Friday, December 21, 2012

The Next Level

Mid–December has been a good period for Dustin Hoffman.

As I observed earlier this week, mid–December is when some of his best movies were released — "Tootsie" and "Wag the Dog" observed milestone anniversaries a few days ago.

Hoffman had been appearing on stage and screen for several years, but "The Graduate," which was released on this day in 1967, was his first major role.

It was a truly remarkable performance — especially since Hoffman was 30 when it premiered. If you're too young to remember the 1960s, that was the time when the admonition "Don't trust anyone over 30" was popular with young Americans, and Hoffman's character, from all appearances, was well under 30.

He gave every indication of being a traditional college student — i.e., one who entered and completed college after finishing high school rather than one who entered the work force out of high school and returned to school several years later. He came from an affluent family, the kind of family in which it would be expected that children would go on to college after completing high school.

It seemed to me, when I saw the movie for the first time, that "The Graduate" was all about expectations, what was expected of someone and what was not expected. And 1967, with the emerging "generation gap" and the growing rebellion of the young of that time, provided the perfect backdrop for such a story. The music of Simon and Garfunkel was the icing on the cake.

Now, just because one is a traditional college student does not mean one follows the same path as his/her classmates. And Benjamin Braddock's post–college path was almost certainly not like the one many of his classmates followed.

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

Benjamin was drifting, both in fact (in his parents' pool) and metaphorically, and he drifted into an affair with the wife of a family friend (Anne Bancroft), a situation that became even more complicated after he was introduced to her daughter (Katharine Ross) and fell in love with her.

It was already pretty comical. Clearly not very experienced in that sort of thing, Hoffman's clumsy meandering through the minefield of extramarital relationships was amusing in its way.
"It's like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don't make any sense to me. They're being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up."

In hindsight, I guess, it was an unbeatable combination — Mike Nichols, not too far removed from his directorial triumph with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the director's chair producing a film on a topic that was the hottest around.