Friday, May 23, 2008
Almost from the start, Mike Nichols knew that Anne Bancroft should play the seductive Mrs. Robinson. But the young film director surprised himself, as well as everyone else, with his choice for The Graduate’s misfit hero, Benjamin Braddock: not Robert Redford, who’d wanted the role, but a little-known Jewish stage actor, Dustin Hoffman. From producer Lawrence Turman’s $1,000 option of a minor novel in 1964 to the movie’s out-of-left-field triumph three years later, Sam Kashner recalls a breakout film that literally changed the face of Hollywood.
by Sam Kashner March 2008
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in a publicity still for The Graduate. Photographs by Bob Willoughby.
Any good movie is filled with secrets. —Mike Nichols
Imagine a movie called The Graduate. It stars Robert Redford as Benjamin Braddock, the blond and bronzed, newly minted college graduate adrift in his parents’ opulent home in Beverly Hills. And Candice Bergen as his girlfriend, the overprotected Elaine Robinson. Ava Gardner plays the predatory Mrs. Robinson, the desperate housewife and mother who ensnares Benjamin. Gene Hackman is her cuckolded husband. It nearly happened that way. That it didn’t made all the difference.
It all began with a book review. On October 30, 1963, a 36-year-old movie producer named Lawrence Turman read Orville Prescott’s review of Charles Webb’s first novel, The Graduate, in The New York Times. Though Prescott described the satirical novel as “a fictional failure,” he compared Webb’s misfit, malaise-ridden hero, Benjamin Braddock, to Holden Caulfield, the hero of J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye. Turman was intrigued. “The book haunted me—I identified with it,” he says. Now 81, Turman is lean, with white hair and bright eyes. Over lunch in West Hollywood, he recalls how he fell in love particularly with two of the novel’s images: “a boy in a scuba suit in his own swimming pool, and then that same boy on a bus, his shirttail out, with a girl in a wedding dress. I liked it so much, I took out an option with my own money—something I counsel my students not to do. Because no one else bid on the novel, I optioned the rights for $1,000.” Turman, who now chairs the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, considered himself something of an industry outsider, though by 1963 he had already produced several films (including The Young Doctors, with Fredric March and Ben Gazzara; I Could Go On Singing, with Judy Garland; and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man).
Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate’s dénouement.
Don’t miss a slideshow of Bob Willoughby’s classic photos from the set.
Perhaps he still feels like an outsider because he started life in the garment industry, following in his father’s footsteps, although he had majored in English literature at U.C.L.A. “Everyone always says how tough show biz is,” Turman says, “and, of course, they’re right, but it’s kid stuff compared to the garment business, where someone will cut your heart out for a quarter-cent a yard. I’d carry bolts of cloth five blocks after making a sale, only to learn that the customer bought it cheaper, and I had to schlep the bolts of cloth back to my dad’s office.” He can still vividly recall working his way down 14 flights of a manufacturing building, “getting rejected at every floor.” After five years of working with his father, he pounced on a blind ad in Variety: “Experienced Agent Wanted.” He got the job at the Kurt Frings Agency, a four-person operation specializing in European actors, including Audrey Hepburn, by candidly confessing that he “had zero experience, but was full of energy and would work very cheaply”—$50 a week.
After optioning The Graduate, Turman needed a director. He immediately thought of another industry outsider, the comedian turned Broadway director Mike Nichols, then 33 years old. At the time, Nichols had just had a great success directing Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, but before that he had been half of the legendary satirical comedy team Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Their sharp, skewed portrayals of “Age of Anxiety” couples struck a deep chord in American life, and their comedy sketches were hilarious, such as the one about a pushy mother and her put-upon rocket-scientist son: “I feel awful,” the son says after his mother berates him for not calling. “If I could believe that,” she says, “I’d be the happiest mother in the world.” They were improvisation geniuses and could perform sketches in the style of everyone from Faulkner to Kierkegaard.
Elaine May was the daughter of a Yiddish actor named Jack Berlin. Nichols met his dark-haired muse at the University of Chicago, where he was a pre-med student, but like Benjamin Braddock, wanted his future “to be different.” Both he and May were members of the off-campus Playwright’s Theatre, which later became the improvisational group the Compass Players (a precursor to Chicago’s Second City). By 1958 they were performing in New York’s Greenwich Village, at the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard, and then began appearing on television shows such as The Steve Allen Show and Omnibus. The height of their success was An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a 1960 Broadway hit at New York’s Golden Theatre, directed by Arthur Penn.
Then they walked away from it all. It was Elaine May’s idea. She wanted to devote more time to writing and she also felt, with Kennedy just installed in the White House, there had been a seismic shift in the country’s mood, and the duo’s uptight, Eisenhower-era targets were no longer relevant. On July 1, 1961, they gave their last performance. “I stopped being a comedian,” Nichols now says, not the least bit wistfully. “Stand-up comedy is a very hard thing on the spirit. There are people who transcend it, like Jack Benny and Steve Martin, but in its essence, it’s soul destroying. It tends to turn people into control freaks.” Though he never did stand-up (or sit-down) comedy again, his canny, satirical edge would inform everything else Nichols later undertook as a theater and movie director.
“Mike Nichols was an intuitive hunch,” Turman reflects. “Webb’s book is funny, but mordant. Nichols and May’s humor seemed like a hand-in-glove fit to me.” When they finally got together in New York to discuss the project, Turman, ever known for his candor, told Nichols, “I have the book, but I don’t have any money. I don’t have any studio. I have nothing, so let’s do this. We’ll make this movie together, and whatever money comes in, we’ll split 50-50.” Nichols agreed on the spot.
“So I got The Graduate and Mike Nichols,” Turman recounts, “and I beat my brains out.” They sent the book to Brian Keith to read for the part of Mr. Robinson. “He came into our office,” Nichols recalls. “We sat down, and I asked if he had read the book. He said he had. ‘What do you think?’ I asked. He said, ‘I think it’s the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever read.’ I said, ‘Well, then we won’t do it. You agree, Larry?’ Turman said, ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Keith. You’ve saved us a lot of trouble.’ Turman and I both stood up, and Keith had to get up and leave. It was fun.”
For nearly two years, Turman was turned down by every major studio: “No one thought the book was funny, and no one in Hollywood had even heard of Mike Nichols,” but that didn’t matter by the time he approached producer Joseph E. Levine. By then, Nichols had followed Barefoot in the Park with three more Broadway hits, The Knack, Murray Schisgal’s Luv, and Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which made a Broadway star out of Walter Matthau. And Nichols had been chosen by Elizabeth Taylor to direct her and Richard Burton in the movie of Edward Albee’s scandalous Broadway hit, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It became the most controversial film of 1966, winning Taylor her second Academy Award.
Joseph E. Levine was known as “an enormously successful schlockmeister,” says Turman. “He would buy junky films, like Hercules, have an aggressive ad campaign, plaster his own name all over them, and make a lot of money for himself in the bargain. He was a great, flamboyant, throwback salesman.” His company, called Embassy Pictures, had graduated to classier fare—Marriage Italian Style, 8½, Two Women, Darling—by the time Turman approached him. “I don’t know if Joe Levine even ‘got’ the book, but Mike had cachet, which Joe didn’t have,” recalls Turman. “I think Levine got on board to be in business with Mike Nichols.” Turman gave his word that he could make the movie for a million dollars. Levine said yes. For the first time, Turman no longer felt like a fish out of water. “It’s always better to be inside than looking at it from outside,” he says.
With his money and his director in place, Turman needed a screenwriter. In February of 1965—one year after optioning the rights—he signed Calder Willingham to write the screenplay. Willingham was a novelist and screenwriter known for his strong, often daring sexual content (End as a Man). Problem was, he really didn’t like the novel. In a note to Turman he wrote, “The whole thing of a young man marrying a girl after screwing her mother’s ears off is a mess … and it must be handled with art and care or we are dead. This goddamned schizophrenic and amateurish book … If my script is unacceptable … then hire another writer, but don’t go to Charles Webb!”
“Calder turned in a script,” Turman recalls, “but it was vulgar. He even added some gratuitous homosexual and man-woman sex.” He handed it over to Mike Nichols, warning him, “I don’t like it.” Neither did Nichols. (There had been an earlier false start with playwright William Hanley.) So Nichols suggested a bright, young comedic actor and story editor, Buck Henry.
“He wasn’t a screenwriter when I asked him to write the screenplay. He improvised comedy,” Nichols recalls. “He had not, to my knowledge, written anything. And I said, ‘I think you could do it; I think you should do it.’ And he could, and he did.”
Like Nichols, Buck Henry had acted in improvisational theater and had worked as a writer-performer for a few television shows, including The New Steve Allen Show and That Was the Week That Was, but his big break came as co-creator with Mel Brooks of the television series Get Smart, starring Don Adams as the incompetent control agent 86, Maxwell Smart. The boyish-looking, bespectacled writer was in his second year as story editor for the spy spoof, but he had written only one, unproduced screenplay.
“Turman, Nichols, and I related to The Graduate in exactly the same way,” Henry recalls. “We all thought we were Benjamin Braddock. Plus, it’s an absolutely first-class novel, with great characters, great dialogue, a terrific theme. Who could resist it? I read it and I said, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ ”
Born Buck Henry Zuckerman, the writer and actor was living in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont at the time, working on Get Smart by day and writing the screenplay for The Graduate at night, collaborating closely with Nichols. His mother was Ruth Zuckerman, known as Ruth Taylor, a smoky-eyed silent-screen film actress, so he had, in a sense, been born into show business. He claims that as a little boy he watched the filming of a scene from The Maltese Falcon, and that Humphrey Bogart gave him a wad of movie money. And, having been impressed by his mother’s glamorous actress friends, he completely got the allure of women of a certain age—his mother’s—as embodied by Mrs. Robinson.
“I always thought The Graduate was the best pitch I ever heard: this kid graduates college, has an affair with his parents’ best friend, and then falls in love with the friend’s daughter,” says Henry. “Give that to 20 writers and you’ve got 20 scripts. It’s just odd to me it hasn’t been done a hundred times.” (In 1992, Henry would get the chance to pitch The Graduate, albeit as an actor in Robert Altman’s The Player. Only, this time it’s a sequel, and Mrs. Robinson has just had a stroke.)
A great deal of dialogue came directly from the book, but one memorable scene was entirely Henry’s, and it would elicit some of the biggest laughs in the movie. At Benjamin Braddock’s homecoming party, Mr. McGuire, one of his father’s friends, takes Ben and steers him out by the pool:
“Ben, come with me for a minute I just want to say one word to you—just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes I am.”
Mr. McGuire goes back into the house and we never hear from him again. But the scene has been with us for 40 years—it was even reprised in an ad for vista, the domestic Peace Corps, and the word “plastics” was given new life in the vernacular as a symbol for phony commercialism. Henry recalls that audiences who had seen the movie several times would yell out the line “Plastics,” as if it were the lyrics to a song.
The Jewish Question
Nichols couldn’t have been more pleased with the final screenplay, which he credits entirely to Henry, though Calder Willingham ended up with first billing. “I didn’t even know there were other scripts until I was finished,” recalls Henry, “but Willingham sued for credit, and won. I was stunned at first, but it’s interesting, because from that moment on, I never gave a shit about credit. Give me the money, credit whom you want. And in some cases, I don’t really want my name on the movie!”
When it came to casting, the problems really began. It should have been easy. Charles Webb himself was a fair-haired, lanky, fresh-faced graduate of Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and had grown up in a decidedly Wasp enclave in Pasadena. “I interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of men,” Nichols told an enthusiastic crowd at the Directors Guild of America Theatre in New York, in 2003, at a screening of The Graduate. He even discussed the role with his friend Robert Redford, who was eager for the part. “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he wasn’t joking.”
Shortly after hiring Nichols, Larry Turman started a wish list for the roles of Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson. For “Elaine,” he wrote, “Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Carroll Baker, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick, Suzanne Pleshette, Carol Lynley, Elizabeth Ashley, Yvette Mimieux, Pamela Tiffin, Patty Duke, Hayley Mills.” Under the “Ben” column, he listed “Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Bob Redford, [George] Peppard, George Hamilton, Tony Perkins, Keir Dullea, Brandon De Wilde, Michael Parks.”
“When we started talking about actors,” Buck Henry noticed, “they were tall and blond. We were talking Southern California.” Robert Redford, fresh from Barefoot in the Park, auditioned with Candice Bergen, and Charles Grodin, who had made his Broadway debut in 1962 opposite Anthony Quinn in Tchin-Tchin, also read for the part. Turman thought that Grodin “gave a wonderful reading,” and the actor was strongly considered. Nichols and Turman knew the casting of Benjamin was crucial: “Everything is story, everything is script,” Turman says, “but if you don’t have an appealing actor, you’re dead in the water.” He remembers Nichols finally turning to him and saying, “Turman, you S.O.B., you got me into a movie that can’t be cast!”
Then two things happened to change Nichols’s mind. He was reading Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a young man who lets life and love pass him by while he waits for a cataclysmic event to transform him. And he auditioned a young New York actor, Dustin Hoffman.
“When I was auditioning for this part,” Dustin Hoffman recalls for Vanity Fair, “I had finally made some inroads in my career.” After 10 years as a struggling actor in New York, Hoffman had won an Obie Award in 1966 for best Off Broadway actor, in Ronald Ribman’s The Journey of the Fifth Horse. He’d been supporting himself with a series of odd jobs—selling toys at Macy’s, working as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, on West 168th Street, waiting tables at the Village Gate—and sharing an apartment with Gene Hackman and his wife. After he won the Obie, his performance as Valentine Brose, a schizophrenic night watchman in an Off Broadway British farce called Eh?, landed him on the cover of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times. And in a daily review, the Times described his performance as “a sort of cross between Ringo Starr and Buster Keaton.”
“I was riding high, so I felt that I was going to have a career in the theater, which is what I wanted. So when the part came along, I read the book, I talked to Mike Nichols on the phone, and I said, ‘I’m not right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a Wasp. This is Robert Redford.’ In fact, I remember there was a Time magazine on the coffee table in my apartment, and it had the ‘Man of the Year’ on the cover, which was ‘Youth Under 25,’ with a kind of sketch of a young guy who looked like Matt Damon. So I said, ‘Did you see this week’s Time magazine? That’s Benjamin Braddock!’ Nichols replied, ‘You mean he’s not Jewish?’ ‘Yes, this guy is a super-Wasp. Boston Brahmin.’ And Mike said, ‘Maybe he’s Jewish inside. Why don’t you come out and audition for us?’ ”
He took three days off from Eh? and flew to L.A. for the screen test, which took place at rented offices in the Paramount Studio lot on Melrose Avenue. “I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous,” Hoffman said in an interview accompanying the 40th-anniversary DVD edition of The Graduate. He had stayed up all night on the airplane, trying to memorize his lines. The next day, he walked into the high-ceilinged, interconnected offices and met Nichols, who was waiting for him, seated at a fully appointed bar. Nichols casually offered him a drink.
“I’m immediately feeling miserable,” Hoffman remembered. “I just have bad feelings about the whole thing. This is not the part for me. I’m not supposed to be in movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong—an ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York, in an ethnic, Off Broadway show! I know my place.” (Harry Hoffman, Dustin’s father, of Russian-Jewish ancestry, worked as a set dresser for Columbia Studios before launching his own short-lived furniture company.)
For the audition, Nichols had also brought in Katharine Ross, a 24-year-old actress and California native who had made her film debut in 1965 as Jimmy Stewart’s daughter-in-law in Shenandoah. The French actress Simone Signoret, with whom Ross had worked in the 1967 film Games, had recommended Ross to Nichols. “I remember meeting Dustin in Mike’s office,” says Ross, seated at an outdoor café in Malibu, not far from the home she shares with her husband, the actor Sam Elliott. “Dustin was from New York. He was all dressed in black, and you know, we’re all tan out here,” she says, laughing. “He looked like he had crawled out from under a rock. He wasn’t at all interested in being in a movie or anything—or at least that’s what he said. He was very funny, very fresh. He just kind of said whatever was on his mind. Now nothing shocks anybody, but back then … !”
Hoffman was bowled over by the chestnut-haired ingénue. “The idea that the director was connecting me with someone as beautiful as her,” Hoffman explained, “became an even uglier joke. It was like a Jewish nightmare.” Preparing him for the screen test was another humiliation. Makeup worked on him for two hours, plucking his eyebrows, shading his nose, and hiding his muscular neck in a turtleneck sweater.
It went downhill from there, as far as Dustin was concerned. To relax them both, he gave Katharine a little pinch on her backside, and she whirled around and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again. How dare you!” The audition seemed to go on for hours, and he felt that the takes they printed just weren’t any good. He knew he’d blown it. “I couldn’t wait to go back to New York,” he recalled. The final humiliation occurred when, saying good-bye to the crew, he pulled his hand out of his pocket and a fistful of subway tokens spilled to the floor. The propman picked them up and handed them back, saying, “Here, kid. You’re going to need these.”
Back in New York, Hoffman got word from his agent to call Mike Nichols. He reached Nichols on the phone, afraid he had woken him up. After a long pause, the director uttered the most beautiful words an actor can hear: “Well, you got it.” Those four words changed Dustin Hoffman’s life.
“We looked and looked and looked,” recalls Nichols, “and when we saw Dustin Hoffman on film, we said, ‘That’s it.’ And I had come all the way from seeing the character as a super-goy to being John Marcher in ‘The Beast in the Jungle.’ He had to be the dark, ungainly artist. He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people? It took me a long time to figure that out—it’s not in the material at all. And once I figured that out, and found Dustin, it began to form itself around that idea.”
It was a revolutionary about-face. For generations, Jewish moguls had created fantasies for and about Wasps. Jewish actors and directors routinely Anglicized their names—such as Julius Garfinkle and Bernie Schwartz becoming John Garfield and Tony Curtis—as a kind of camouflage that was especially useful during the McCarthy-era witch hunts, which targeted not just the motion-picture industry but Jewish writers, actors, and producers. Nichols himself was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky, in Berlin, to Russian-Jewish émigrés, in 1931. “When I was seven and my brother four,” recalls Nichols, “we came to the U.S. in ’39 without either parent, because our father, a doctor, had come the previous year to take his medical exams, as he had after going from Russia to study in Germany. Our mother at the time was still in Berlin, as she was sick and in the hospital. She came on an even later ship. Bob and I came on the Bremen from Hamburg, taken care of by a stewardess. As the Bremen landed in New York and we were re-united with our father on the dock, I noticed across the street a delicatessen with Hebrew letters in its neon sign. I said to my father, ‘Is that allowed?’ He said, ‘It is here.’ This was only the beginning of our excitement in the U.S. Next were Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola: we had never had food that made noise. It was great.”
Buck Henry—who had seen Hoffman in Eh? and had been duly impressed—embraced the idea of casting him. “You know my theory about California genetics?” he asks wryly. “Jews from New York came to the Land of Plenty, and within one generation the Malibu sand had gotten into their genes and turned them into tall, Nordic powerhouses. Walking surfboards. We were thinking about how these Nordic people have Dustin as a son, and it’s got to be a genetic throwback to some previous generation.”
What Nichols didn’t realize at the time were the parallels between Dustin Hoffman’s and Benjamin Braddock’s lives. Hoffman had grown up in Los Angeles, “always despising it,” he says. “And that’s not an overstatement. I lived in anti-Semitic neighborhoods, and I never felt a part of it, and I used to go to the Saturday-matinee movies to see the Dead End Kids jumping into the East River, and I wanted to be one of them.” When he turned 20 and left college, he moved to New York, a place imbued with the spirit of the Beat generation and coffeehouse intellectuals. “We thought of ourselves as artists, and that’s what we wanted. It was 180 degrees from today. I felt I was home. New York is Jewish, L.A. is not Jewish. L.A. called you a ‘kike’ in the 1940s and 50s.”
So, much like Benjamin Braddock, when Hoffman went back to Los Angeles to make the film, he moved in with his parents in their home off Mulholland Drive. But it lasted only about a week, and then he checked into the Chateau Marmont, at his own expense, where he would hang out at the pool after a day of filming. “I was so aware of people sitting around the pool and of how different I looked from them. I remembered this was how I felt when I’d moved out of this town 10 years [earlier]. So, yes, I was right back where I didn’t want to be.”
The Miracle Worker
Larry Turman had a slew of actresses under consideration for the now iconic role of Mrs. Robinson: Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Shelley Winters, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman, and Ava Gardner. He also gave a copy of Webb’s novel to Doris Day’s husband and manager, Martin Melcher. “I sent him the book, but he hated it—he thought it was dirty—and wouldn’t even pass it along to her,” he recalls.
Mike Nichols went to see Ava Gardner at her suite in the Regency Hotel, in New York, a memory he now treasures, though “it was scary at the time.” When he arrived at two p.m., he was a bit taken aback to find hanging around the suite “a group of men who could only be called lounge lizards: pin-striped suits, smoking in the European way—underhand—with greased-back hair. To my complete horror, Ava Gardner said, ‘Everybody out! I want to talk to my director. Out, out, out!’ ” She then asked for the phone, saying, “I’ve been trying to call Papa all day!”
Nichols thought to himself, I can’t do this. I don’t think I can do this whole thing, especially since Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, with whom Gardner had worked and been friendly, had died in 1961.
The 44-year-old actress then told Nichols, “The first thing you must know is I don’t take my clothes off for anybody.”
“Well, I don’t think that would be required,” replied Nichols.
She then confided, “The truth is, you know, I can’t act. I just can’t act! The best have tried.”
Nichols answered, “Oh, Miss Gardner, that’s simply not true! I think you’re a great movie actress.”
“The main thing is—she’s Ava Gardner!” he recalls now. “Not the youngest, but incredibly sexy and gorgeous—almost superhuman in that way. My heart was pounding.”
Nonetheless, Nichols quickly recognized the impossibility of working with her and an offer was never made.
Nichols and Turman also discussed the sultry French actress Jeanne Moreau for the role, but “it became apparent that Mrs. Robinson had to be American or it was all over.” In truth, there really was only one actor in Nichols’s mind to play the well-heeled seductress: Anne Bancroft.
Born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, in the Bronx, the 35-year-old Bancroft had won a Tony Award in 1958 for her first Broadway
role, Gittel Mosca, the bohemian girl who falls in love with a midwestern lawyer in Two for the Seesaw. She won another Tony in 1960 as Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s devoted teacher in The Miracle Worker, a role that landed her on the cover of Time magazine. She reprised that role on-screen in 1962, winning an Academy Award for best actress. Two years later, she married comedic actor and writer Mel Brooks.
“We didn’t offer the role to anyone else except Annie,” Nichols says. “Everyone cautioned her to turn it down. How can you go from the saintly Annie Sullivan to the Medusa-like Mrs. Robinson? Too risky.” But Mel Brooks—who was then working on his comic masterpiece, The Producers—persuaded her to do it because he liked the script, written by his co-creator of Get Smart. Once signed, she was the biggest name attached to the film.
And perhaps for Nichols there was another element at play. Is it possible that Anne Bancroft reminded him—both in her intonations and in her appearance—of Elaine May? Just close your eyes and you’ll hear a Mike Nichols–Elaine May routine in any number of scenes, such as the exchange between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in the Taft Hotel—filmed at the Ambassador, in Los Angeles—where Benjamin has just nervously rented a room for their first assignation. He calls her from the hotel-lobby pay phone and she asks:
“Isn’t there something you want to tell me?”
“To tell you?”
“Well, I want you to know how much I appreciate this—really—”
“The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that.”
“Oh, you’re absolutely right. It’s 568.”
“You’re welcome. Well, I’ll see you later, Mrs. Robinson.”
The intonation is dead-on, not just Bancroft’s line readings, but Hoffman’s as well. Buck Henry noticed it: “Dustin picked up all these Nichols habits, which he used in the character. Those little noises he makes are straight from Mike.”
Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, Hoffman now thinks that Nichols, on some level, saw Benjamin as “his alter ego, meaning that he always felt that he was the outsider, born in Germany, coming to this country at an early age, perhaps feeling that he was odd-looking, like me, at least in terms of what we call the leading man. He guided me in such a way that I was an alter ego of a younger version of himself. He saw himself in the character.”
Forty years after The Graduate first appeared, Mrs. Robinson now seems the most complex and compelling character in the film, in part due to Anne Bancroft’s stunning performance. That she’s an alcoholic, that she’s trapped in a sexless marriage, that she’s predatory, cool, and ironic—those are the traits that make her dangerous. That she was once an art major, a fact she reluctantly reveals to Benjamin in his one attempt at pillow talk, makes her vulnerable. We suddenly understand her—her bitterness, her deep pool of sadness. It’s the key to her character, Buck Henry believes: “That’s when I realized that I knew Mrs. Robinson. That she had been Benjamin. She is a very intelligent and cynical woman. She knows what’s happening to her.”
“I think Anne and Mike Nichols made a very critical decision,” Hoffman muses, “which was not to judge the character. It’s Nichols’s style—he walks that edge of really going as far as he can without falling over the cliff, into disbelief. It’s not caricature. That’s the highest compliment for satire.”
To underscore her predatory nature, Nichols and Richard Sylbert, the Brooklyn-born production designer, created a jungle effect in Mrs. Robinson’s well-appointed den, where she begins her seduction of Benjamin. Throughout the film, she’s dressed in animal prints such as tiger stripes and $25,000 worth of furs, including a Somalian leopardskin wrap.
“I kept thinking about ‘The Beast in the Jungle,’ ” Nichols recalls. “Let’s have animal skins.” Sylbert made a tremendous contribution to how Bancroft appeared on film, even down to the tan lines on her shoulders when she removes her brassiere. “We wanted beautiful actresses,” Nichols says, “but we wanted them to look like real people.”
Sylbert had begun his film career as an art director for Elia Kazan on the set of Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll in 1956. After that he worked on Splendor in the Grass, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Manchurian Candidate, and, for Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which he won an Academy Award for art direction. (His identical twin brother, Paul Sylbert, also has had a long and stellar career as a production designer, having won an Academy Award in 1979 for his work on Heaven Can Wait and a nomination in 1992 for The Prince of Tides.)
“They spoke the same language, they consulted the same dictionary, they read all the same books,” Richard Sylbert’s widow, Sharmagne, recalls from her home in Laurel Canyon. The production designer and Nichols held lengthy conversations about how to capture on film what they considered the essence of Beverly Hills—its flora and fauna trapped, as it were, behind all that expensive glass. Beginning with the shot of Benjamin viewed through his boyhood aquarium, we have the feeling of someone cut off, suffocating. The aquarium motif itself underlines both the feeling of being separated from the world and the sense, in Nichols’s words, of people “drowning in their wealth.” Benjamin sees the world through glass: his aquarium tank, his scuba mask, even at the film’s climax, when he bangs on the plate-glass window in the church where Elaine is marrying his rival, and the voices of the enraged wedding party are silenced, except for Elaine’s glass-shattering cry to her last-minute rescuer—“Be-n-n-n!”
Before filming began, Nichols rehearsed his cast for three weeks, a luxury by today’s standards. “We could have taken The Graduate on the road, we knew it so well,” Katharine Ross recalls. “We rehearsed on a soundstage complete with tape marks and rehearsal furniture. Mike had just come off directing all those Neil Simon hits.”
Hoffman didn’t know at the time that it “was unusual to rehearse as if we were doing a play, finding the character, which is what you do in theater. This was my first film, so I thought that was it! It was the best rehearsal I’d ever had, and the most creative time. But once we started shooting, I felt more frightened and insecure, brought on by my fear that Mike thought he had made a mistake in casting me. At a certain point, I was terrified that I was going to get fired.”
In fact, Gene Hackman—who was playing Mr. Robinson—was fired, three weeks into rehearsal. “Gene said to me while he was taking a leak in the men’s room,” Hoffman remembers, “ ‘I think I’m getting fired.’ And he was, and I thought I was next. So by the time we started shooting I was on pins and needles, terrified that Mike didn’t like what I was doing. He was never satisfied; he was always looking for the exquisite take. I was dubbed a perfectionist for years, and all I could think was ‘I learned from Mike Nichols.’ ”
It had become clear during rehearsals that Hackman was simply too young to play Mr. Robinson. “Unlike Anne and Dustin, in the parts of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, the actors needed to be a whole generation apart,” says Nichols. The mere six-year age difference between Bancroft and Hoffman didn’t really matter, though. “Both actors seemed to be the ages their characters were. That’s acting.”
“Mike is ruthless when it comes to artistic decisions,” Buck Henry says. “The play’s the thing. He will shut a film down, he’ll throw a film away, he’ll fire someone, he’ll do some really mean stuff in the editing.” But it was a good move for everyone, Buck Henry felt, “because Gene went immediately on to Bonnie and Clyde and worked for Mike in other films,” during a 40-year friendship with the director. Mr. Robinson’s shoes were admirably filled by Murray Hamilton.
In retrospect, Dustin Hoffman felt that there was a special relationship between Nichols and Anne Bancroft. Hoffman, then 29, says he was “a neophyte, and [Bancroft] was an accomplished actress who knew what film was. We were friends afterwards. I loved her and I still love her. You’re either working with people who are going for the same truth as you are or you’re not. She was. She had a character.” Anne Bancroft, at 35, but playing 45, doesn’t have the dewiness of Katharine Ross—and she smokes, drinks, and has the regrets of an adult—but she’s sexy and beautiful.
“We were all in love with Katharine Ross, of course,” confesses Buck Henry. “She had a boyfriend at the time who used to hide behind trees and bushes when we were on location—to watch, just to make sure. It was some nice, school-type kid, long before Sam Elliott. I don’t think Sam Elliott would hide like that.”
Though playing mother and daughter, Bancroft and Ross never actually have a scene together. The closest they come is when Benjamin bursts into Elaine’s bedroom to confess his affair with her mother, and Mrs. Robinson, rain-drenched and desperate, stands outside the door, too late to stop him. Her elegant face is framed just above Elaine’s own. “You see Mrs. Robinson, disillusioned and bitter. It’s one of those very subtle moments that only a great actress can pull off. In that moment you see the story of her life,” says Ross.
Robert Surtees, the film’s cinematographer, who died in 1985, had been in Hollywood since the advent of the talking picture. He’d earned a dozen Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, for The Bad and the Beautiful, King Solomon’s Mines, and Ben-Hur. “It took everything I had learned over 30 years to be able to do the job,” Surtees said about shooting The Graduate. “I knew before we even started shooting that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary picture. I had seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I knew that Mike Nichols was a young director who went in for a lot of camera. In fact, I told my operator and my assistants, ‘You fellows be prepared because you’re going to do some way-out shots.’ ”
“We did more things in this picture than I ever did in one film,” Surtees wrote in a piece titled “Using the Camera Emotionally” for Action magazine in 1967. “We used the gamut of lenses … hidden cameras, pre-fogged film,” as well as handheld cameras. In one particularly difficult shot that a special camera operator had to rehearse for two days, Surtees’s camera acts as Benjamin, as he walks out of the house in wetsuit, diving mask, and flippers, dives into his parents’ pool, swims underwater, resurfaces, only to be pushed back into the pool by his father. “We would do whatever we could think of to express the mood, the emotion of the scene,” Surtees remembered. Turman was impressed when Surtees gave Nichols a real compliment by saying, “ ‘You’re not asking for any over-the-shoulder shots [a clichéd shot of two people talking, with one person’s back to the camera]. Neither did John Ford.’ That’s quite something coming from a crusty guy like Surtees.”
The camerawork wasn’t the only innovative element of The Graduate. About halfway through shooting, Nichols’s brother, a physician, sent him the 1966 Columbia LP Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Nichols listened to it continuously for four weeks, then played a track for his actors. The New York actor William Daniels, who perfectly embodied Ben’s uptight father in the movie, recalls, “Mike Nichols said to us, ‘I have these two kids. One’s very tall and one’s sort of small. And I’m thinking of them to do the music for the picture.’ And so he played ‘The Sound of Silence.’ And I thought, Oh, wait a minute. That changed the whole idea of the picture for me.” For Daniels, who had originated the role of Peter in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, it was no longer just a comedy.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had been together since 1957, when they called themselves Tom and Jerry, and had even appeared on ABC’s American Bandstand, fashioning themselves after the Everly Brothers. But when Nichols approached the musicians with his idea, they seemed uninterested, even blasé. This was the 60s, after all, and troubadours had better things to do than write for movies. Turman, however, made a deal with them to write three new songs, but they became so busy touring that Simon—a slow and careful composer—didn’t have the time to do it.
When Nichols began editing the film, he and Sam O’Steen, his film editor, began laying in songs that Nichols had already fallen in love with: “The Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” “April Come She Will.” The one song Paul Simon did get around to writing, called “Punky’s Dilemma,” Nichols didn’t like. It was written for the scene, Turman explains, “in which Dustin alternates swimming and fucking and fucking and swimming, from the hotel to his parents’ pool.” They ended up not using it, but Nichols was intrigued when he heard a few chords of a new song Paul Simon was working on, a kind of nostalgia lyric called “Mrs. Roosevelt.” Nichols wanted it, so he suggested that he change the name to “Mrs. Robinson.” The rest is pop-music history.
Art Garfunkel, who would be directed by Nichols as an actor in his next two films, Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, was impressed with the director. “He always makes you feel like the smartest guy in the room,” Garfunkel told Vanity Fair recently on the phone, before embarking on a brief solo tour. “You know how smart you have to be to do that?” Nichols had them record half-written songs on a Hollywood soundstage. The missing verses for “Mrs. Robinson” would appear in April 1968 on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, the LP with a striking Richard Avedon cover portrait of the two musicians.
Simon and Garfunkel’s lucid, poetic lyrics serve as Ben’s interior monologue as he makes his way through the empty opulence of his parents’ suburban paradise. The juxtaposition of “The Sound of Silence,” a deeply personal cri de coeur, against the Los Angeles airport terminal—as Ben is carried robotically along a moving walkway—is both touching and funny. Right away we know we’re in a fish-out-of-water story, and Ben’s inarticulate, deeply felt musings will suffocate in this environment.
In some ways, the ironic use of Simon and Garfunkel’s music—“April Come She Will” while Ben sits in bed in the Taft Hotel, drinking a can of soda, catatonically watching television while Mrs. Robinson flits back and forth in various stages of undress, or Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar slowing down and sputtering as Ben’s Alfa Romeo runs out of gas during his desperate race to the church—prefigured the music video. You might say MTV was born out of The Graduate.
Sign of the Times
After the film was completed, Larry Turman began screening it in “the show-business halls of Hollywood,” in Hoffman’s phrase. The results were not good. Turman feared the film was going to be unsuccessful, because at all those Hollywood homes, industry insiders would come up to him afterward and say, “This could have been a great film if Nichols hadn’t badly miscast the lead.”
Joe Levine was so worried that he decided to release The Graduate as an art-house film, Hoffman recalls, “which, in those days, meant ‘soft porn.’ And so I got a phone call that he wanted me to come in and pose with Anne Bancroft. She would be sitting on a bed, and I would be facing her, standing up—naked—and she would have her hands around me, holding my buttocks! The only reason that didn’t happen was that Nichols found out and put an end to it.”
Hoffman saw the film for the first time at a sneak preview on East 84th Street, in New York. “I was sitting in the balcony,” he recalls, “and suddenly it was like a train gaining momentum, and by the time we were halfway through, the film was having a wild response. By the time I’m running to the church [at the film’s climax], the audience was just standing up, screaming and yelling. It was a profound experience—I was literally shaking through the whole film.”
When the movie ended, Hoffman and Anne Byrne, his girlfriend, whom he would soon marry (and divorce from in 1980), waited until everybody had left. “The thought of being recognized? I was traumatized. Everyone left, and we went downstairs, and a woman walking with a cane, slower than everyone else, saw me. She pointed her cane at me and said, ‘You’re Dustin Hoffman, aren’t you? You’re the Graduate.’ I’d never been recognized in public before. She said, ‘Life is never going to be the same for you from this moment on.’ ”
Hoffman came out of the theater, and “I remember it was snowing, and [I was] trying to get a cab, which was a luxury for us then, and I remember looking up at the snow and saying, ‘Annie, now, that’s real. What we just went through ain’t.’ ”
The woman with the cane was Radie Harris, a prominent gossip columnist, but it would take some time before her prophecy came true. Next, Hoffman was summoned to the opening at the Coronet Theater in New York. “All the suits were there, friends of Joe Levine,” Hoffman remembers. “There wasn’t a laugh during the entire film. That picture bombed! I walked out saying to Anne, ‘It’s a flop.’ ”
That’s when Levine asked Hoffman and Nichols to tour college campuses, to help build “a word-of-mouth audience.” (“They don’t even use that phrase anymore—the movies don’t stay long enough in the theaters,” says Hoffman.) Levine paid Hoffman $500 a week, “more than I got for shooting it,” and threw in some perks to get the actor on board.
Nichols wasn’t crazy about the idea. He accompanied Hoffman on the tour, and “in college after college, there was one question: Why isn’t the movie about Vietnam? You had to be outraged about Vietnam or it was shit. No matter what you were doing—if you ran a laundry, your shirts had to be outraged about Vietnam.”
And yet, despite the initial resistance, despite the doomsaying of the suits in Hollywood, the groundswell began. After the movie opened, on December 21, 1967, at the Coronet, on 59th Street and Third Avenue, and the Lincoln Art Theater, on 57th and Broadway, huge lines began to form. Film critic Hollis Alpert, writing in The Saturday Review, noticed that from his window he could see “lines extended around the corner, all the way down the block.… The Graduate is not merely a success; it has become a phenomenon of multiple attendances by young people. One boy … bragg[ed] that he had seen The Graduate more than any of his friends, no less than 15 times Marlon Brando, the revered James Dean, and [Elvis] Presley never came near doing that [kind of business].”
Turman, who had prevailed after countless turndowns from the studios, got the last laugh. At one preview, at Loew’s on 72nd Street, “there were like 2,000 people and they tore the roof off the theater—it’s like we orchestrated it! It was just fantastic. In the lobby I ran into [producer] David Picker, who had turned it down, and very ungraciously I walked up to him and said, ‘Not funny, huh?’ ” At another theater, Turman ran into a studio head standing in line to see the movie, who said to him, “Larry, why didn’t you make me make The Graduate!”
The film, which cost $3 million to make, became the highest-grossing motion picture of l968. It earned $35 million in its first six months, after playing in only 350 theaters around the country. The New Yorker devoted 26 pages of its July 27, 1968, issue to Jacob Brackman’s critical dissection of the film, in which he called it “the biggest success in the history of movies.” Despite such high praise, though, Nichols felt that a lot of the reviews missed the mark, describing it as a film about the generation gap. “At that particular moment, ‘the generation gap’ was everything. It never even entered our minds! The generation gap? Was it worse than Romeo and Juliet? What’re they talking about?”
Though the movie may not have been about the generation gap, it was inextricably linked with its time, an era of incredible social and political upheaval. During the spring 1968 student takeover of Columbia University, members of the radical Students for a Democratic Society took turns sneaking out of the occupied president’s office to go see The Graduate. On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, where parts of The Graduate had been filmed. That very week, “Mrs. Robinson” was the No. 1 pop song in America.
‘Mrs. Robinson” earned Simon and Garfunkel the Grammy Award for record of the year in 1969. And despite the dearth of new material by the pair (though it included six original compositions by film composer Dave Grusin that had been used in the movie), the Graduate soundtrack album won another Grammy for Paul Simon. The Graduate received seven Academy Award nominations (which must have baffled Bob Hope, that year’s master of ceremonies): best picture, best actor (Hoffman), best actress (Bancroft), best supporting actress (Ross), best director (Nichols), best screenplay based on another medium (Willingham and Henry), and best cinematography (Surtees). Only Nichols won, however. His decision to cast Hoffman to represent the perpetual outsider, the artist-refugee adrift in a world of plastics, had paid off handsomely, earning him a Golden Globe and best-director awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Directors Guild as well.
“I don’t know of another instance of a director at the height of his powers who would take a chance and cast someone like me in that part,” Hoffman says. “It took enormous artistic courage.” Hoffman’s affecting, understated performance sanctified Nichols’s big gamble. And Hoffman’s emergence as a leading man, you might say, made cinema safe for ethnic actors soon to follow, such as Al Pacino and John Travolta and even Woody Allen, who could go from playing comic stooges in Casino Royale and Take the Money and Run to credibly romancing shiksa dream-dates Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway in Annie Hall and Manhattan. After Hoffman, conventional good looks didn’t matter as much as wit, or toughness, or sexiness. “It was like rock ’n’ roll,” Buck Henry observes. “A whole generation changed its idea of what guys should look like, because the girls went for the musicians. I think Dustin’s physical being brought a sort of social and visual change, in the same way you talk about Bogart. They called him ugly—this, the most handsome man in films. But his generation thought he was awful-looking, until one day he wasn’t.”
Anne Bancroft, who died in 2005, is unforgettable as Mrs. Robinson, and she was forever after identified with the role, to the point where, later in life, she had to remind people, “I’ve made other films, you know!” Hoffman escaped that fate. His post-Graduate career has been nothing short of miraculous. He has a protean quality that has allowed him to morph into beings as varied as Ratso Rizzo, the tubercular lowlife in Midnight Cowboy, the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men, the much-harassed comic Lenny Bruce, the idiot-savant hero of Rain Man, even a lovable man in drag in Tootsie. He’s garnered seven Academy Award nominations for best actor, and he’s won twice, for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man.
In the past 40 years, The Graduate has served as a kind of film-school course for new generations of filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh, Harold Ramis, Todd Haynes, Mark Foster, the Coen brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson. When asked why she believes The Graduate’s impact has lasted so long, Katharine Ross just laughs and, channeling Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, says, “The Dude abides.”
“It really belongs to nobody now,” Mike Nichols reflects, sitting back in his chair at the Polo Lounge, sipping an Arnold Palmer. “It certainly doesn’t belong to Charles Webb. I don’t think it served to unbalance him, but it served to age and confound him. It was whipped away from him. We didn’t do it. We just made the movie! But then again, I think everybody feels it was whipped away from them.”
Charles Webb, 68, and his wife, Fred (she had her name changed from Eve in solidarity with a now defunct support group for men with low self-esteem), currently live in Eastbourne, England. Renouncing material success, Webb turned down an inheritance from his father, sold his film rights to The Graduate for $20,000, then gave the copyright to the Anti-Defamation League. He and his wife home-schooled their two sons and worked as dishwashers, housecleaners, and clerks at Kmart, living in campgrounds and trailer parks. They even lived in a Motel 6 for a while, in the small California coastal town of Carpinteria, before moving to England, where two years ago they were threatened with eviction from their apartment above a pet shop.
Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate’s dénouement.
Don’t miss a slideshow of Bob Willoughby’s classic photos from the set.
Considering himself a literary and not a commercial writer, Webb both distanced and disinherited himself from the success of the movie. (Two other movies based on his books were made: The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, in 1971, and Hope Springs, in 2003.) One of his sons, who became a performance artist, even cooked and ate a copy of The Graduate with cranberry sauce, a stunt that was mentioned in the English press. “Millions and millions were made from The Graduate, and here I am,” Webb told the BBC, “searching around for a couple of quid to buy my sandwich—people love that.” He did publish seven more novels, including Home School, a sequel to The Graduate, which picks up in the mid-70s, with Benjamin and Elaine living in Westchester County, with their two boys, and crossing paths again with Mrs. Robinson. When Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s released the American edition, in January, Webb told the New York Post that he “thought it would be my final bow to fiction, to go back to the beginning to find the ending. And then on to something else.”
After claiming not to have seen the movie of The Graduate for many years, he now calls it “excellent,” giving it “four and a half out of four stars.”
Throughout his long career, Mike Nichols has won at least one of every major entertainment award: the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony (seven of them), and the Grammy (for best comedy album, with Elaine May). He’s done such fine work for so long that he is in danger of being taken for granted. When he’s asked what was different about making movies back in the 1960s, now that his career has entered its sixth decade and he has amassed a formidable body of work (including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Silkwood, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge, Primary Colors, Wit, Angels in America, and Closer), the ghost of a smile crosses Nichols’s face. “I was just thinking,” he says, “about how happy we were making The Graduate. What was different? Of course, we were different then. There’s nothing better than discovering, to your own astonishment, what you’re meant to do. It’s like falling in love.”