A Hollywood industry insider unspools an absorbing, sometimes-uneven analysis of a film classic on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
At its best, Gray's (Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, 2000) book is a well-researched and skillfully composed echo of such Hollywood tomes as Aljean Harmetz's Round Up the Usual Suspects. Only now does The Graduate (1967) reveal itself, in one sense, as a film that was out of place and time in its own era. As Gray points out, it is a movie that has always meant different things to different people, “a cinematic Rorschach test.” Though it has its detractors, not least for a somewhat abrupt segue from social satire to romantic comedy, this seminal, deceptively sophisticated film has shown great staying power, and its innovative approach to collaboration, casting, and cinematic invention was, and remains, influential—as was its ambiguous climax, the significance of which Gray captures exceptionally well. She reveals a film viewed as an outsider's effort in more ways than one: outside a studio system whose demise it helped accelerate and outside the dominant American cultural milieu. The author, who leads screenwriting workshops at UCLA, has a practiced interpretive mind. She demonstrates how, for all its popularity and game-changing success, the toughest critics were split on the film's value and how many in the youth movement rebutted rather than embraced the movie's relevance. It is in these passages, and in offering an alternative, not-so-sympathetic take on the movie's protagonist, that Gray is most penetrating. But one wonders if a scene-by-scene synopsis and scrutiny is really necessary. Interesting in the main, it can get tedious. The author also engages in some questionable, rather high-blown assaying of the filmmakers' intents and weakens her remembrance of the ’60s with a glib introduction.
The book is not without flaws, but Gray effectively shows how The Graduate, despite ignoring the flashpoint issues of the day, worked as a subversive force in a period about to reassess its cinematic and cultural conventions.