Review: Book ponders appeal, then and now, of 'The Graduate'

This book cover image released by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill shows "Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How "The Graduate" Became the Touchstone of a Generation," by Beverly Gray. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill via AP)

Book review: "Seduced by Mrs. Robinson" explores early, ageless appeal of "The Graduate" a half-century after it first shocked and amused moviegoers

"Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How 'The Graduate' Became the Touchstone of a Generation" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), by Beverly Gray

The title of Beverly Gray's insightful look back at 1967's "The Graduate," one of the most popular comedies of all time, is a bit misleading — Mrs. Robinson seduced young Benjamin Braddock, not the generation that identified with his anxieties about the future and dreamed of joining him in rejecting the path blazed by their parents.

Indeed, one of the interesting takeaways from "Seduced by Mrs. Robinson" is how little the character played so memorably by actress Anne Bancroft and immortalized in music by Simon and Garfunkel actually drives conversation with "The Graduate" generation, at least in Gray's telling.

No one but producer Lawrence Turman recognized a movie in the pages of Charles Webb's unheralded novel about an aimless young man cajoled into an affair with a married woman his mother's age, only to fall for her daughter. Turman was savvy enough to partner with director Mike Nichols and producer Joseph E. Levine, the cinematically untested Nichols bursting with ideas and the schlock-minded Levine bursting with money.

Levine, then past 60, may not have been hip to the story, but Turman, Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry saw themselves in Benjamin — as people in theaters would for weeks, months and, as it turned out, generations. Nichols won an Academy Award for the film, which firmly established his film career. It also turned newcomer Dustin Hoffman into a star and brought Bancroft an Oscar nomination.

One of the young people who watched the movie when it first hit theaters, Gray writes, "Many moviegoers — reaching adulthood in the sixties — saw 'The Graduate' as capturing their personal struggles with parents who'd come a long distance, economically speaking, and now had great expectations for the kids they'd hoped to guide toward their own slice of the American dream."

Aside from the usual trappings of a making-of movie book, Gray is most interested in the film's social impact on people like David Harris, a Stanford student body president from the 1960s who recalls seeing himself in Benjamin's shoes while standing on "that cusp where you're leaving parental authority and trying to step into the world on your own terms."

Another point, pushed to the side too quickly, is the view of Mrs. Robinson by other women. One young woman tells Gray that she saw the character as "a desperate housewife coerced by society into an unhappy marriage, reluctant childbearing, and furtive affairs" and resolved not to emulate her.

Meanwhile, the movie's most scandalous aspect is barely touched on, Gray rolling past the film's sexiness even while acknowledging its "great attraction" to a number of baby boomers.

That may well be the answer to its ongoing relevance as "The Graduate" turns 50. What was shocking in 1967 is ho-hum today, fodder for other films and even TV shows for many years now. Mrs. Robinson may have made history as the first "cougar" of post-Production Code filmmaking, but she's been surpassed by many like-minded characters, a fond memory nonetheless.

What keeps "The Graduate" worth watching has always been at its heart: the struggle to find your own way and not end up a sad sellout, even if a sexy one.

___

Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Anne Bancroft: A Life" (University Press of Kentucky)

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