The Graduate sits in that small, honored clutch of films that are difficult to view objectively because they are so ingrained in the American consciousness. A quick spin of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” instantly brings about images of Anne Bancroft seducing Dustin Hoffman’s adrift college grad Benjamin Braddock even though Simon’s lyrics have nothing to do with that. We would never think to question the decidedly un-Waspys Hoffman as such a Waspy character because he is Benjamin Braddock, who changed the way we peer into fish tanks and sink to the bottoms of swimming pools. “Are you trying to seduce me?” “Plastics.” “Elaine! Elaine!” They are all nondescript words and phrases on their own, and they all sway with meaning and memories and humor because of their place in Mike Nichols’s iconic film. And that film’s overpowering iconography cannot overpower pleasures that still remain fresh after almost fifty years (try saying that about Gone with the Wind and meaning it). Buck Henry’s script is just as funny as ever. The damaged duo of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are just as poignant, and Hoffman and Bancroft’s performances remain brilliantly nuanced. The “Sounds of Silence/April Come She Will” sequence remains an absolute editing tour de force.
However, the film still has the ability to surprise, as Katharine Ross’s gut-wrenching turn as Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (who will apparently turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t marry one of two pretty awful potential husbands within 48 hours) has not received as much attention throughout the years as it deserves. As Benjamin’s mom, Elizabeth Wilson gives a broad and hilarious performance that never feels like it was shipped in from some daffier movie. Also, the fact that Benjamin is really unstable often gets lost amidst the prevailing image of him as a sympathetic guy just trying to find direction in a world populated by middle-aged richies completely divorced from the fact that they’re living through a revolutionary decade.
Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of The Graduate allows many opportunities to be surprised all over again too. One of the quintessential films of American cinema has a rather European aesthetic, and its shadows are served well by a presentation that is dark and rich. The restoration is flawless. Supplements are plentiful, with a new 38-minute interview with Dustin Hoffman and a 25 minute one with Buck Henry and producer Lawrence Turman. These pieces get into the film’s inception and casting and how radical it was to put Hoffman in a role like this in 1967. There are archival interviews with Mike Nichols and Paul Simon, the only places among the extras that either of these major Graduate figures gets to speak. There’s also a short documentary from 1992 that repeats information from several of the other supplements but provides the only place to hear Katharine Ross talk about the film (sadly, Anne Bancroft’s first-hand accounts are missing from all supplements). There are screen tests with Hoffman and Ross and four other actors who probably would have been badly miscast as Benjamin and Elaine; an interview with Bobbie O’Steen, film history and widow of Graduate-editor Sam O’Steen; a couple of old audio commentaries (one with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh; one with film scholar Howard Suber); and additional conversation with Graduate fans such as David O. Russell, Harold Ramis, and Henry Rollins. The Graduate is one of the most essential movies that will ever land in the Criterion Collection, and the company does right by it through and through.