Tonight: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross in the five-star Mike Nichols comedy The Graduate.
In a poll conducted by the American Film Institute to choose the 100 Best American films of the 20th century, The Graduate placed seventh—right after The Wizard of Oz and before On the Waterfront.
The Graduate might not deserve that high an honor, but it is one of the most sophisticated, most influential comedies of its time.
The Graduate began as a controversial novel written by Charles Webb and published in October 1963.
A producer named Lawrence Turman acquired the screen rights with a $1,000 option the following January. Two months later, the Berlin-born comedian-turned-director Mike Nichols was assigned to direct what was then considered a small, relatively unpretentious comedy.
Nichols came to New York from the Chicago Compass Players—an off-campus improvisational comedy troupe that later became Second City.
Nichols, with his partner Elaine May, were a huge hit with their wit and satire in the late ‘50s, and An Evening with Mike & Elaine was a smash on Broadway in 1960.
In 1963, Nichols made his directorial debut on Broadway with Barefoot in the Park. He was soon known as a director’s director, with a Midas Touch because every play he subsequently directed (The Odd Couple, Luv, etc.) was a critical and commercial success.
He directed his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966.
The Graduate was his second film, and it took some time to both develop the screenplay and find a suitable cast.
William Hanley wrote the first draft. And in February 1965, no less than Calder Willingham (Paths of Glory and The Bridge on the River Kwai) was retained to do a rewrite.
Then, in June 1966, our own Buck Henry wrote the final adaptation, while working on the Don Adams television series, Get Smart, which he had conceived with Mel Brooks.
For the casting, Nichols first wanted Doris Day to play Mrs. Robinson. She declined. He offered the part to Patricia Neal, and she declined as well. Nichols considered Ava Gardner, but didn’t send her the script.
In January 1967, the wife of Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, already an Oscar-winner for The Miracle Worker, was signed to portray Mrs. Robinson. She would later reflect, “I thought it was the best, most wonderful script I had ever read because, for the first time, a script was making fun of sex.”
An unknown actress, Katharine Ross, who had a small part in The Singing Nun (1966), was cast in the role of Elaine, Bancroft’s daughter. She would later make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Newman and Redford (1969) and the original Stepford Wives in 1975.
Casting the part of Benjamin, “the graduate,” proved to be a special problem. Nichols was seeking an unconventional actor. “It’s the hardest thing I ever tried to cast,” he said at the time. “These people—Mrs. Robinson, Elaine and Benjamin—are so removed from stock characters.”
Short in stature and less than attractive in appearance, the unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, was astonished when he was asked to read for the role. “I’d never asked a girl in acting class to do a love scene,” he recalled later. “And no girl ever asked me either.”
“Looking at Katharine Ross that day,” Hoffman reasoned, “A girl like that would never go for a guy like me in a million years.”
And Katharine Ross agreed. This was her first impression of Dustin Hoffman: “He looks about three-feet tall, so dead serious, so humorless, so unkempt. I thought, this is going to be a disaster.”
The screen test was a disaster!
But Hoffman’s anguish, his insecurity in the part, was just what Nichols was looking for in the role.
Robert Redford was one of the other eight actors who read for the part the same day as Hoffman.
Ross preferred Redford, of course, and she got him later in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But he was obviously wrong for The Graduate. “What I said to Redford,” Nichols later recalled, “was that he could not, at this point in his career, play a loser, because no one would buy it.”
“He didn’t understand, and I said, ‘Well, let me put it to you another way: Have you ever struck out with a girl?’
“And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ That made my point.”
So Hoffman got the part.
He received $750 a week for the role—and applied for Unemployment Benefits as soon as the film was finished on August 5, 1967.
The production on The Graduate was a relatively modest $3 million. It boasted no major stars. And there was no major studio publicity planned for the picture’s release.
The initial critical response was mixed. But Variety called The Graduate, “A delightful, satirical comedy drama about a young man’s seduction by an older woman, and the measure of maturity he gains from the experience.”
In reality, at the time of the filming, Katharine Ross was 25. Dustin Hoffman was 30, and Anne Bancroft was not yet 36.
Variety predicted “strong box office prospects,” but they failed to mention the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack that dominated the airwaves that summer of 1967.
High school and college students flocked to see the movie.
The film was a smash at the box office—earning a worldwide gross of $44.5 million.
To put that in proper perspective, The Graduate became the third highest grossing film in history—surpassed only by Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Actress (Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Ross), Best Screenplay (Willingham and Henry) among them.
Nichols took home the Oscar for Best Director.
The film made overnight stars of both Hoffman and Ross. And it established Nichols as one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood.
Much has been made of the enigmatic ending of the film. Nichols—and he should know—has offered this interpretation: “I think Ben and Elaine will end up exactly like their parents. That’s what I was trying to say in that last scene.”
But audiences found something else in the film. Bancroft once observed: “Maybe the two kids really do love each other, except I think that shot at the end when they’re sitting in the bus (leaves you wondering.) I think everything they did was out of rebellion. I honestly don’t know if they loved each other.”
But in 1967, audiences responded to the defiance, the wonderful rebellion of alienated youth against a generation steeped in materialism.
They saw themselves as Ben and Elaine rejecting the past and seeking happiness on their own terms. So let’s return again to that remarkable decade, to 1967, and to The Graduate.