the graduate 6

Cool Contemporaries

If The Graduate was reluctant to embrace issues plaguing the class of 1967, what did a movie that wasn’t reluctant look like? Kael likely would have pointed to Bonnie and Clyde, which was released four months before The Graduate. Kael led the charge in championing Bonnie and Clyde as the face of New Hollywood. She praised its revolutionary use of violence and the subsequent discomfort it caused for audiences. Kael also argued that the movie was, crucially, “contemporary in feeling,” that it was articulating long-held but seldom-expressed thoughts. She even managed to reference the Vietnam draft when praising Bonnie and Clyde’s pointed use of 1930s nostalgia, writing, “In the American experience, the miseries of the Depression are funny in the way that the Army is funny to draftees — a shared catastrophe, a leveling, forming part of our common background.”

There’s also In the Heat of the Night, the film that cost The Graduate several Oscars and its original DP. The movie arrived in the middle of the civil rights movement and featured a scene where a white man slaps Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) only to get slapped right back. This and other scenes were so provocative for the time that, in order to get the movie greenlit, producer Walter Mirisch had to prove the film would still make money even if it didn’t open in any Southern cities. Poitier was also keenly aware of the movie’s potency. He initially refused to film anywhere below the Mason-Dixon line, only reluctantly agreeing to limited shoots in Tennessee.

But interestingly, The Graduate’s own production designer, Richard Sylbert, offered up a totally different movie from DP Haskell Wexler for comparison. Gray notes that Sylbert believed The Graduate was revolutionary in its own way. In an interview with Wide Angle, Sylbert said he viewed Ben as a “passive version” of the revolt he saw in the 1960s. But when pressed for a movie that portrayed a more active version of that revolt, he mentioned Medium Cool. Wexler didn’t just do the cinematography for this 1969 film; he also wrote and directed it. It’s a blend of documentary footage and fictionalized story concerning the 1968 Democratic National Convention, one that literally captures youthful protesters rioting in the streets. Wexler, a liberal activist and antiwar veteran, saw the movie as his opportunity to capture “all the ferment that was going on at that time.”

Another example is Easy Rider, which opened not quite two years after The Graduate. Easy Rider was seen as a true counterculture movie, one so open about drug use that the actors supposedly smoked real weed on film. It featured aimless bikers, hippie communes, brothels, violence, and literal explosions. Gray notes that some UCLA grads of the era preferred it over The Graduate for showing “how society judges based on not who you are but how you are.”

the graduate 1

Why ‘The Graduate’ Endures

The lack of political focus or social commentary earned The Graduate some criticism upon its original release and later into its legacy. But as Gray demonstrates, this muddied approach actually ensured the film’s longevity. Because Benjamin Braddock’s feelings of alienation are so vague, they do not belong to a particular time or place. They belong to the students of 1967 and 2017 alike.

Movie critic and baby boomer David Ansen may have observed it best when he wrote in Newsweek, “Part of the secret of its phenomenal success was that Benjamin – who expresses no political opinions, never mentions any of the issues of the day, indeed barely speaks for the first (and best) half of the movie – was a blank slate upon which an entire generation was free to project its self-image. Like Benjamin, we weren’t all sure what we wanted, but we knew what we didn’t want: ‘plastics.’”

The Graduate was able to speak to everyone by essentially saying nothing, and that’s why we’re still talking about it 50 years later.

Pages: Previous page 1 2

Cool Posts From Around the Web: