(Fun fact: that leg belongs to Linda Gray, or so she claims.)
Every semester, in every class I teach, I save time on the last day for a lecture I call “So, What Didn’t I Teach You?” It’s an opportunity for students to question me about anything that they were expecting to cover in the course that I missed in the prior fifteen weeks. Usually, the question is “How do I get a job?” By the end of the period the questions usually move a little off-track. A couple years ago we got to that point, and a student asked “So, what is your favorite movie of all-time?” It wasn’t a film class, so I wasn’t expecting the question. I mulled it over a bit, and I said “While High Fidelity is a close second, I still have to go with The Graduate.” And that’s when the room went blank, and that’s when I had to recommend to a bunch of 20-somethings that they see a now-fifty-year-old film.
The Graduate opened in theaters fifty years ago today, December 21, 1967. While many didn’t know what to make of the film, a young critic in Chicago named Roger Ebert thought it was pretty good. There’s not much need to do a plot synopsis here, as most know the basic storyline, but I’ll give it a shot for those unfamiliar: Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is fresh out of college and worried about his future. He doesn’t want to go into plastics. He has an affair with an older woman – the wife of his father’s business partner (played by Anne Bancroft) – decides he’s really in love with her daughter (played by Katharine Ross), and we still never find out how they all end up. In between there is an amazing soundtrack fueled by Simon and Garfunkel.
For lack of time travel I can’t imagine how this movie looked in 1967. Go back and watch an MGM screwball romantic comedy from the 50s, and then look at The Graduate. They’re not even in the same ballpark. Just about every character in the film has some level of flaw to them. (I think Sideways is the closest approach to “most flawed set of characters” outside of this one.) The hero – you know, who you cheer for to get the girl – isn’t necessarily likable. The “adults” in the film are disconnected to the younger generation, which I think was precisely the point that director Mike Nichols was trying to make.
It’s also a statement on how the times, they are a-changin’, and in that sense the film is a little bit dated today. Some themes expressed in the film, though, still ring true today. The famous scene where Benjamin is at the bottom of the pool was supposed to be longer, and I wish it had been: Nichols explained in film commentary that the original plan was to zoom out over the pool, and go up high enough to show that there was a pool in every backyard. Ben’s feeling of being alone, therefore, wasn’t unique but universal.
This is, after all, a blog chiefly about music, and that’s where The Graduate stands out. The soundtrack to the film is outstanding. If The Beatles kicked the door open to using rock and roll to help advance a story in a film, then Simon and Garfunkel made the songs indispensable to it. You can probably take any Elvis song out of one of his films and still have a plot (sort of). You can’t hear “The Sounds of Silence” and not see Hoffman riding on the conveyor belt to nowhere. You can’t hear “Mrs. Robinson” and not picture that gorgeous Alfa Romeo running out of gas heading for the church. The rock songs aren’t just window dressing, as they had been in the past. Effectively, on some level, Mike Nichols perfected the art of the music video without even trying. Even the non-rock in the movie is perfect. The Dave Grusin jazz that’s weaved throughout helps set the mood. The music cue when Mrs. Robinson asks Ben if he finds her attractive may be one of the best ever used. (And it’s what’s playing behind the line the film may be best known for: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…. aren’t you?”)
So, which song to pick? There’s a lot to work with here. “April Come She Will” has always been a favorite. I’ve played “Mrs. Robinson” so many times on the radio that I don’t even notice it anymore, even if the lyrics in the film are a bit different. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” gets sung every time I open up the spice cabinet. (Not only that, the best version is probably the remake by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.) But I have to go with “The Sounds of Silence.” The song originally appeared on Simon and Garfunkel’s debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM as an acoustic number. Columbia Records engineer Tom Wilson added an electric backing track to it, along with some drums, and the label had a #1 record on its hands. I’ve always had a keen appreciation for the original as it’s more dark; the scene feels more isolated, a la “I Am A Rock.” But the hit version is still pretty powerful, and if the overall film is starting to show its age, the message of “The Sounds of Silence” still rings true today.
In the end, we don’t know what becomes of Ben and Elaine. I imagine that they went on to raise kids that they had trouble relating to, that were worried about their own futures, that didn’t feel they fit in… and the band played on. Maybe The Graduate isn’t as dated as I thought.