepared us for such technical gimmickry in isolated scenes.
Some good acting gets lost in Nichols' vain attempt to prove himself a purveyor of cinematic pizazz. Bancroft and Hoffman are more capable than the script or direction allows them to demonstrate: Bancroft disappears altogether, and Hoffman is forced into too many blankfaced ambiguous close-ups. Katherine Ross's perfect pre-Raphaelite beauty overshadows her valiant attempt to create something from nothing, an attempt which almost succeeds (as if it matters whether anyone so gorgeous can act). The Graduate's best performance comes from Murray Hamilton as cuckolded Mr. Robinson, an all-too-tangential figure in the proceedings.
The year's biggest critical success, The Graduate ought to be seen, if only to keep tabs on a film that can fool all of the people all of the time. But it's a film for suckers; Nichols dabbles in film-making the way Westchester housewives spend their afternoons painting by numbers.