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Fifty years ago this week on a cold wintry day, my date and I were in line at East Lansing’s Campus Theater to see “The Graduate.” Since it was the only game in town and I didn’t have a car, I would see the movie several times. It would run until mid-April and I would join other moviegoers standing and cheering for the unhip Benjamin Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman, bedded by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) the mother of his soon-to-be girlfriend, Elaine, played by Katharine Ross.
In the buildup to its opening, theater-goers had already learned about the movie’s classic moments through word-of-mouth, marketing and creative trailers. Because of its long run, moviegoers would anticipate dialogue by calling out “plastics,” “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” and “Are you here for an affair, sir?” “The Graduate” with its focus on the generation gap became the replacement for the movie “Catcher in the Rye,” which every director wanted to make but would never be able to.
A new book, “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson:
How the Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation,” by Beverly Gray details the making of the movie and its impact on a generation.
Gray wrote: “In ‘The Graduate’ we found the power to make our own choices.”
No doubt about it, the movie was about the generation gap between adults and children, most notably represented by the movie’s welcome home cocktail party for Benjamin where he gets one word of advice: “Plastics.”
Even the award-winning soundtrack was a perfect representation for the disassociation experienced by college-age young adults. For the soundtrack Mike Nichols turned to the song writer-poet duo of Simon and Garfunkel. The movie’s signature song, “Mrs. Robinson,” became a No. 1 hit on pop music lists.
The movie has some Mike Nichols’-style deadpan, uproarious funny moments. Many males in the audience in 1968 could easily identify with Benjamin’s clumsy checkin at the hotel for his tryst with Mrs. Robinson.
Benjamin is unsettled when asked “Are you here for an affair, sir?” Even some of the more unbelievable plot points — such as why would a girl even consider seeing her ersatz boyfriend after learning he has had an affair with her mother (who called it rape) are soon forgotten under the masterful direction of Nichols.
Nichols, although criticized at the time, avoided any mention of a raging war, civil rights, the looming draft or women’s rights. In fact, as the movie opened in East Lansing the Tet Offensive had swung into full gear.
Some of the more comedic moments show the deft hand of writer Buck Henry, who would go on to to fame as a regular host of “Saturday Night Live. “ In some ways, the most amazing thing about the movie is that it was even made, according to Gray.
The purchaser and soon-to-be producer Larry Turman, unable to find a big-time financier, turned to Joseph E. Levine who was known for remaking foreign films, like the schlock “Hercules” which he re-dubbed.
Nichols pored through A-list stars until after a screen test, he selected a little-known actor, the nebbish-Jewish Dustin Hoffman.
It was a courageous choice, as Gray details in her book. Jews just didn’t get leading roles in the mid-1960s.
The movie also faced stiff competition from movies like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Valley of the Dolls,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
So why, 50 years later, do we turn to the movie “The Graduate” as representative of a generation?
As Gray writes, quoting Ron Howard in a New York Times article: “We feel the story through Benjamin — his feelings are the ones we are also feeling.”
That might be summed up best by the lyric popularized by the movie:
“Hello darkness, my old friend.”
And for the record, one of my dates to see “The Graduate” heeded the call of “plastics” and had a very successful career. Me, I’d stand outside MSU’s Student Services Building protesting Dow Chemical.
Watching the movie today, it may not stand the test of time. One teenager I know said: “Elaine should have called the cops on Benjamin,” a stalker if there ever was one.
City Pulse Book Club meets Feb. 1
The City Pulse Book Club will discuss
“The Odyssey of Echo Company,” by Doug Stanton, which looks at the Tet offensive in Vietnam, at 7 p.m. Thursday. Feb. 1, at Schuler Books & Music in the Meridian Mall. Each month this year, the club is reading books about 1968 or published in 1968 as part of the year’s golden anniversary. For more information, please contact Bill Castanier at email@example.com.