New book: Why ‘The Graduate’ still ruffles our feathers, 50 years later

It was the sexy suburban affair that broke box office records and sent its cast to the Oscars.

In Seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Algonquin, 245 pp., ★★★ out of four), Beverly Gray’s new in-depth look at The Graduate, fans can take a deep dive into how the 1967 film about an unlikely May-December affair has etched itself into our collective memory for the past 50 years.

In an early passage, Gray cannily pinpoints why Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), a lethargic and malleable 21-year-old whose apathy has no apparent source, took root in ticket-buying Baby Boomers.

“We too — those of my generation — didn’t much want to face a life built on the bedrock of our elders’ choices,” Gray writes. “In Benjamin we found a hero willing to turn his back on the kind of bright, upper-middle-class future we weren’t sure we wanted.”

Though occasionally hampered by a lengthy rehashing of the film’s plot, which has Benjamin ultimately falling for Mrs. Robinson’s beautiful daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), Seduced by Mrs. Robinson offers a fascinating discussion on the bedroom tale’s origins — the movie was based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novel. Gray looks at how the book was marketed (Mrs. Robinson was discounted completely) as well as messy early incarnations of the movie script.

She makes hay of the casting brouhaha that surrounded the then-scandalous film, directed by Mike Nichols. Doris Day was first pursued for the role of Mrs. Robinson, with an interest in subverting her wholesome image. And Robert Redford, who’d been directed by Nichols in the Broadway comedy Barefoot in the Park, was originally considered for Benjamin (though Nichols found him to be too attractive for the part).

Although Webb’s novel had no physical description of Benjamin, it was widely assumed he’d be chiseled and WASPy in appearance. Nichols fought to cast the short, more homely Hoffman against type, and Gray recalls a spate of nasty commentary about the up-and-coming actor’s looks when the film was released.

(Though it’s only glancingly mentioned, Hollywood’s never-ending ageism was also on full display: Anne Bancroft was 35 when she was cast as the predatory aging housewife. Hoffman was nearly 30.)

Those looking for on-set gossip will have to hunt. Aside from rumors of Hoffman’s on-set mood swings — and his purported interest in Bancroft’s body double — the tabloid temperature is set to low. (More recently, Hoffman has come under a media glare after two women accused him sexual harassment, alleging decades-old incidents.)

Fans who admire Nichols’ long career will be reminded of his turbulent personal history, particularly the director’s arrival in New York at age 7 with his brother from Berlin.

Often academic in tone, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson aims to secure The Graduate its proper place in the Hollywood canon. Gray pays special attention to the “sadness beneath the comedic surface” of a film that hit theaters during a period of social unrest, the Vietnam war and growing protests.

The author recalls the iconic last scene with wedding runaways Hoffman and Ross, the latter clad in a diaphanous white gown.

During what was written as a joyous scene, Nichols “barked” at his actors, who were ill at ease, she writes. Later, watching the dailies, the director found the true ending of his tale etched on his stars’ faces: glazed smiles undercut by the terror of the unknown.

As Gray calls it, it’s a scene that marked “the end of the happy ending, a recognition of the fact that all’s not necessarily well that ends well.”

 

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