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‘The Graduate’ at 50: Sex, Alienation and Comedy Made Mike Nichols Film a Classic

June is graduation month, which means a long parade of commencement ceremonies and family parties celebrating the new graduate. And at many of those parties, someone will make a joke about Mrs. Robinson or the word “plastics,” because the 50-year-old film “The Graduate” has become part of modern folklore, even for people who haven’t seen it. That’s an impressive achievement for a movie that nobody wanted to make.

The Graduate” opened nationwide on Dec. 22, 1967, and by the third week, Variety described its box office as sockeroo. Even 42 weeks after its debut, the film was in theaters, still doing “socko” business, as Variety reported on Oct. 9, 1968. It went on to earn $104 million, which roughly translates to $740 million today.

While many films date quickly, this one still works, thanks in part to the stylish direction of Mike Nichols and the script by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, adapting Charles Webb’s novel. And of course the performances by Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Katharine Ross.

When the movie opened, it captured the zeitgeist. There were no references to Vietnam, student protests, or race relations. But the film struck a nerve, thanks to Benjamin Braddock’s alienation from his family’s superficial values and lifestyle.

The film had another key ingredient: sex.

Almost a year before it began production, on March 25, 1966, director Nichols warned Variety columnist Army Archerd that the film would be “adult” because it centered on the affair between a college grad and a 40-year-old woman. In the 21st century, many people mistakenly believe that the entire decade of the 1960s was about free love and hippie vibes. In truth, many people in America, and Hollywood especially, were pretty prim; if characters were shown having sex in movies, it was either saucy (the 007 movies, “What’s New Pussycat?”) or lurid (“The Carpetbaggers,” “Valley of the Dolls”). Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock seemed to regard sex as a nice break from their daily routines. It was a shocking notion for movies (while on TV, sex was practically non-existent; even married characters had separate beds).

Like all great successes, “The Graduate” had a long and difficult journey to the screen. But producer Lawrence Turman stuck with it. Most studios were either indifferent or vaguely offended by the project. Coming to the rescue was Joseph E. Levine, an old-fashioned showman whose Embassy Pictures had released titles ranging from genre films like “Hercules” (1958) and “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” to arthouse favorites such as Federico Fellini’s “8½” and the Julie Christie-John Schlesinger film “Darling.”

Among the actors considered for the three leads in “The Graduate” were Doris Day, Robert Redford, and Candice Bergen. There are varying versions of Day turning down the project. Producer Turman said Day’s husband rejected the Webb novel without showing it to her. Nichols said Day got the script via their mutual friend Norman Jewison, but her husband Marty Melcher threw a fit that she was going behind his back. Day recalled later, “I realized it was an effective part, but it offended my sense of values.”

Though Mrs. Robinson says she’s twice the age of Benjamin, Bancroft was 35, compared to Hoffman’s 29. But it worked so well that you can’t imagine any other actors in those roles.

In the Dec. 18, 1967, Variety review, A.D. Murphy said the film “is a delightful, satirical comedy-drama. … Count this one as a winner for Joseph E. Levine, Turman, and Nichols.”

The film boosted the careers of almost everyone involved, including Simon & Garfunkel, whose songs were used. One notable exception was novelist Webb. The film follows the novel closely, including much of the dialogue, so his contribution was major. But Webb was paid a flat fee and didn’t share in the film’s profits. Even more than Benjamin, Webb rejected the values of his well-to-do family (who lived in Pasadena). After the film’s mega-success, Webb and his wife lived in England, often doing blue-collar work and living low-income lives; in 2006, BBC reported that the couple were facing eviction.

Webb wrote a sequel novel, “Home School,” in which Benjamin and Elaine are living in the suburbs of Westchester County with two children. Mrs. Robinson is simply called “Nan,” presumably a version of nana or gran. Her first name is never mentioned in the book or the script.

“The Graduate” earned seven Oscar nominations, with Nichols the sole winner. But this film and “Bonnie and Clyde” (also in 1967), plusFrancis Ford Coppola’s 1966 “You’re a Big Boy Now” served as a notice to Hollywood that filmmakers and audiences were changing. Studio execs took heed, but it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of the 1969 “Easy Rider” that Hollywood knew it was an entirely new era.

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