Thursday, February 4, 2016

THE GRADUATE: Blu-ray (Embassy Pictures 1967) Criterion Collection

It has been almost 50 years since the sexually ravenous and destructive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduced insecure, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in Mike Nichols’ seminal dramedy, The Graduate (1967) and yet, despite changing hairstyles, and clothing, the artificially inflated mores of our decaying post-modern society are ever more in tune with this film. The novel by Charles Webb called for a buff, blonde California bronzed Apollo a la the ilk of Robert Redford to be cast in the lead. Indeed, Nichols was ‘encouraged’ by the film’s backers to consider Redford as his star. It would have made perfect sense: Redford, not only looking the part but already well-established as a movie star. Yet, in hindsight, the genius of the picture is its casting against type; the comparatively, diminutive, dark-haired and soft-featured Hoffman counteracted by the actor’s towering, intuitive and heartfelt performance as this socially numb and drifting young man who cannot see anything clearly, much less his own future. Today, The Graduate plays like a semi-tragic reflection of everything since gone wrong with modern youth, crippled by a general lack of ambition and viable opportunities to improve their circumstances; preyed upon by the aged crust of prejudice and insidious jealousies built into each generation gone before them.
The film is justly recalled for Hoffman’s distinctly neurotic virgin, photographed through the raised and very supple leg of Anne Robinson; her devilishly playful chuckles a wicked little prelude to the operatic sexual conquest soon to follow as Ben openly reiterates her motives, “Mrs. Robinson…you’re trying to seduce me.” Figuratively and literally, Ben makes his own bed; forced to lay in it, and, lie about it to his parents and the love of his life; later, to be compounded by his clandestine rendezvous with Mrs. Robinson in out-of-the-way hotels and an unanticipated courtship blossoming between Ben and Anne’s daughter, the doe-eyed Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to the chagrin of Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton), who comes to the realization Ben is bedding both his wife and perfect ‘little girl’ in tandem.  The territorial Anne cannot stand competition – not even from her own child; venomous and spiteful and ready to sell Elaine in marriage to the proverbial tight-lipped WASP, Carl Smith (Brian Avery), deliberately an exile, but also to wreck Elaine’s chances at real happiness. Or is this even true? Are Elaine and Ben representatives of a ‘new frontier’ celebrating the sexually revolution of the sixties, or are they merely a textbook example of everything that has gone to hell since? We today are at a great advantage, with 50 years mileage in the rear view since The Graduate’s debut.    
In some ways, The Graduate, though billed as a comedy, is every young man’s worst nightmare, hit at the crossroads of life with impossible expectations and even more dire dead-end prospects – or worse – none at all; inveigled in a trap by his own design, and suffering from the unease of an adult existence dislocated from the parental cocoon. For Benjamin, circumstances both beyond and entirely within his control are conspiring to reshape his impressions; Mrs. Robinson, merely the first of these vile barracudas, ready to steer him into shark-infested waters. It is interesting to note Bancroft was only six years Hoffman’s senior in real life – yet perfectly cast as the middle-aged viper, grasping at the last straws of her own fading youth. It might have all become far too serious and full of the sort of self-loathing ennui for which a certain ilk of late sixties/early seventies movies were prone, except the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, coupled with Mike Nichols’ inimitable flair for finding something supremely hilarious and sobering in the everyday, plus, Dustin Hoffman’s rather giddily earnest performance, have all conspired to draw out a delicious gullibility in this semi-tragic young man, sincerely guileless, but waffling.  
One recalls, as example, and with pleasant absurdity, the flashes of nudity that grip and paralyze Ben in an upstairs bedroom of the Robinson home as Anne bears all for him while nonchalantly laying out the seemingly harmless ‘ground rules’ of her ‘no frills’ offer; Ben, unable to look away – entirely – and yet, quite frantic to escape her indecent proposal unscathed. Of course, he falls, fails, and founders; his ability to keep a good mid-life crisis going, his dissatisfaction with their clandestine rendezvous and his mounting and genuine love for Elaine playing tug-o-war with his heart as well as his loins. Such incidents are played in scenes that ache with the panged irony of youth; Hoffman giving us an exceptional piece of acting, easily surpassing his physical shortcomings.  
It might have all come to not, as Charles Webb’s novel, detailing this May-December tryst, raised more than a few eyebrows in Hollywood. And even more cleverly, Nichols avoids the pitfalls of becoming just another installment in that superficially trashy milieu, devoted to pretty young things showing more than a little skin in half shadow, dipping their toes in the creative cesspool without going all the way or going much too far to be taken seriously. By comparison, the titillation in The Graduate is mostly cerebral; kicked off by the veritable dry-mouthed and gut-wrenching nervous breakdown going on inside Ben’s head; his inner cry incapable of releasing all that pent up energy, given its momentary, if imperfect, escape with the enterprising Mrs. Robinson; the only one to have seen through his blank fa├žade, effectively targeting Ben as ripe for her own exploitation to satisfy a midlife longing for young flesh.
Our story begins in an airport terminal, the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ typifying the isolationism echoing in Ben’s head as he prepares to come home after his college graduation. In these initial scenes, Nichols and his cinematographer, Robert Surtees keep the action tightly focused on Ben’s facial expressions, but with a deliberate equilibrium-altering (and most effective) use of the hand-held camera; Ben, navigating his way through a tidal wave of well-wishers, who superficially preen and poke at him as though he were an oddity, put on public display solely for their amusement; some, like Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke), merely hoping to capitalize on Ben’s qualifications by drawing him into a business venture. Ben’s affluent parents; father (William Daniels) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson), typically dote on their only child, and yet, remain rather oblivious to his central needs. Instead, they merely throw money at the problem, hoping it will go away. Upon graduation, Ben is given a snazzy red sports car. For his twenty-first birthday, he gets a rather expensive, though no less thoughtless, gift of scuba gear – again, forced to parade before a small gathering to show off the Band-Aid privileges that only money can buy. Was there ever a more perfect realization for a young man’s crushing angst than this parallel between Ben’s internalized drowning and more concrete representation of it, as Ben settles – figuratively and literally – at the bottom of the family’s pool in his weighted aquatic gear while his parents’ well-heeled sycophants emphatically observe the implosion?
In the interim, Benjamin has already met Anne Robinson. She is an embittered tease with gritted teeth that spell disaster; a signpost Ben somehow manages to repeatedly misread or ignore as she recklessly tosses the keys to his new roadster into a tank of fresh water fish, forces Ben to drive her home, then appears in the raw to seal the deal, leading to the now infamous moment of propositioning and its awkward aftermath as a somewhat morose Mr. Robinson returns from a golfing trip to encourage Ben to sew, as he puts it, ‘a few wild oats’; preferably with their daughter, Elaine. Meanwhile, Mrs. Braddock begins to suspect Ben is satisfying his primal urges with prostitutes. Neither the Braddocks nor Mr. Robinson can fathom Ben and Anne have already consummated their…what should we call it? Hardly, a relationship. It’s not even an affair. Anne and Ben are not equals. She isn’t trying to relate to him as anything more or better than an erotic castaway; her latest fling with some taut boy-flesh. It’s all rather distasteful and filthy, but strangely tantalizing to Ben – at least, at first, especially when challenged by Anne to prove his manhood. Gradually, however, this erotic fantasy fades – as all erotic fantasies eventually do – congealed into a quagmire of regrets as reality sets in. After all, this affair is wrong on soooooo many levels; chiefly, Ben embarrassing himself by disgracing his parents. As though to amend his moral weakness, he gives Anne his word he will not date Elaine, but then almost immediately back-peddles on the oath at Mr. Robinson’s behest.
Presumably to put Elaine off of him from the outset, Ben takes this true innocent to the seediest of men’s club, subjecting her to a stripper whirling her tassels. Tearfully, Elaine asks to be taken home. But realizing he has gone much too far in his cruelty, Ben now apologizes; confesses actually, to everything except the fact he has been sleeping with her mother. Elaine is sympathetic. This young man has both qualities and a soul. And Elaine is rather into picking up and looking after ‘wounded animals’. Thus, she and Ben begin a flawed courtship, interrupted when Anne jumps into Ben’s car in her stead, ordering him to cease in his pursuit of Elaine. “I can make things very unpleasant for you,” Mrs. Robinson admits with steely-eyed resolve. Disbelieving she could ever be quite as malicious as to confess the truth, yet equally as determined to make a clean breast of the situation, Ben rushes to Elaine and reveals the truth to her first. His candor is only partially liberating; but it destroys the uncomplicated freshness in their burgeoning relationship and makes veritable mincemeat of Elaine’s faith in her parents’ relationship and marriage in general. Swiftly, Elaine goes off to Berkeley to resume her studies, becoming involved with Carl Smith, her rebound lover. In the meantime, Ben takes up residency in an apartment near the campus, run by the suspicious Mr. McCleery (Norman Feld), who suspects Ben of being a pervert, spying on young college girls. Ben pursues Elaine. And although she is not receptive towards him at first, he gradually wears down her apprehensions. She can see in him the merits her mother only suffered through to exploit Ben for cheaply erotic thrills, meant to shore up her own crumbling marriage.
But Anne has worked out an even more insidious revenge; first, by revealing her peccadillos to her husband. Understandably enraged and humiliated, Mr. Robinson confronts Ben. And although he is quite successful at getting Ben kicked out of his rented apartment, Mr. Robinson is as incapable of stopping the inevitable. For a brief moment the Robinsons unite in their resolve to give their daughter the perfect wedding, or rather to deprive Benjamin of seeing Elaine ever again. Breaking into the Robinson’s home, Ben learns from Anne of Elaine’s pending nuptials to Carl Smith. She also telephones the police, determined to have Benjamin arrested as an intruder. But Ben is relentless, dogging every lead and scouring the various venues until he learns the location for the ceremony. Arriving in the nick of time – literally seconds away from the big moment – Ben barges in and declares his love with frantic ardor. Unable to resist him, Elaine abandons Carl at the altar. Ben holds off the enraged congregation with a crucifix seized from the altar. The couple escapes aboard a passing bus full of retirees on a field trip; Ben and Elaine’s exuberance, an anathema to the aged crust of prejudice that continues to surround them.
Interestingly, Nichols concludes The Graduate on an abstruse note; Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ interrupting this blissful euphoria. The song does more than simply bring the action full circle; having both opened and closed the show on the same strains of moral/social/sexual vagueness. Consider the opening lyrics for starters, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” Benjamin Braddock has not escaped his former life unscathed.  Hitherto, he remains insularly stricken with these same emasculated fears that initially made him vulnerable to the seductive reasoning of a middle-aged cougar. One can argue the angst as momentarily diluted by his most recent triumph. Yet it is unlikely to have been beaten into submission as he and Elaine move forward to the next flawed vignette and/or roadblock set before their lives. After all, the Robinsons, now unified in their venom, will not remain silent for much longer.
No, Ben has not been even remotely successful at bringing closure to these incidents from his more recent past, likely to continue to discolor and erode his lifestyle and affections for Elaine. Almost certainly, he has ruined any chances of procuring a career amongst the many prospects put forth by friends of the family. Most assuredly, Mrs. Robinson will see to that!  And even if the Robinsons did not represent a united front against whatever the future may bring, then Benjamin and Elaine still have not found everlasting happiness together. Rather, they are living in a fool’s paradise and mostly off the ether of this momentary - if mutually sustained - adrenaline rush. It is, after all, quite liberating to defy mores and convention by doing something – anything, in fact – that goes against the grain of society. Rarely, however, does such defiance prove a point that is everlasting, and quite often, not without hellish repercussions to mar and obscure the victory. It merely gratifies an innate and perennial urge put forth by each new generation to be decidedly different and apart from the one preceding it.
The Graduate was a huge hit upon its release. Today, it remains a cultural touchstone in American cinema, having gone far beyond being the funniest American comedy of its’ year. However, time does strange things to cinema art; particularly to its reception by the critics; in particular, the late Roger Ebert, who in 1967 praised The Graduate yet, thirty years later, found his sympathies shifted from Benjamin to Mrs. Robinson; describing the former as “an insufferable creep.”  There is something to reconsider in Hoffman’s rather queerly conflicted, introspective performance. If Nichols had cast industry fav, Robert Redford in the lead such critical backlash might not be levied. Hoffman’s unconventional casting sets the film apart. But it also brings into question Benjamin Braddock’s sincerity. Is he pursuing Elaine because he truly loves her, or rather – and simply – to break out from under the yoke of his own sexually repressed frustrations, given only a minor release with her mother?   This graduate isn’t telling because Hoffman’s finely honed art is more about providing the audience with infinite possibilities to reexamine rather than any finite conclusion. Questioning Ben’s motivations is part of the fun in this exercise. Is Ben a cad? Well…yes. After all, just because a hungry lion is tossed a piece of meat does not mean he has to eat it. Is Ben sorry he had the affair with Mrs. Robinson or bitterly remorseless for having been forced to reveal it? Hmmm. And so the beat goes on…and on…  
Personally, I am not a fan of ‘lists’, frequently compiled to suggest a movie’s greatness on an arbitrary scale of tastes and reflections put forth by a select few ‘experts’ in the field. As example, the 1997 tally devoted to the AFI’s 100 greatest of all time had The Graduate pegged at a solid 7th place, but slipping to #17 by 2007. What does this mean? Very little, if you ask me. Lists are like pie crusts – easily made and even more easily broken.  I am a little less critical in my opinion of awards. The Graduate received a slew of nominations in 1967; Best Picture, Actress (Anne Bancroft), Supporting Actress, (Katharine Ross), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Best Director. Curiously, Hoffman did not receive the nod here. Ultimately, only Nichols walked away the winner – a statuette justly deserved. 
The Graduate makes a welcomed resurgence on Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection. It is about time too. MGM, the present-day custodians of this classic, originally made independently for Embassy Pictures and distributed by United Artists, have finally realized what a gem they possess. The Graduate was one of MGM’s first assets to make the leap to hi-def back in 2006, and while that 1080p transfer was a marked improvement over all previous standard releases on VHS, LD and DVD, what we have here is a brand new 4K upgrade that seems to hint maybe – just maybe – the corporate power structure at MGM responsible for preserving their own heritage has had a change of heart. Let us be honest and fair when pointing out MGM today is a far cry from the great studio overseen by Louis B. Mayer. Today, it functions mostly as a holding company, nee repository for post-sixties to late eighties film fodder made independently, but released under the UA banner in those fitful waning years.  Still, the company has managed to do the least with what is under their control. The Alamo, anyone?!? But I digress.
All the more worthy applause is now due. The Graduate is, by far, one of the best looking hi-def discs to come down the MGM/UA pipeline in a very long while. Permit us then to simply say, ‘wow’ and ‘thank you’ to whoever is responsible for this turnaround in executive leadership.  This new 4K digital restoration is phenomenal – period! It is a shay darker than the previous incarnation, but also appears to more faithfully replicate Robert Surtees’ original cinematography. Flesh tones are the biggest improvement; fully saturated without adopting that garish orange tint plaguing the old Blu-ray release. The other major improvement: indigenous grain structure. The old Blu-ray had practically none, suggesting untoward DNR was applied to unnaturally homogenize the image. One final point to make about the image: there’s more of it, the Criterion revealing considerably more information on all four sides of the frame.  Criterion has given us the option between a remastered PCM original mono and an impressive DTS 5.1.; the real benefactor to the latter aural presentation, Simon and Garfunkel’s songs, sounding hauntingly crisp with exceptional fidelity.
Prepare to be impressed in extras: two audio commentaries - the late Mike Nichols in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, recorded in 2007, and, a more scholastic approach by Howard Suber, recorded for Criterion’s LaserDisc all the way back in 1987. We get brand new featurettes too: the first, a magnificent 40-minute interview with Dustin Hoffman who is frank and exhibits extraordinary recall about the making of the film. The second featurette co-stars producer, Lawrence Turman and screenwriter, Buck Henry, dishing the dirt with film historian, Bobbie O’Steen. Criterion has also amassed a lot of vintage extras: Students of The Graduate: a 2007 retrospective on the film’s influence; The Graduate At 25 – a 1992 featurette on the making of the film, an excised Barbara Walters’ interview with Nichols from1966 and an all too brief 1970 appearance by singer-songwriter, Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show. Capping off the extras are 14 minutes of screen tests and a trailer, plus Criterion’s usual devotion to printed liner notes, herein supplied by journalist/critic, Frank Rich. Bottom line: Criterion’s reissue of The Graduate is the definitive version to own. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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