Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part III)

One of my favorite passages in Pictures at a Revolution concerns a party that author Mark Harris describes as a clash between worlds. The party was at Jane Fonda's beachhouse, and the date was July 4, 1965, a few years before Fonda would become known as both a great actress for films like Klute and as "Hanoi Jane" for her conduct in protest against the Vietnam War. Those who only remember the latter may be reminded by Harris that Jane Fonda was as much a part of the Old Hollywood as she was the New, and her guests were divided into these two factions: Henry Fonda, William Wyler, Fred Zinneman, Sam Spiegel, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, and Darryl Zanuck on one side; Peter Fonda, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Tuesday Weld, and Jack Nicholson on the other. (Sidney Poitier, also in attendance, was as always a faction unto himself.) The era's generation gap might be best exemplified by the reactions between Jane's brother and father to The Byrds, who were playing on the beach: as a stoned Peter grooved to the music, Henry stormed outside and yelled, "Can't you get them to turn it down?"

During the festivities, a transplanted Jewish-German East Coaster named Mike Nichols wandered over to a small group of partygoers lazing under a large tree. "Once again an immigrant in a new land," Harris writes, "he surveyed the tribal rituals, the lapses of etiquette, the deferences and courtesies and small humiliations of this hothouse of West Coast privilege and restlessness, and filed them away for future use." It was under that tree that one of the guests, a fellow New Yorker, Buck Henry, whimsically asked, "Are you having a good time in L.A., Mike?" Nichols deadpanned, "Yes. Here under the shadow of this great tree, I have found peace."

Initially I was reluctant to read Pictures at a Revolution because although The Graduate is my all-time favorite movie (the topic of my very first post on this blog) I already knew so much about its making that I couldn't imagine Harris offering anything more. Admittedly, the author does quote large chunks of Nichols's meaty DVD commentary. Other stories, though, like the aforementioned party where Nichols and Henry first met, were brand new. At the time The Graduate had been well into the planning stages, but it was there that the movie was born.

The Graduate
  • Along with Warren Beatty, Rex Harrison, and Sidney Poitier, Mike Nichols is one of the most prominent personalities in the book. It's amazing to reflect on just how dazzling a wunderkind Nichols was. In the late-50s and early-60s, he was part of a wildly successful comedy team with Elaine May. Nichols and May had cut a popular comedy album, guested on The Ed Sullivan Show, and starred together in a Broadway hit directed by Arthur Penn (seven years before he made Bonnie and Clyde). Soon Nichols became a stage director himself and had won three straight Tony Awards for Best Director himself by the time of Fonda's party. By this time, he was looking to expand his range to the silver screen. (Elaine May, too, would become a movie director, her credits including the hilarious original The Heartbreak Kid starring Charles Grodin, and the unfortunate Ishtar starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.)
  • After a couple of false starts, Nichols chose Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on a 1962 play by Edward Albee, to be produced by Warner Brothers and to star Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for his film debut. "He had less than three months to learn how to make a movie, outmaneuver a notoriously combative studio head...and figure out how to direct the world's most famous couple," Harris writes, quoting Nichols himself as saying, "'And I wasn't entirely sure how a camera worked.'"
  • Nevertheless, he is described on the set of Virginia Woolf as "successful lion tamer to two of the world's least controllable celebrities...he would push Taylor and Burton until she would break down in tears and he would be too shaken to come out of his dressing room, and they would still return the next day eager for more." In 1966, the movie would be a box-office hit and eventually nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Director. This gave Mike Nichols the cache to make virtually any movie he pleased.
  • Before directing Virginia Woolf, Nichols had read Charles Webb's 1963 novel The Graduate and liked it, thought the book had terrific dialogue and needed only a workable structure. The younger-man/older-woman scenario was, Nichols believed, "'a good, old gag'"; though in early 1967 he fretted that he had been beaten to the punch by a similarly-themed $800,000 MFA thesis project titled You're a Big Boy Now, courtesy of a UCLA grad student named Francis Ford Coppola.
  • This proved difficult, however, as the script went through several writers, including Calder Willingham. Described as Stanley Kubrick's screenwriter and poker buddy, Willingham submitted a draft that Mike Nichols found "vulgar" and dismissed. Nevertheless, he would successfully arbitrate for co-screenwriting credit shortly before the film was released and was Oscar nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • The script that was ultimately used, however, was by Buck Henry. A gifted comic writer who along with Mel Brooks had created the TV series Get Smart, Henry's friendship with Nichols began under Jane Fonda's tree, and while Nichols was making Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Henry was given the chance to shape The Graduate into something substantial. "As the story of Benjamin, Elaine, and Mrs. Robinson passed from the hands of a novelist in his early twenties into the custody of a writer and director who were both in their mid-thirties, it became both more detached and more sympathetic."
  • However, the transformation of Benjamin Braddock on the page made it increasingly difficult to cast the right actor to play him. In Webb's novel, Benjamin "is the scion of an apparently WASPy family, a cocky, aloof college track star who returns home for the summer before beginning two years of graduate school, then announces to his parents that he has wasted his life...." Harris astutely notes that this version of the character would have been perfect for Warren Beatty. But Buck Henry had eliminated the character's superiority complex and made him more of a bumbler: along with Nichols, he "located The Graduate's comic center in (Benjamin's) complete failure to live up to his own standards, and unlike Webb, they came up with an ending in which it's not clear if Benjamin triumphs by meeting those standards or by discarding them." Yet Nichols and Henry had gotten so far ahead of themselves in terms of how Benjamin should behave they went through an excruciatingly long casting process (another WASPish blonde, Robert Redford, wanted the part badly) before an unknown actor made them rethink how the character should look.
  • In 1965, the pair took a break from their respective duties to see Dustin Hoffman perform with Joel Grey in an off-Broadway production called Harry Noon and Night. Hoffman played a Nazi-hunchback-transvestite, and Buck Henry came out completely believing that the actor was all three. Neither he nor Nichols thought of Hoffman right then for The Graduate, but they had become aware of his amazing versatility.
  • Harris writes that the New York theater world in the mid-1960s had three types of young male performers: those who were conventionally handsome enough for Hollywood to come calling (e.g., George Peppard, who won the male lead alongside Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's); those who were not conventionally handsome and were confined to bit parts onscreen (Alan Arkin, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, et al.); and those, like Hoffman, who couldn't find film work at all. Hoffman was extravagantly talented but relentlessly combative, driving directors insane with his endless quest for authenticity.
  • Just as the director and screenwriter's mutual ages alloted them a healthy distance from the source material of The Graduate, the casting call for Benjamin took on a new dimension once they began considering older actors. Charles Grodin, also still an unknown (The Heartbreak Kid was a few years away), gave the best reading, according to Nichols; but he adds that the twenty-nine-year-old Dustin Hoffman gave the best screen test (with Katharine Ross): "'He had that thrilling thing that I'd only seen in Elizabeth Taylor...That secret, where they do something while you're shooting, and you think it's okay, and then you see it on screen and it's five times better than when you shot it."
  • After Hoffman won the part, he actually had to turn down another one: a Nazi playwright in Springtime for Hitler, a new movie written and directed by Buck Henry's Get Smart partner and Anne Bancroft's husband, Mel Brooks.
  • The clout that Mike Nichols had earned up to then gave The Graduate an astonishing three weeks of rehearsal and one hundred days of shooting. In Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, one of the interviewees compares the filmmaking technique of Altman ("who leaves everything to chance") with that of Nichols ("who leaves nothing to chance"). It's funny how two of my own favorite filmmakers could have such disparate styles. I guess it boils down to whatever works best for the director and the material.
  • Anne Bancroft was already an Oscar winner (Best Actress for The Miracle Worker in 1963) but still not quite a star. (Great observation by Harris: "Hollywood didn't have much use for an actress with her kind of dark, brittle strength.") Initially distracted and irritable during rehearsal, Nichols helped her find Mrs. Robinson with a clipped reading of the line, "Benjamin, will you drive me home?" Suddenly, Bancroft got it: "'Oh, I can do that. I know what that is. That's anger.'"
  • The cinematographer for The Graduate was Robert Surtees, an Old Hollywood veteran who this time out got to try some radical things. Surtees knew that Nichols (who had quarreled with DP Haskell Wexler on Virginia Woolf), would be difficult to work with, but welcomed the opportunity following Doctor Dolittle.
  • Some challenges during the shoot were technical: for the key scene when Elaine discovers Ben and her mother's affair, a wall had to be removed for the long pull-back shot from Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin. Another was figuring out how to simultaneously light the mid-30s Bancroft to look older and the late-20s Hoffman to look younger. Other hardships were brought on by Nichols himself, who had his star terrified to the point of acting paralysis. ("Don't forget to trim the inside of your nose," was one of his regular bon mots.) On the DVD commentary track, Nichols freely admits that he was a prick and that he would do it differently today.
  • For me, what holds up the movie remarkably well today is its innovative technique -- the subjectivity of its perspective. Surtees accomplishes this via POV shots like the one of Benjamin in scuba-gear at the bottom of his parents' pool; while editor Sam O'Steen achieves it through tricky editing rhythms: some scenes feel extracted from a play (as when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson lie in bed and talk about art), others deftly convey the passage of time (like the groundbreaking montages scored to Simon and Garfunkel). In a New Yorker piece a few years ago, David Denby recalled that his mentor, Pauline Kael, disliked the movie and its protagonist, complaining that "There's nothing in his head." Of course there is, Pauline: We are.
  • As with Bonnie and Clyde, early screenings of The Graduate to the Hollywood establishment went poorly. "'It's a shame about the boy,'" people would say to Nichols, unable to see in Dustin Hoffman anything resembling leading-man material. Similarly, many film critics (Kael, Richard Corliss, John Simon, Richard Schickel) panned the picture, with one notable exception: the New York Times's Bosley Crowther, whose ceaseless attacks on Bonnie and Clyde led to his dismissal, gave The Graduate a rave for his final review: "'The overall picture has the quality of a very extensive and revealing social scan,'" Crowther wrote.
  • Regular audiences -- particularly the burgeoning youth market on college campuses -- went berserk for the movie, placing it atop the box office for months. This subsequently led to studios' hiring younger filmmakers to make movies for younger audiences, as well as opening up leading-man roles to the Arkins, Hackmans, Duvalls, De Niros, Pacinos, and Nicholsons where they previously could not tread.
  • Mike Nichols and Buck Henry had little in common with the counterculture that went wild for their movie. (A running gag in the movie is how clean-cut Benjamin is repeatedly assumed to be an "outside agitator.") Yet The Graduate cannily explores and exploits the era's generation-gap, never more so than at the climax. Nichols and Henry crucially altered the book's ending so that Benjamin would arrive after Elaine had formally exchanged vows, rather than before. (Webb groaningly despised the change, believing it undermined Benjamin's virtue.) There's a lot going on in that whirligig sequence, a satirical dismantling of church and family values in one fell swoop.
  • With the famous final shot of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, Nichols believed he was saying that they "would end up like their parents." This is the reading commonly accepted today (see (500) Days of Summer), but audiences weren't convinced then and neither am I. It reads to me as more of a "What do we do now?" ending, like Robert Redford at the conclusion of The Candidate, hopeful yet worried, ambiguously open-ended.
  • More interesting to me is what Nichols says about his own personal link to the story -- that he along with his alter-ego Hoffman had transformed Benjamin Braddock from the blonde stud of the novel into a "'Jew among the goyim...a visitor in a strange land.'" Physically and emotionally, Benjamin becomes an outsider in his own family and culture. By zeroing in on something specific (however unconsciously), Nichols made the movie's appeal universal.
  • The Graduate received seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Hoffman (Actor), Bancroft (Actress), and Ross (Supporting Actress). Henry and Willingham were up for Screenplay, as was Surtees for Cinematography (nominated twice, for both The Graduate and Doctor Dolittle). (Sam O'Steen's innovative editing was ignored.) All came up empty-handed, however, with only Mike Nichols winning for Best Director.
  • Harris savages Bob Hope's hosting of the Academy Awards telecast, which had been delayed for two days due to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his funeral in Atlanta. (Had the show gone as planned, it would have played to a largely empty house.) "As Hope continued," the author writes, "it became clear that beneath the surface of his comedy was barely concealed reactionary anger." When Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross appeared onstage as presenters, "they looked like they were trapped at a family dinner with an uncle they didn't like. 'Hi kids,' said Hope, barely bothering to conceal his lack of interest." (Later in the broadcast, a patently clueless montage featured a clip from Gone With the Wind ending with an image of a proudly flapping Confederate flag.)
  • Every ten years or so I hear the same criticism: The Graduate is "no longer relevant." Yet within the same timeframe I always meet a new generation of young people who love the picture. The cultural ephemera of the movie are definitely part of the late-60s fabric. Yet the emotions beneath the surface seem timeless.

Next: a reunion of Old Hollywood's most famous onscreen coupling, an old-guard director fancies himself a socially-conscious rebel, and the only African-American movie star on the planet becomes trapped by his own success....


Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for this. It adds greatly to my knowledge of the film. I was touched by the film when I saw it in 1970 (I had just broken up with a girlfriend and it spoke to my bitterness and disillusionment). After that, I thought of the film with indifference until I started showing scenes as part my film history unit for my 8th grade history class.

Now I watch the whole thing three times a year with three different classes, I never get tired of it, and I always find new details to marvel at. My 8th graders usually love it (feelings sometimes vary - some don't understand it, others are very passionate about it) - so they see something relevant in it.

They also see how it inspired elements in the 80s renaissance of John Hughes teen movies - which have a lot of influence on more recent teen movies that my students see. Also, strangely enough, one can detect the seeds of teen TV shows such as Lizzie Maguire (the treatment of the parents; the way they cook burgers by the pool; the way Mrs. Braddock dresses and wails when Ben announces he's going to marry Elaine.)

I totally agree - it's a great film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, this is in my all-time top 10. To me, it's the movie that always feels relevant, in part because it's so easy to watch the movie from Benjamin's POV, or from Mrs. Robinson's, or even from Elaine's. Or you can volley from one to the other throughout. Point is, no matter what mood I'm in when I start the film, somehow one of the characters or one of the scenes gets under my skin. I love that. It's special.

Anyway, thanks for all this info. And I love this observation: "It's funny how two of my own favorite filmmakers could have such disparate styles. I guess it boils down to whatever works best for the director and the material." I think you're quite right.

Ronak M Soni said...

I love this series of yours, even though I haven't watched any of the movies, even better than that lie-blogging thing you came up with.
Nothing to say, I just felt a general lack of comments on this one, as well as from me on your blog.

Btw, Ebert gave it a positive review too. It was his first year.

Craig said...

Hokahey, I'm extremely impressed by your students. I remember watching it in the late-80s with a group of freshmen and they loved it, so it's heartening to see the younger generation (every one of them) take to it. For some reason I never picked up on John Hughes as a direct descendent, but I believe you're right.

Jason, interesting how you're able to see the other characters' POVs, since for me the movie focuses on Benjamin so tightly. Yet you're right, there are defining moments for the other characters: Mrs. Robinson talking about art, Elaine's tear on their first date. There probably is more distance than initially appears.

Thank you for the kind words, Ronak. I've often found the longer the post, the fewer the comments, so I'm grateful to any reader able to stick it out long enough to respond. Regarding your other comment: You're right, the opening of "The Graduate" did influence the opening of "Jackie Brown." I wouldn't have thought Tarantino an obvious fan, but there you are.

filmdr said...

Excellent work. I've been impressed with the way The Graduate holds up under repeated analysis, and my students almost always like it. I've gotten to the point where I brood on the small shifts from Ben's initial 1950's suit to his more bedraggled action hero look late in the film. He is surrounded by countercultural types at Berkeley, at any rate.

Why is it that Mrs. Robinson increasingly steals the movie as one gets older? Why does Elaine allow Ben to kiss her after their rude date? Does that scene really make any sense, aside from his explanation that he feels the need to be rude all of the time? Why is a scene set in a zoo, perhaps to emphasize the domestication of Elaine's conformist fiance Carl Smith?

Also, I wonder--has Nichols directed anything nearly as good since? How many other major films use the zoom so much?