In the mid '70s, the editorial board of the British magazine Movie published its round-table discussion on modern Hollywood. One trend that this bunch of '60s-style progressives found paradoxically disquieting was the wave of commercial movies modelled on freewheeling counter-culture values. One editor commented: "Flattery has been a continuing strand in Hollywood movies which I didn't find offensive – until it was me that was being flattered."
When it comes to flattering the supposedly hip attitudes of the '60s generation, no Hollywood movie could be more culpable than Mike Nichols's The Graduate.
It is a film that vaguely stood for something in its time – youth rebellion and uncertainty, anti-authoritarianism, an attack on complacent middle-class, suburban values – but it holds up very weakly today. Among the touted classics that regularly come around for re-release, this is surely one of the most overrated.
The film takes the anarchistic mood of the '60s and carefully sifts out all its specific, political content. All we are left with is a manic tale of a gormless young man, Ben (Dustin Hoffman), pitching back and forth between a seductive, world-weary older woman (Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson) and the sweet young thing with whom he is fated to be mated, Elaine (Katharine Ross).
Most of the film's tiresome satire dwells on a parade of ugly, stupid, mean-spirited elders and authority figures pressing in on Ben.
Nichols is a terribly uneven director whose best films, such as Working Girl (1988), tend to be his least pretentious. The Graduate ushered many lamentably flashy stylistic tics into the canon of American filmmaking. Regular assaults on the eye and ear are guaranteed by Nichols' ceaseless recourse to a fast zoom lens, and his penchant for meaningless montages (Ben walking, driving, pondering blankly) to fill out the bits where Simon and Garfunkel's famous songs take command of the soundtrack.
Many well-known set-pieces in The Graduate – such as the scene in which Ben dives into the family pool in his scuba gear, and we hear only the sound of his breathing – set the exaggerated, grotesque tone that is to haunt modern cinema internationally right up to Bad Boy Bubby (1994) and beyond.
And yet the almost burlesque, neurotic humour of the film – drawn from Nichols' collaborators Elaine May and Buck Henry – is now its only intriguing historical feature. Hoffman and Bancroft may no longer be adequate "symbols of an era", but their frantic bedroom cavorting is certainly some fun to behold.
© Adrian Martin November 1997