Wednesday, September 12, 2007

THE GRADUATE (Avco/Embassy 1967) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

A seminal masterwork, in which Hollywood officially bid its goodbyes to the Andy Hardy cliché of youth that had, for so long, been its norm, to openly embrace a new generation at its crossroads - Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967) continues to resonate with audiences and critics. The poignant reflection and happy accident of a serious of perfectly timed variables, the film continues to rank among the most prolific of ‘60s pop culture contributions on celluloid.

It’s been 40 years since the ravenously destructive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduced insecure Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). Yet, the trick and magic of the film is that, while its hair styles and clothing have dated considerably, its performances and theme of stifled ‘coming of age’ have not.

The novel by Charles Webb, detailing a May-December lust between an inept and socially numb college graduate and an equally numb middle aged seductress raised more than a few eyebrows in Hollywood then – despite the fact that cinema’s social morays were changing throughout the decade.

The story unfolds with the return of young Benjamin into the family fold. He’s an honor roll graduate but with little on his mind – his expressionless features masking a complete inability to awaken from an intellectually drawn out stupor and move forward into the realm of functional manhood. While his parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) try to realign their adult son into the teenage mold he’s clearly outgrown, the Braddock’s family friend, Mrs. Robinson has more than a casual acquaintance and friendship on her mind.

Seducing Ben with a clear understanding that she has little to zero interest in him other than to use him for sex, Mrs. Robinson’s devil-may-care demeanor eventually turns rancid when Ben develops a thorough and healthy romantic interest in her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross).

By now, most everyone knows the classic scenes from this problematic détente by heart; Benjamin’s initial apprehensions caught in the shadowy raised leg of his seductress, Elaine’s near instant transformation from naïve girl to caustic womanhood in the moment she realizes her mother is her boyfriend’s lover; the climactic escape from upper middle class ‘plastic’ morality, as Ben fights off Elaine’s husband and family with a church cross – these are definitive moments in an otherwise decisive film that, at least for the most part, stayed true to Webb’s original construction.

The one glaring exception is the finale. In the book, Ben arrives before Elaine has concluded her nuptials to the wasp, Carl Smith (Brian Avery). In the film, Ben is too late. Katharine is already Carl’s bride – but he wins her nonetheless after the brief confrontation that degenerates into an angry free for all. In altering this ending for his film, director Nichols captures a turning point in America’s cultural awareness – defining for generations to come the moment when ‘the way it was’ became ‘the new way of looking at things.’

Initially, director Nichol’s went through a parade of blond hair, blue-eyed Adonises cut from the vein of Robert Redfort (also briefly considered) for the plum role of Benjamin, before latching onto a decidedly different interpretation of the part with Dustin Hoffman. In his debut that can only be described as impeccable - Hoffman creates a character of such genuinely pain and perplexation that he embodied the awkward right of passage we all share in - from being someone’s adult child to becoming our own person.

As the scandalous Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft embodies a decadent decay of middle class morality – a sort of corrupt gatekeeper, tragically caught between her own desires and a passing parade that is all too willing and able to move on without her. In truth, Bancroft was a measly 35 to Hoffman’s stately 29 – hardly the right age for a black widow cougar.

The film is also justly famous for its departure in digetic score, eschewing the traditional orchestral arrangements instead for the insertion of three prominent pop tunes written and already released by Simon and Garfunkel on two different albums before the film began shooting – while adding one work of pure inspiration produced by the duo expressly for the film: ‘Mrs. Robinson.’

The newly minted 40th Anniversary Edition of The Graduate corrects an overdue oversight on home video – at last providing a 16X9 enhanced picture element that seems to have been the benefactor of some digital clean up. For the most part, the image is bright, sharp, detailed and rich in its color palette.

However, several scenes continue to exhibit a slight soggy haze, a genuine softening of the image and more than a permissible amount of film grain. Flesh tones range from relatively natural to very orangy. Overall, the picture elements will surely not disappoint, but they are still not up to a level one might expect and/or have wished for.

The audio has been remastered in DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital – remedying the old mono mix which was shrill and not terribly engaging. Dialogue continues to sound quite unnatural and forward, as do most effects. The real benefactor here is Simon and Garfunkel’s tunes, spread across the expanse of all five channels.

Extras include two separate audio commentary tracks – the better of these coming from Nichols with Steven Soderbergh. There’s also a brief featurette ‘Students of The Graduate’ in which contemporary film makers wax affectionately about their reminiscences. It’s short on actual production shoot facts and long on conciliatory praise, while eschewing any involvement or archival interviews from the principle cast and crew.

Another featurette on ‘The Seduction’ is a waste of time. Dustin Hoffman provides a welcome on camera reflection on the film. The theatrical trailer and 4 ‘original’ songs by Simon and Garfunkel round out the extras. Note: The song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was written in haste for the film and largely improvised. It contained only a few bars and a bridge and never appeared on the original soundtrack release. The song on this CD is the complete 4 min. plus version Simon and Garfunkel wrote after the film and the song had become such a huge hit.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)