Monday, October 22, 2007

GRADUATE Thoughts

I had a wonderful evening Saturday night going through MGM's new 40th Anniversay reissue of Mike Nichols' THE GRADUATE. It's a splendid two-disc set, with the best-looking transfer the film has ever had on home video, numerous supplementary trailers and featurettes (two of them ported over from the film's 10th and 25th anniversary home video releases) and, best of all, two compellingly listenable audio commentaries. The first is by stars Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, and the other finds Nichols interviewed by fellow director Steven Soderbergh, making this disc a sequel of sorts to their superb commentary for CATCH-22 and hopefully a flag for a more detailed, eventual reissue of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE.

The Hoffman/Ross commentary is historic for its repairing of one of the most charismatic screen couples of the 1960s, as the two have never worked together again. Hoffman admits several times to having a huge crush on Ross during the filming, which makes sense for an actor who studied under Lee Strasberg, which elicits a silence from Ross whenever it's brought up that is impossible to read. Either it makes sense to her too, or she simply doesn't know what to do with such a confession, but she doesn't return it in kind. It makes one wonder what their onscreen chemistry might be like, were Hoffman's pet project of a GRADUATE sequel ever to be made. But the track's most valuable aspect is the appreciation shown by both actors for the phenomenal widescreen photography of Robert Surtees, which opened my eyes to what an amazing feat of cinematography this film represents.

Ross is still angry with herself for having been unable to cry, as she was supposed to do, in the close-shot where she, Elaine, discovers that Benjamin (Hoffman) has had an affair with her mother, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). She continues to see this instance as her own technical failure, though it led to the far greater triumph brought to the moment by Surtees, who gave us what may be the screen's most brilliant use of delayed focus:







"Oh my God..."

I've seen THE GRADUATE numerous times since my first time in 1969, and the Nichols/Soderbergh commentary likewise guided my latest viewing to notice aspects of the production's design and wardrobe, for example, that had previously escaped my notice. Though it was Nichols' first film in color, his insecurity about working in a full-on color palette led to a creative decision to make THE GRADUATE a very monochromatic color film -- it's the kind of thing you may have never noticed but, once you're told, you can't not see it everywhere in evidence.
Watching the film again, I came away with two observations that are not discussed on the disc, nor am I aware of them having been discussed anywhere else. First of all, about the music score: I've always felt that the Simon & Garfunkel songs work perfectly well, and Nichols explains that their use in the film resulted from a gift of their music from his brother and his own ensuing obsession with it. While I feel the film was wise to omit any reference to timely events, such as the Vietnam war, to maintain its fable-like universality, I think the music puts it into a bubble that is very much of its time and offers little thematic reinforcement.
It occurred to me that Nichols might have been better served for the long haul with selections from the Beach Boys album PET SOUNDS. Imagine the early scenes of Benjamin's homecoming depression accompanied by "That's Not Me" or "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," the manic driving scenes prior to the church finale accompanied by the instrumental title track, and the church scene itself accompanied by "God Only Knows." I think the film's ending works beautifully as is, but I'm now wondering if it might play even more ironically in concert with "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Of course, such a marriage of movie and music would have made PET SOUNDS a greater hit of its time and less available to rediscovery; we might think of it today as "music from THE GRADUATE" rather than the classic album it is, but PET SOUNDS remains ever fresh and relevant to new generations while the Simon and Garfunkel songs, obsessively played and replayed, seem overtly precious, hearkening back to a time of fragile romantic illusion, especially in tracks like "Scarborough Fair."

Another idea I had puts an interesting twist on the essential drama and on Anne Bancroft's performance in particular. What if Mrs. Robinson's intense objection to Benjamin's courtship of her daughter was rooted in a better reason than her own vanity and her lame excuse that he isn't "good enough" for her daughter? What if, in her younger days, she and Benjamin's father -- her husband's business partner -- had an affair that resulted in her pregnancy with Elaine?
It's not uncommon for husbands to stray while their wives are pregnant, and it seems a reasonable possibility, especially given the way Murray Hamilton's character screams "cuckold" and the evasive mien Mrs. Robinson adopts in the hotel scene where Benjamin pumps her for details about how Elaine was conceived. The story of Elaine's conception which she offers to her young lover could as easily be illustrative of the mundane circumstances under which she lost her virginity. Everything in Anne Bancroft's performance is consistent with this reading of the material; I would go so far as to say that it is more consistent than the vague territorial explanations given. It would explain her attraction to Benjamin as a remnant or representative of a past affair, perhaps as an opportunity to do damage to the house of a man who once rejected her and gave her the child that necessitated her acceptance of another man's proposal.
In one of the interview supplements ported over from an earlier release of THE GRADUATE, Dustin Hoffman offers his interesting idea for a sequel: Benjamin and Elaine are still married, more through habit than happiness, but when their son returns home from college with a young woman he introduces as his fiancée, Benjamin embarks on an affair with his future daughter-in-law, in effect "becoming" Mrs. Robinson. It's a good idea, a movie I'd certainly pay to see, but imagine a sequel in which Benjamin and Elaine are still together, actually happily married, and discover after the death of Mrs. Robinson certain documents illuminating Mr. Robinson's impotence and her affair with Benjamin's father.
Now that could be dynamite.
Addenda 6:09 pm: The Hoffman/Ross commentary track also includes some interesting and amusing anecdotes about filming the scene in the stripclub, which Hoffman cheerfully recalls as being a much easier day's work for him than for Ross. He recalls asking the stripper (whose name he remembers as Elaine) at the end of the day how she felt after hours of keeping her tassles twirling in opposite directions. Her response: "My feet are killing me." What the track doesn't reveal, and what I did not discover until this very day, is that the stripper was played by an uncredited Lainie Miller, the wife of beloved character actor Dick Miller. Last Christmas, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

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