Time for a confession: until two weeks ago—shortly after creating the Berkeleyside Berkeley film quiz—I’d never seen The Graduate in its entirety. Though I’d somehow made time in my life for thousands of other films, including all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle epics, assorted entries in the Police Academy series, and Plan 9 From Outer Space, I hadn’t bothered to watch director Mike Nichol’s Oscar-winning film, which currently resides at #162 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 list.
Oh, sure, I’d seen The Graduate’s most famous scenes: “I want to say one word to you…just one word” and “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” are ubiquitous moments of Hollywood history. The rest of the film, however, was uncharted territory: it was definitely time to don the cinematic pith helmet and plunge into the primordial depths of this (partially) locally grown product.
For those who insist on a plot synopsis: an insecure young man (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college, gets seduced by an older woman (Anne Bancroft), and falls in love with the older woman’s daughter (Katharine Ross). Complications, unsurprisingly, ensue.
This is a film of two parts: the first, in which Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) and Benjamin (Hoffman) indulge in their illicit relationship, and the second, in which Benjamin shucks off his mature paramour in favor of daughter Elaine (Ross). Part One is a brilliantly written examination of a young man’s transition to adulthood and an older woman’s coming to terms with the demons of her past.
Part two, however, is something very different. Forced by his parents to take Elaine on a date, Benjamin decides she’s the bee’s knees and ends up—this cannot be put delicately—stalking the young lady. The Graduate suddenly lurches from prickly black comedy to creepy romantic drama, and whilst Buck Henry and Calder Willingham’s screenplay is chock-a-block with witty dialogue and sharply drawn characterization, it falters badly whenever Elaine and Benjamin are on screen together. Dare I suggest that Katharine Ross just isn’t very good in this film?
And what of Berkeley? It doesn’t make an appearance until seventy-five minutes into the proceedings, when Benjamin, intending to propose marriage (how bourgeois), follows Elaine to Cal. Apparently missing his freeway exit, he drives his little red sports car towards San Francisco by way of the Bay Bridge. Perhaps he decided to visit Fisherman’s Wharf before searching for his future spouse.
As detailed in the quiz, most of the exterior campus scenes in The Graduate were actually filmed at USC, but there are brief shots of Sather Gate, Sproul Plaza, and an evocative peek at Moe’s Books as seen from Benjamin’s perch at Caffe Mediterraneum. There’s also an AC Transit bus—strangely re-routed from Telegraph Avenue to the San Francisco Zoo—and the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity House (2647 Durant Avenue), here playing an apartment building managed by reactionary landlord McCleery (Norman Fell).
Was Benjamin’s obsessive and relentless search for true love an easier pill for audiences to swallow in the sixties? Perhaps—or perhaps I’m simply an unromantic, politically correct post-feminist loser. Regardless, The Graduate provides a colorful, if geographically inaccurate, look at Berkeley circa 1967—and not a protester in sight!
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.