An audience is a ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn’t sense purpose then get out of its way, because it’s going to be difficult …. But when your purpose is high and strong and an audience can sense it, they’ll go pretty far with you.
—Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
When I heard about the death of Mike Nichols two weeks ago the image that came immediately to mind was of the title character played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967). It’s rare this side of Charlie Chaplin for a director and a character to merge the way Nichols and Hoffman do in that film.
Told during a 1999 Film Comment interview that he didn’t “seem to identify” with the title character and appeared to “view him from a distance,” Nichols had to point out that in fact his identification with Benjamin was “predominate” in what he “did with the movie,” adding, “By that I mean, I didn’t cast [Robert] Redford …. I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience.”
That piece of casting and the self-styled way Nichols shaped Hoffman’s performance created the offbeat dynamic that, wonder of wonders, launched the film on its historic course as a classic of American cinema and a box office sensation, number one in the year(s) of its release, 1967-68, and number 21 all time, based on a figure adjusted for the inflationary cost of tickets.
Nichols’s “ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster” of an audience came out of The Graduate smiling and happy. As Stanley Kauffmann puts it in his Dec. 22 1967 New Republic review, “For once a happy ending makes us feel happy.” The last film that did that to an audience featured a British rock group with a funny name, cost relatively little to make (as did The Graduate) and came in at number 8 in 1964 behind three Elvis Presleys, a James Bond, a Sergio Leone, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins. Jump ahead four years from the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night to Vietnam, and you’re already up to your hips in troubled waters: LBJ’s resignation, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the murders in Mississippi, and the disaster of the Democratic convention that helped put Nixon and Agnew in command as the battle lines formed for what Richard Poirier was writing about in his essay “The War Against the Young.” Two years up the road you have the feel-good pinnacle of Woodstock, followed by Hell’s Angels Altamont, Manson, Cambodia and the killing of 13 students at Kent and Jackson State. Among other things.
Even as the divisions deepened, people of all backgrounds and ages were cheering The Graduate, with its unknown and unhandsome hero and its unsavory plot line about a predatory married woman (Anne Bancroft, as Mrs. Robinson) seducing Hoffman’s borderline comatose youth who then falls in love with her daughter (Katherine Ross as Elaine) and finds something in life worth fighting for. Pauline Kael faulted The Graduate for making Benjamin “a romantic hero for the audience to project onto,” one who stood for “truth” while “older people stood for sham,” which perpetuated “a ‘generation gap’ view of youth and age” that “entered the national bloodstream.”
Making the Move
Politics and polarization aside, it was the high-energy denouement that had everyone rooting for Hoffman’s unlikely knight errant as he drove his college-graduation-present Alfa Romeo from L.A. to Berkeley and back until it ran out of gas in Santa Barbara, which left the college track star running to the church to rescue fair Elaine from the prison of a forced marriage, except that, contrary to the usual Hollywood snatched-from-the-jaws-of-wedlock script, he gets there too late, the vows have been exchanged, the nuptial kiss kissed. Ah, but it’s the shock of realizing the deed is done that inspires him to start shouting her name until she looks up and there he is high above the scene in a glass-partitioned balcony, arms outspread as if he were about to take flight and swoop like a superhero to the rescue.
What follows may be the most exhilarating three minutes in cinema since the Beatles descended on an open field to leap about to the full-speed-ahead euphoria of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” With the hand-held camera working its magic, the chaotic escape is so brilliantly enacted, you’d think some mad genius had choreographed the whole sequence (the genius being a combination of Mike Nichols, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and “the magic hand of chance”). Down comes Benjamin, drunk with adrenaline, pushing past the howling, infuriated father of the bride (“you crazy punk, I’ll kill you!”), leaping over the stairway with the ease of Douglas Fairbanks vaulting parapets as the thief of Bagdad, elbowing the murderous Mr. Robinson in the gut while grabbing the nearest cross and flailing away with both hands like a hammer-thrower with a scimitar as the enraged wedding party tumbles backward, parents, relatives, the blond blue-eyed groom (“the makeout king”) and his blond, walking-surfboard frat brothers. Who’d have thought that the dorky character first seen being moved along the moving sidewalk at LAX like an object on an assembly line could pull off the coup of the last movement, spiriting himself and the bride safely through the glass doors he then locks against the mob by using the cross as a wedge. The effect is of staving off a shouting cursing microcosm of straight America, all the outrage muted, buried in silence, as the lovers break into a run.
Compared to the prolonged dance of death that ends Bonnie and Clyde, 1967’s other cinema landmark, the escape from the church and the world of loathing locked behind the glass doors has an even more violent undercurrent, something deeper, uglier, more menacing. Elaine saw it in her parents and the groom as Benjamin shouted her name; that was her moment of truth: to see the hatred twisting and distorting the faces of the people who thought they had her future locked up, and here was this creep in a parka ruining everything. Nichols makes you feel it. He puts you at the emotional epicenter — you feel it all, you feel with the girl, her face uplifted, eyes wide, taking in the reality of her lot, and you feel the joyous rightness of it when she knows what she has to do, screams his name, and makes her move. And you feel it with them as they take off, running hand in hand, literally running for their lives, she in her wedding dress, smiling, laughing with the giddy joy of release, and then the seemingly perfect meshing of the possibilities as they catch the bus that appears at just the right moment and hurry down the aisle in their glory to one of the most memorable moments in cinema, the couple in the back of the bus, winded, triumphant, at first all smiles as Hoffman gives a shout we can’t hear, like an athlete in the ecstasy of winning; after exchanging one loving look, they face forward, stunned by what they’ve done and sobered by the awareness that they are on their way to the unknown as the music that has haunted the film from the beginning brings it to its conclusion, Simon and Garfunkel singing of sounds of silence, darkness, restless dreams, narrow streets, and the cold and damp.
Nichols and May
The other image I saw the moment I heard the news about Mike Nichols was the way he looked at the dawn of the sixties when he and Elaine May were in their prime, making records and appearing on Broadway. As Nichols notes in the commentary included with M-G-M’s 40th anniversary DVD, he learned a great deal about directing while developing and perfecting his routines with May. The experience also enabled him to remake the character of Benjamin in his own image. If you revisit Nichols and May on film or online, you’ll find him employing intonations and inflections predating Hoffman’s performance, his constricted speech patterns and occasional broken whimpers of confusion and distress. All through the film, there are instances where Hoffman is doing Nichols in modified Nichols and May routines, not just with Bancroft but with various other characters, including Mr.Robinson and Benjamin’s parents. Watching himself in one such scene during the DVD commentary he shares with co-star Katherine Ross, Hoffman exclaims, “I can see Mike so much now! That was Mike!”