Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 2, 2014)
1967 was an amazing year, mainly because that's when I was born. However, I hear that a few other things happened as well, not the least of which seems to be that it was a fine time for movies.
Often the race for the Best Picture Academy Award becomes a fairly tepid affair because none of the nominees appear terribly compelling. However, 1967 seemed to be one of those years like 1994 or 1939 where a bunch of standouts made hit the screens.
Of the five Oscar nominees, only one - Dr. Dolittle - looks like a mistake, as the others were solid films. While I won't strongly argue against the selection of In the Heat of the Night as the winner, I do feel that it probably wasn't the best of the bunch. The strongest and almost certainly most influential and enduring of 1967's picks was Mike Nichols' The Graduate.
Its failure to win Best Picture seems like no surprise because it was such a small, personal film. It was one of those "coming of age" movies but without the beer and nudity that genre appears to require these days. Okay, there was alcohol and nudity in The Graduate, but not in the Porky's sense. In the Heat of the Night gave the Academy one of their beloved "social cause" movies, so its win during those "progressive" times seemed virtually inevitable.
Nonetheless, The Graduate remains the big hit from that year, both financially and historically. In regard to the former, it was the top box office draw for the year, and as for the latter, it launched Dustin Hoffman's career. Would we ever have heard from that unusual little man had he not appeared here as Benjamin Braddock? Probably, but it still acted as his first prominent role.
It's a tribute to Hoffman's later success that we don't reflexively think of him as Ben. Actors often get stuck with one persona, especially when they hit it big like this.
While he has demonstrated obvious staying power and talent, I don't think Hoffman ever surpassed his work in The Graduate. Hoffman's portrayal of Ben reached a level of perfection I don't think he's been able to equal in the years since then.
Although I think he tends to rely too heavily on gimmicks, I can't deny Hoffman’s overall talent. But Ben was not just a well-executed performance, it was also a very natural one, which is an area that has often been weak for Hoffman. He tends to seem much more concerned with various mechanics than he is feeling; I think Hoffman over-intellectualizes his work.
That isn’t the case with Ben. As played by Hoffman, he comes across exactly as he should at virtually all times. Hoffman never hits a wrong note or falters in the least. It's an absolutely stunning performance, so strong that it's a tribute to Hoffman's drive that he didn't just coast on its success for a number of years. To his credit, Hoffman has often shown a proclivity for roles in challenging films; he would develop a new "signature character" just two years later in Midnight Cowboy.
Of course, Hoffman didn't perform in a vacuum, and the supporting case also seemed excellent. The Graduate was a well-cast film, as not a single part appears to offer the wrong person. Anne Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman when she played Mrs. Robinson, which is a stark contrast to the decades that are supposed to separate them.
As such, while Hoffman had to play about a decade younger than his actual age, she had to go a decade older, and she did so wonderfully. For the most part, Mrs. Robinson is a limited role - Bancroft receives little opportunity to provide any kind of emotion other than anger or bitterness - but Bancroft nonetheless makes her seem real and full.
As does Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson. Again, this character receives only a limited emotional range from the script; Elaine gets a bit more leeway than does her mother, but still seems mainly required to look beautiful, virginal and pure. However, Ross is able to convey a wide variety of feelings and thoughts via her limited part. Elaine seems believable and realistic throughout the film.
Director Mike Nichols paces the film wonderfully and maintains an exquisite balance between comedy and drama. The Graduate offers quite a few terrific laughs and remains funny through repeated viewings, mainly because many of the amusing bits result from the nuanced performances. The jokes themselves don't seem that funny, but the way they're acted does.
Also, the sense of realism that pervades the movie helps keep it fresh and compelling. If one closely examines the film, one could easily pick it apart for various overly stylized parts and other aspects that could detract from its truth, but the picture flows and holds together so well as a whole that such criticisms are largely rendered meaningless. I don't think The Graduate is the best and most enduring film of the Sixties, but it's pretty high on that list.