THE GRADUATE and I have an interesting history. It opened when I was a sophomore in High School. There was a lot of talk about it at the school but I wasn’t into these low budget films (I think it came in for something around $2,000,000.) that were basically anti-Hollywood and what soon would be called “The Now Movie.” They dealt with everyday life rather than the “fantasy” films I had grown up watching and loving. BONNIE AND CLYDE was another one of them and I would wait almost two years to see it. Really, shame on me.
Marty Rosen, a fellow student with whom I didn’t get along—he was a terrible snob always calling me a social climber which of course I was—devoted one of his essays in our creative writing glass to how much he could relate to the film’s central character. I think he even called the film his story. I thought that was pretty whacky even then. Marty was an entrenched member of the school’s elate “click” and me, the invariable social climber, had skillfully become part of that group and Marty resented it. It took him years to get there and it took me a couple of months. Frankly, if I was him I would resent me too. In fact I often do.
Well, hearing Rosen praise the film as much as he did immediately turned me off and I wrote the film off. I mean if superficial dunderhead Mary Rosen liked it, it just had to be crap. But over the ensuing months I heard so much about it in the press, on talk shows and about it everywhere else, that soon I relented. THE GRADUATE wasn’t just a film it had become a sociological event that was altering not only how people watched films but the kinds of films that they expected to see. Remember this was the year of DR. DOLITTLE a big Roadshow that has to be without questions one of the worst films ever made and which completely dropped dead at the box office. In other words, a bomb with a capital B.
So, during the summer of 1968 I tromped down to the Lincoln Art Theater on West 57th street where the film had been running since the fall and would still be running for months to come. Ten months into the film’s run the theater was packed. I mean, not a single empty seat. So, I sat there saying to myself, “Let’s see if it’s all that good.”
On came Simon Aad Garfunkle and we were off to the races. Without question, I thought it the funniest movie I ever saw. It was new, it was fresh; it was like nothing I had ever seen in screen comedy. I later read that Mike Nichols, director of the film was as surprised as anyone as he hadn’t believed that he had made a comedy. Instead, a serious film that was mildly amusing. Amazing to hear that today. In short it was a revelation and as I would learn later because of Nichols the director had now become a Superstar as famous as a film’s star. By the way Duston Hoffman was a nobody before the film opened and after it opened a superstar himself. So, two superstars for the price of one.
NICHOLS WITH HIS BEST DIRECTOR OSCAR FOR THE GRADUATE
I’m not going into the films highlights. If you have seen it you know that they follow one right after the other and if you haven’t, get ready for the show. The film is 50 years old but it could have been made yesterday with respect to storytelling form and naturalism of performance. As I mentioned it made Dustin Hoffman a star and Nike Nichols Hollywood’s the newest wunderkind
I saw it again a number of years later when it was shown on network TV and turned it off as they had cut or reduced some of the best moments in the film. I wasn’t watching the same film. It was also one of the first sold as a pre-record BETA in the late 70s and they sold like hotcakes helping to put Home Video on the map.
Today whenever I watch the movie it is on a big screen TV and in Blu-Ray with a pristine print. Take my word, it is just as good today as when I first saw almost 50 years ago. Unlike Marty Rosen I in no way relate to the character’s alienation dilemma then or now. I much prefer Antonioni for that that sort of thing. He was a master of screen alienation. So, it wasn’t my story, that’s for sure. That was Marty’s problem and not mine. What I found was a biting social satire holding traditional American Values up to a new light which permitted viewers to see things differently and come to their own conclusions. In short, the 1950s and its value system of conformity, hypocrisy and materialism for the sake of materialism had come an abrupt finis. In certain ways it was one of the first hippie movies questioning whether American material values were a means to happiness. But I am not going to go into all that. There are scores of magazine pieces and even books written that dissected almost every aspect of the film. In fact, they are still being written.
I have a stranger history to tell. In college I became best friends with one of the most extraordinary women I ever met. She was so extraordinary that when Arthur Gurfunkle asked her out on a date she said no—telling me when she got back to go school, “Why should I go out with him. It took me ten minutes to realize that he was boring and real creep. I didn’t hear one intelligent thing come out of his mouth.” (Boy did that one blow me away) She enrolled in my college because she wanted, as I had, a taste of Mid-America. Since her father was vice present of Avco Embassy Films which had financed and released THE GRADUATE, I got a perspective on that film and the movie business that I would never have gotten anyplace else.
Having listened to her father for years talk about THE GRADUATE not see as a film, she—and more specifically her father—saw the film as an immense money making machine to which every film was compared. “This and that film did almost as well as THE GRADUATE”. ”This or that film dropped dead at the box office unlike THE GRADUATE.” It was THE GRADUATE this and THE GRADUATE that. You see, the film had cost two million and made over fifty in domestic rentals—not world gross—domestic rentals alone or money brought to the company. As such the film was one of the most profitable movies of all time racking in maybe 70-80 million in profit to the company. To the dicey and highly speculative world of the film industry for a film company this meant jobs, security and not firings next year because of disappointing box office.
For all my reading and learning this was the first time that I was given a view of film as an industry where profit and loss were everything and art—who cared. It was a shock that I have never quite gotten over. No matter how great a film maker and how great his film, if they don’t make profit he/she soon won’t be making films and that list is very long and what every film maker and actor thinks every time they make a movie. This is why it is called a business and never, ever forget that.
Mike Nichols, director of THE GRADUATE was one of the great wits of the entertainment industry. Here are two anecdotes of his I love.
June 1996, Virginia Woolf which had just opened to great success, Director Nichols and the film’s writer-producer where sitting in a suite at the Astor hotel surrounded by the films fantastic newspaper reviews spread-out in the floor in front of them. The suite’s windows looked down at Broadway and the film playing at the Criterion Theater where the lines went around the block. The producer spoke up.
“It just doesn’t get better than this.”
Nichols reply: “Yea, but we’re still going to die anyway.”
Mike Nichols, was a German Jew who had immigrated to the United States with his family just in time to prevent themselves from being exterminated. Consequently, Nichols was a kid and, as he spoke with a German accent, during the war he was brutally made fun of by his American class mates calling him a Nazi which was extremely insensitive as much of his family died in the camps.
HAVING JUST ESCAPED THE NAZIS
All during this period Nichols would say to himself, “I want to become a success just to make all these people feel bad.”
Well when he did become a great success he was asked about this and his reply: “Truth is, I don’t even think about those idiots or much less care what they think. I have to better things to do with my time.”
Mike Nichols was full of these wonderful quotes and I just wish someone would collect them into a book. He was so funny, so honest and so, very, very brilliant. When he died, I cried. No more Mike Nichols stories, I thought. A loss to all of us.