Dec. 9, 2002
-- It was the highest-grossing motion picture of 1968. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The American Film Institute ranked it at number seven in its list of the greatest films of the century. It features one of the most recognizable soundtracks in movie history, by one of pop music's best-loved duos. It helped launch the careers of actor Dustin Hoffman, screenwriter Buck Henry and director Mike Nichols and has been credited with the assassination of the romantic comedy.
If all that doesn't ring a bell, we've got one word for you. Just one word -- plastics.
For Morning Edition
, NPR's Don Lee looks behind the scenes of The Graduate
. As part of the Present at the Creation
series on the origins of cultural icons, he tells the story of how some unlikely ingredients were mixed together to make a movie that changed American cinema.
As The Graduate
begins, Benjamin Braddock, played by Hoffman in his first film role, tells his father that he's worried about his future, that he wants it to be "different." But as the wish comes true, Benjamin discovers an unfortunate side effect: his life becomes much more complicated. After driving friend-of-the-family Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) home from his graduation party, Benjamin is seduced by her.
Against a backdrop of songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Benjamin drifts aimlessly through a summer affair with the older woman until he falls in love with, and decides to pursue, her daughter Elaine. That plot twist helped transform the conventional Hollywood romance.
Like so many other students, Benjamin Braddock can often be found in the library. He's been there since 1963, in the Fiction section, filed under 'W'. That year, Charles Webb published the novel that Hollywood producer Lawrence Turman would read about in The New York Times
. Turman found a copy of The Graduate
, and thought highly enough of the story that he made a movie he considered to be 90-percent faithful to the book.
But Turman and director Mike Nichols made one key adaptation, changing the Braddocks from WASP-y blonde characters into a dark-haired, more ethnic-looking family. Turman says the role of Mrs. Robinson was initially offered to Doris Day. The filmmakers also considered Robert Redford and Candice Bergen to play Benjamin and Elaine.
Nichols had worked with Redford on Broadway and was keen on him at first, but Turman disagreed. "I was resistant because his qualities weren't quite right for The Graduate
," he says. "The Graduate
only works if it's a 21-year-old going on 16, who's sexually insecure. Well, Redford is this... classic sexual matinee idol. So we did a test with Redford and I don't think the test was one-third of the way in when Mike, who had wanted him, turned to me and said 'Turman, you S.O.B., you're right.'"
Hoffman's hair color wasn't the only difference. He played Benjamin as sweet and befuddled, where Webb's creation had been a little surly. But the most conspicuous change to the plot doesn't come until the very end of the film.
In the book, Benjamin crashes Elaine Robinson's parent-approved wedding at the last minute, stealing her away to a life less ordinary. The film ends with the same event -- but Benjamin arrives too late to interrupt the vows and just in time to see Elaine seal her new marriage with a kiss. No matter. He storms in and they run off together, anyway, flouting traditional matrimonial ties. The movie ends with a shot of the pair sitting in the rear window of a bus, their elation fading into blank stares as they head off for who knows where.
The twist came courtesy of Nichols, who Turman hired on the strength of his work on a production of Barefoot in the Park
, in addition to his standup routine with Elaine May. Nichols, along with screenwriter Buck Henry, delivered a movie ripe with quotable lines and creative shots. Consider the scene at Benjamin's birthday as his parents force him to model a new scuba outfit, or his seduction by Mrs. Robinson.
Nichols says the seduction scene "was all about him being stalked." The director amplifies: "We talked about it being a jungle, and it was a jungle. There were all these plants and the Beverly Hills garden behind the glass that surrounded the sun porch. And we talked about her being the tiger in the jungle and she had a tiger-striped dress on and it was all built to be a trap, a tender trap. We wanted to find a way to express the fact that she was being provocative... And there was her leg and it was up and it seemed logical."
Nichols' direction underscored the widening gap between the adults of America and their kids, who were trying to shake off the influence of the elder generation. Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood
, says that the audience was primed for subversion.
"You had the generation gap, [with] Abbie Hoffman saying, 'Don't trust anyone over 30,'" Biskind says. "The famous word 'plastics' encapsulates the theme of the movie, which is that the adult world is artificial, is superficial, on some level immoral and irrelevant to the concerns of young people."
Audiences responded enthusiastically. Buck Henry, who not only was a writer but also acted in the film. "I went to the theater, a regular showing, and the theater was full and actually, it was more than full. They were sitting on the steps, breaking the fire laws."
Henry thinks the appeal is simple to grasp. "Built into this story... there are two enormous fantasies going for a young audience," he says. "Your mother and father's most good-looking friend, and then this gorgeous young girl. The first adventure you have as a kid or a young person is, of course, an adventure that shapes your life forever. And Benjamin has a real life-shaper there."
Listen to a 1999 Fresh Air
interview with Dustin Hoffman
about The Graduate
Listen to director Mike Nichols
discuss the seduction scene from The Graduate
in a 2001 Fresh Air
Listen to writer, actor and comedian Buck Henry
's recollections about The Graduate
in a 1997 Fresh Air
interview on the film's 30th anniversary.
Listen to The Graduate
author Charles Webb
discuss his book and the movie in a Nov. 8, 1976, interview on All Things Considered
was featured in a recent All Things Considered
segment on phones in the movies
is on Nick Clooney's list of 20 Movies That Changed Us
Read about another classic film in the Present at the Creation
series: National Lampoon's Animal House
Read the Graduate
screenplay and reviews, hear sound clips and see publicity photos from the film at the Satire Screening Room
Read an extensive description
of the film.
Review the liner notes
from and read background information
about the film soundtrack.
is now a hit Broadway play
Read actor bios and trivia
about the film.
Read more reviews, essays
and articles about The Graduate
Read an excerpt
of The Graduate
, the Charles Webb book upon which the film was based.