Oy Vey!

Stranger in a WASP Land

September 25, 2013

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Stranger in a WASP Land

The Graduate, the December 1967 box-office smash starring newcomer Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, is often recounted as a major volley in the history of the Generation Gap. Made on a $3-million budget, it took in over $100 million domestically, which would be around $700 million in 2013 dollars. (In this century, only Avatar has earned more.)

Continuing my intermittent series reinterpreting American history, it’s worth reconsidering what The Graduate was actually about. Looking back from nearly a half-century later, The Graduate seems less like a landmark in the short-lived Generation Gap and more of a milestone in the long-lasting Ethnic Gap.

There’s very little in the film to situate it in the 1960s hippie/protest/drug era. Young Benjamin, for example, wears a coat and tie throughout. Much of the popular image of The Graduate appears to be a projection of Baby Boomers who were then hungry for any kind of cinematic affirmation.

Hollywood seldom adapts nimbly to youth trends because they don’t put young people in charge of making movies, which are costly and easily botched. Thus, The Graduate‘s main contributors were untrustworthy thirtysomethings: Director Mike Nichols was sometimes referred to as a boy genius and the second coming of Orson Welles due to his precocious success directing on Broadway. But he was 36 by the time The Graduate was finished.

Similarly, screenwriter Buck Henry was 37. Producer Lawrence Turman, who had discovered the novel by Charles Webb, was now 41. Bancroft’s character was supposed to be in her mid-40s, but the actress was 36.

And while Hoffman, making his movie debut, could effectively portray a socially maladroit 21-year-old, he was 30. Hoffman had been an Off-Broadway actor for a decade and his milieu had hardly been Haight-Ashbury. He’d shared apartments with two other future stars, neither of whom was ever thought of as the face of the counterculture: Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

“Ultimately, The Graduate is about the pain of being Jewish in a gentile society.”

Katharine Ross, 27, played Mrs. Robinson’s ingénue daughter. And the 26-year-old musicians Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel added much to The Graduate‘s hepness quotient. Still, Simon and Garfunkel weren’t exactly Frank Zappa in terms of alienating the old folks. Their “Mrs. Robinson” was a huge hit on the middle-of-the-road radio station my middle-aged parents listened to in 1968.

The only true 1960s person involved was the eccentric novelist Webb. He had published The Graduate in 1963 at age 24 based on his growing up a wealthy WASP in old-money Pasadena. A committed anti-materialist, he’d already turned down a large inheritance and has spent much of his life since his moment of fame in principled poverty.

The Graduate famously failed to impress the Hollywood old guard when previewed for them. Less well known is that a publicity tour of college campuses that Nichols and Hoffman undertook was not a success, either. Nichols recalls:

In college after college, there was one question: Why isn’t the movie about Vietnam?…No matter what you were doing—if you ran a laundry, your shirts had to be outraged about Vietnam.

The movie took off with Jewish audiences in a few Manhattan theaters and slowly became a juggernaut nationally. It was lavishly praised for being the first movie to plumb the depths of the Generation Gap that suddenly everybody was talking about. Nichols admitted later:

At that particular moment, “the generation gap” was everything. It never even entered our minds! The generation gap? Was it worse than Romeo and Juliet? What’re they talking about?

So what was The Graduate about?

While Benjamin certainly feels beleaguered by his parents’ hearty, talkative friends, they are the only people who will talk to him. He’s an odd choice for the spokesman for the rising generation, since he appears to have no friends his own age.

In fact, Benjamin, with his flat affect, appears to be not quite right in the head.

In the Freudian style of the era, the movie briefly implies that Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson is a displacement of his Oedipal urges toward his own mother. But a contemporary viewer would possess a more useful vocabulary to describe Benjamin than was available during Freud’s monopoly upon popular psychologizing.

Today, we might call Benjamin an Aspergery nerd, a depressive, and an obsessive-compulsive stalker. In the future, people will no doubt look back and laugh at the crudity of 2013’s psychological categories. Still, you have to admit we’ve at least made progress over the last 46 years by losing interest in Freud’s.

In retrospect, Benjamin Braddock seems like Hoffman’s beta release of his Oscar-winning portrayal of autistic Raymond Babbitt in 1988’s Rain Man. Before his unexpected stardom, Hoffman had made ends meet working as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, so he had some hands-on familiarity with actual mental disabilities rather than the fanciful ones discussed by the patients of expensive Freudian shrinks.

Strikingly, Benjamin’s personality is a little like that of Bancroft’s real-life son Max Brooks, the very nervous author of World War Z. Max’s father Mel Brooks was busy filming The Producers, a less suave reflection of the same general urge as The Graduate.

Nichols has reflected that he originally wanted to make a message movie in which ‘‘I said some fairly pretentious things about capitalism and material objects, about the boy drowning in material things and saving himself in the only possible way, which was through madness.”

Nichols, however, came to notice that he really liked making money and buying material objects. His total take from The Graduate may have made him the first director in history to rake in one million dollars from a single movie. He’s since spent fortunes on hobbies such as Arabian horse breeding. Nichols once hired a friend of mine to create some home improvements for the palatial apartment he shares with his fourth wife, newscaster Diane Sawyer (who is so all-American that her father was a Republican judge in Louisville named…Tom Sawyer). Nichols was the most obnoxiously demanding client my friend ever endured.

Nichols likes to claim that he hadn’t realized what The Graduate was actually about until he saw it parodied in a juvenile humor magazine in October 1968:

It took me years before I got what I had been doing all along — that I had been turning Benjamin into a Jew. I didn’t get it until I saw this hilarious issue of MAD magazine after the movie came out, in which the caricature of Dustin says to the caricature of Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Mom, how come I’m Jewish and you and Dad aren’t?’ And I asked myself the same question, and the answer was fairly embarrassing and fairly obvious: Who was the Jew among the goyim? And who was forever a visitor in a strange land?

This may be a story that has gotten better in Nichols’s retelling because the ethnic angle had not been so mysterious to Nichols’s underlings. J. W. Whitehead’s book Appraising The Graduate includes Hoffman’s memory of protesting to his self-confident director the implausibility of his casting:

“I’m not right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a WASP. This is Robert Redford.” …

Nichols replied, “You mean he’s not Jewish?”

“Yes, this guy is a super-WASP. Boston Brahmin.”

And Mike said, “Maybe he’s Jewish inside.”

During filming, Hoffman picked up his first groupie: ‘‘Beautiful, thin, a real shiksa goddess. I think Nichols took that as a sign — at least somebody found me attractive. And it didn’t get past me, either!’‘

Screenwriter Buck Henry argued for Hoffman’s plausibility in the role by appealing to Cesare Lombroso‘s 1870s theory of racial atavism:

“You know my theory about California genetics? Jews from New York came to the Land of Plenty, and within one generation the Malibu sand had gotten into their genes and turned them into tall, Nordic powerhouses. Walking surfboards. We were thinking about how these Nordic people have Dustin as a son, and it’s got to be a genetic throwback to some previous generation.”

At whatever point Nichols got the idea, he ran with it:

“He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people? It took me a long time to figure that out—it’s not in the material at all. And once I figured that out, and found Dustin, it began to form itself around that idea.”

Whitehead says, “Nichols wanted Hoffman to project an estrangement that began in the blood.”

In 1938 Nichols had arrived in America from Berlin, where his anti-communist Jewish ancestors had found refuge from the Soviet Union. His father quickly became successful again in the US. And the son became even more so, first triumphing at stand-up comedy with Elaine May, then directing Neil Simon blockbusters on Broadway. His first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, earned him an Oscar nomination. He’s since completed the coveted EGOT career grand slam, winning four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar (for The Graduate), and nine Tonys.

But everybody feels a bit estranged and unappreciated, even if (or especially if) he is Mike Nichols.

Ultimately, The Graduate is about the pain of being Jewish in a gentile society. This theme had been downplayed by previous generations of Jewish filmmakers, who were grateful for how nice Americans had been to Jews. But as the years went by, Jewish-American artists discovered that there was little danger and much profit in violating this old norm.

Not surprisingly, Nichols’s ethnic alienation is reflected throughout The Graduate. In the wake of Israel’s smashing June 1967 triumph in the Six Day War, this proved tremendously popular with the American public at large.

For example, in the first scene in the hotel lobby, the unaggressive Benjamin has to step aside while dozens of pushy WASPs in formal attire shove through a revolving door ahead of him. And, of course, there’s the memorable last scene in which Benjamin rescues his shiksa goddess from her new husband at the Methodist church by swinging a giant crucifix at the resentful blond beasts.

It doesn’t get much more obvious than that.


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