Forty years ago, leading men didn’t look like Dustin Hoffman. Which is to say, they weren’t 5’6” and Jewish. In 1967, movie stars came with Adonis profiles and Ivy League grins: Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park. Until The Graduate.
Interestingly, it was Redford who lobbied director Mike Nichols the hardest to play Benjamin Braddock. The match would have made sense, too. After all, in Charles Webb’s novel, Braddock is a fair-haired WASP. But Nichols had other ideas. He wanted the character to convey the awkwardness of being 21, inexperienced with women, and terrified of the future. Nichols explained this to Redford. Then to prove his point, he asked him: ”How many times have you struck out with a girl?” Redford replied: ”What do you mean?” Redford had never struck out in his life. Hell, he didn’t even get the question.
Redford’s luck with the ladies turns out to have been a gift for all of us, because Hoffman’s brilliantly bumbling star turn is the most compelling reason to beat a hasty path to the new DVD edition of The Graduate. Nichols’ nugget-rich commentary, where he tells the aforementioned Redford anecdote, is another. But honestly, there are too many reasons to list: Anne Bancroft as the seductively bewitching (then utterly heartbreaking) suburban cougar, Mrs. Robinson; Katharine Ross as her doe-eyed daughter, Elaine; and Simon and Garfunkel’s koo-koo-kachoo soundtrack, which revolutionized the way pop music was used to propel films.
Of course, four decades is a long time. And it’s impossible for any film that so perfectly captured the zeitgeist in 1967 to have the same bite in 2007. Or is it? The Graduate comes awfully close. The aimlessness and disillusionment felt so keenly by Hoffman’s freshly minted college grad still feels surprisingly dead-on. Never more so than when Benjamin is buttonholed by one of his parents’ sunburned friends and is given career advice (”One word…plastics”). Forty years ago, Nichols’ satire pinpointed the exact moment when the generation gap grew so wide that one side could no longer even see the other. Has that gap narrowed so much since then?
Given The Graduate‘s importance as a social X-ray and an indisputably classic film, it’s appalling how god-awful earlier DVD transfers have looked. Here, the swimming-pool blues and Alfa Romeo reds pop like Roman candles, and the tan lines from Mrs. Robinson’s black bra straps still look like they burn and smart. It’s ironic that a movie that so lacerated middle age should be this relevant at 40. But The Graduate wears its age beautifully. In fact, it doesn’t look a day over 21. A