Book Review: Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, by Josh Long
For 50 years now, The Graduate has been familiar to anyone who loves movies. It’s the movie that made Dustin Hoffman a star. It’s the movie that brought us Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” It’s the movie Mike Myers parodied for a solid four minutes of Wayne’s World 2. Almost immediately, Mike Nichols’ and Lawrence Turman’s film became a vital piece of popular culture. In her new book Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, Beverly Gray (whose previous books have chronicled the life and work of Ron Howard and Roger Corman) tells the story of how the film came to be, and the effect that it had on popular culture.
Gray’s book is separated into three different sections: “Making the Movie,” “The Screening Room,” and “After the Lights Came Up.” The first section details the actual production process from optioning Charles Webb’s novel through Sam O’Steen’s editing process. A great deal of information is collected here, and the most striking aspect is the way The Graduate came together outside the studio system. This makes the film a sort of grandfather to the indie dramas of today. It was a risky project in so many ways. Dustin Hoffman didn’t have traditional leading man looks – in fact, as the book tells it, he constantly doubted himself in the role, a feeling that undoubtedly contributed to his portrayal of the nebbish Benjamin Braddock. Webb’s book was counter cultural in such a way that producer Turman would go through several writers before Buck Henry offered him a suitable adaptation. UC Berkeley wouldn’t allow the filmmakers access to their campus, which is why many of Ben and Elaine’s scenes at “Berkeley” actually take place at UCLA. As with any film, the roadblocks became as much a part of the final product as anything, and Gray outlines several such stories.
“The Screening Room” portion is a detailed synopsis of the film, along with analysis of the filmmaking techniques. Gray examines how every creative aspect adds to the story of the film. Mrs. Robinson is often dressed in bold jungle cat prints, to suggest that she is on the prowl (and maybe the first “cougar”). Benjamin often finds himself encased in glass (his home, his fish tank, his scuba gear, and in his iconic final moments at the church). Mike Nichols’ directing, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously, did much to put his young actors off balance, so that they would appear fittingly uncomfortable in this world of adults. This middle section of the book is a thoughtful scene by scene breakdown.
The book’s final section examines the response and the cultural phenomenon that was The Graduate. Some of this may be particularly interesting to readers who weren’t alive at the time of the release. The film was an unexpected box office smash. Young people flocked to the theatres, many going back four or five times. Audiences whooped and cheered at the film’s rebellious ending. Critical response, however, was quite divided. Some critics found it shocking and trashy. Others felt that Benjamin wasn’t radical enough, making comparison to harder edged films like Bonnie and Clyde. Many seemed to complain about Benjamin’s innocence; while it’s true he starts out a bit of a clean slate golden boy, “innocent” wouldn’t be my word for a man who has an affair with a neighbor’s wife, then elopes with her daughter.
The critical responses Gray includes help to explain the way the film was received through the lens of the 60s. For instance, the filmmakers chose to make no mention of Vietnam, yet the war was such a huge cultural factor at the time of the release, that few critics could look at the film without either seeing it as a metaphor for the youth response to the war, or lamenting that Benjamin never deals with the threat of the draft. Details like this help to understand how Americans at the time experienced the film. However, I’m left wishing the book did more to explain why the film is still affecting to audiences today. Gray certainly says that it is still affecting audiences today – she includes a section (perhaps too long) about the many parodies of The Graduate over the last fifty years. But sticking it to the man and reveling in counter culture are not the draws for young people that they were in 1967. Personally, I think that one of the reasons The Graduate is so powerful is that it speaks to the lostness and malaise of so many young people thrown from the womb of the education system out into the disordered, unsympathetic world. The film’s final moments have always suggested to me that this is what the story is really about – sure, Ben and Elaine escape the pressures and expectations of their parents, but now what?
Though it leaves a little to be desired on the critical end, if Gray’s book is more about the filmmaking and initial cultural response, it does both very well. Fans of the film will likely learn something new about it. Students of 60s culture will enjoy reading about the film as a cultural phenomenon. Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is an interesting, detailed, and personal discussion of one of Hollywood’s most beloved films.