Beverly Gray was as smitten as anyone.
Not so much with the character of Benjamin Braddock, though he had an urchin’s appeal, but with the totality of one of the most influential movies of the 20th century, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate.
On the occasion of the film’s 50th anniversary, Gray offers a compelling behind-the-scenes look at the genesis and making of the movie, as well as a celebration of its enduring cinematic and cultural significance.
In Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How the Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, Gray reminds us how this 1967 film arrived on the cusp of radical changes in the motion picture industry. Its innovative approach to collaboration, casting, and stylistics furthered those subversive sensibilities.
“Certainly that was part of its influence and its effect on Hollywood,” says Gray, who cut her teeth as producer-director Roger Corman's story editor at both New World Pictures and Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. “So many important modern filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, were impressed and educated by the film. They were fascinated by its techniques.”
Author of Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers and Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon…and Beyond, Gray earnedher Ph.D in American literature at UCLA. The Santa Monica resident has covered the entertainment industry for the Hollywood Reporter and directs screenwriting workshops for UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program.
Her third book reflects her appreciation for The Graduate both as a young filmgoer in the 1960s as well as an experienced chronicler of Hollywood today.
“I have loved this film since I first saw it. It's charming, it's funny, it's sexy and it's still with us, even in a way that other landmark films like Bonnie & Clyde I don't believe are. So I was curious how it had such an impact on American life. It was a small, outsider movie that was not intended to make the kind of waves it made.
“I probably should not overstate and say ‘it changed everything,’ but the film was part of a movement of personal independent filmmaking where, by the early 70’s, the power was increasingly in the hands of younger, more idiosyncratic people. The Graduate was certainly helping to change what was acceptable in Hollywood. It was not only a striking film aesthetically but a film that came out at exactly the right moment.”
Gray believes The Graduate always has meant different things to different people—“a cinematic Rorschach test.” That’s not surprising given its various ambiguities. Not only is the climax open to interpretation, but the film also is vague on the source of the unease felt by its protagonist, memorably played by Dustin Hoffman. It's certainly not the Vietnam War, racial inequality, the women's movement or any other flashpoint of the era—though it does tap into young people’s desire for a different sort of life than their parents’, then and now.
“Benjamin is very much of a blank slate. And for someone who's supposedly a smart young man, he's oblivious. He does not see beyond himself,” Gray says. “But what's so interesting is that thereafter, when they attempted to make movies that deliberately tried to capture what was on young people's minds, we do not remember those films. Yet this movie, in its vagueness, seems to find an access point to everybody's concerns.”
Hoffman, a short, Jewish, unconventional actor, experienced his own sense of disquiet about being cast as a classic WASP figure. His misgivings were shared. “Hollywood saw him as miscast, but the general public loved him,” Gray says. “In the wake of the film, suddenly you would see a Richard Dreyfus or an Elliot Gould playing romantic leads.”
Gray's extensive research also took her into the mind of iconoclastic novelist Charles Webb, whose book contributed much to The Graduate's tone, enhanced and improved by Nichols, producer Larry Turman, and screenwriter Buck Henry.
“Charles Webb served up both wonderful and terrible ideas. Great novels don't always translate well to film; there's just too much in them,” Gray points out. “Often, it's the books that allow the filmmakers to do their thing, like The Graduate, which can have the greatest potential.”
Bill Thompson is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina.