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Anne-Fare Film Essay

We Should All Love Anne Bancroft: Revisiting “The Graduate”

Revisiting “The Graduate” on its 53rd anniversary.
Content warning: Sexual assault.

I’ve let two years, almost two whole ones from my undergraduate career go by before writing about The Graduate again. The last time I touched the film in any kind of retrospective, I was only slightly aware of the kind of life I would have as a working Anne Bancroft scholar, I wasn’t sure of where I would be going to college, I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. Between seventeen and nineteen, I’ve held the running joke with myself that I would never watch this film again if my life depended on it, with all the misgivings and dreams deterred that have occupied that space in between. That running joke had to expire, though, because The Graduate is my favorite film after all, and like most favorite films, it is a bit painful and sobering to watch again; however, I can decidedly put my hurt feelings aside to write about The Graduate on its 53rd anniversary. Upon its release in 1967, film critic George McKinnon wrote for The Boston Globe, “The movie is not only extremely funny, but it is also touching and searingly acrid, sometimes all at the same time” (McKinnon 24); hold your favorite film close to your heart, and it will burn you indubitably in the end.

Like the great breed of American filmmaking to arrive by the end of the decade, The Graduate reaches towards abrasive storytelling guided by the assured hands of newcomers and hopefuls. Mike Nichols, half of Nichols and May, comedy team to the gods, was attracted to the project by the eagerness of producer (and The Graduate flagship) Lawrence Turman, who had acquisitioned the rights to Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, The Graduate, in 1964 for $1,000. Established producer Joseph E. Levine joined the project (with an executive producer credit in tow) as he was eager to bet on Nichols to direct a winning outfit for Embassy Pictures. Levine, famous for his campaigning prowess, had faith in Nichols, who hadn’t even directed a feature film by the time he was signed on to the project; Nichols’ experience as an up-and-coming theater director with gravitas, with such 60s tentpole productions as Barefoot in the Park (1963), Luv (1964), and The Odd Couple (1965) under his belt before he even set foot into the Hollywood directing arena (and that’s not even to mention his credits in the legendarily popular An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which ran during the 1960-61 Broadway season), made him a hot name in Hollywood by the mid-60s. As for the subject matter of Charles Webb’s book that Turman was so clearly willing to go to bat for, Levine could take it or leave it; he really just wanted to distribute a film with Nichols’ name attached to it. But before Nichols could jump into a project as half-baked as The Graduate, he directed the much-celebrated, acerbic adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as his feature film debut; Virginia Woolf? fossilized him as a leading dark horse of New Hollywood direction. While Nichols was shooting his first feature film, Turman signed on Calder Willingham to write what essentially became a rough first draft of the screenplay. Neither Turman nor Nichols were particular fond of Willingham’s script, so at Nichols’ discretion, the team turned to a young comedian working as a television writer, Buck Henry; even this early on, all signs pointed to Anne Bancroft’s casting as Mrs. Robinson, as Buck Henry’s most significant credits at the time were on the TV show Get Smart, which he co-created and wrote with Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband. Henry, unlike Willingham, shared the same understanding and excitement for The Graduate as Turman and Nichols, which was clearly reflected in his script. Willingham sued for credit, which is genuinely hysterical, considering Turman actually called his script “vulgar” (Kashner). Willingham ultimately receives top billing for the film, but credit for the final script adapting Charles Webb’s novel, the script that was actually used for the film, rests entirely on the shoulders of the great Buck Henry. When Nichols departed from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned him an Academy nod for Best Director and was already on its way to becoming an American classic, he devoted himself fully to the production of The Graduate, and casting was the next minefield.

The same year that The Graduate went into production, Dustin Hoffman was considered for the role of Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ feature film debut The Producers (1967), a role that eventually went to the late genius Gene Wilder. Plenty now-recognizable names looking for their first (or next) big break auditioned for the role of Benjamin Braddock before New York-native Dustin Hoffman scored the part. At a screening of The Graduate at the Director’s Guild of America Theatre in New York in 2003, Mike Nichols told the now-famous anecdote of Robert Redford’s audition, giving voice to the struggle he and Turman faced in casting the part of a pedestrian young man who could pull a believably astute performance but remain sympathetic with audiences: “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he wasn’t joking” (Kashner). Hoffman was legendarily awkward in his audition tape (which you can now view in part as a featurette in the Criterion Collection’s re-release of The Graduate), crossing the line into sexual assault, pinching Katharine Ross’ behind as a way for him to “alleviate tension” (of course this wouldn’t be his first offense in the name of awkwardness, as he touches Bancroft’s breast without consent in their first intimate scene together; that scene makes the final cut of the film). In fact, Hoffman was so incredibly awkward throughout the production of The Graduate, the little “hmph” noises he makes as Benjamin were birthed out of uneasiness, but Nichols bought into this character quirk so much, he encouraged Hoffman to keep the bit going. Benjamin Braddock is just about one of the most original American film characters of all time, and Hoffman is about as incredibly sincere and naive as they come in his portrayal; Benjamin is a perfect reflection of Hoffman’s own anxieties about being a screen newcomer in a role that was intended for a recognizable name of a WASP-type leading man. He was the exact opposite of how Benjamin was written, but the kind of life and disturbed heroism he brings to the part perhaps pioneered a new era of opportunities for young Jewish actors; he is seen as desirable but rounded by insecurities all the same: he is, above all, touchingly human. Ultimately, Hoffman was perfect for the part of Benjamin, a “delightful film hero of our generation” (Alpert 66), but I can never, in good faith, lionize him beyond that. His behavior on the set of The Graduate was inappropriate, and an unfortunate reminder that the greatest heroes of film are capable of acting wildly off-color in the name of their artistic whims.

The casting of Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross looked different than the process which landed Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock. The original shortlist of young actresses considered to play Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s sought-after daughter (who could still maintain the less-than-ten-year-age-difference between herself and actress playing her mother) included Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Caroll Baker, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick, Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, etc. While Patty Duke would have certainly been an interesting choice considering Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, which would have reunited The Miracle Worker pairing in a far departure from their teacher-student roles, the cast was all but set when Katharine Ross auditioned with Dustin Hoffman. As aforementioned, the chemistry of their audition together was compromising on Ross’ behalf, but the uncomfortable air between them all but bowled Nichols over. Katharine Ross, whose sanguine disposition as Elaine Robinson ultimately traps her in a hell of a love triangle, is not to be dismissed as a key player in The Graduate. Nichols even insisted that Ross bring her own wardrobe to the shooting dates for scenes at UC Berkeley (which were actually shot at the University of Southern California), as she carried such a natural pitch of a contemporary graduate student. Ross underscores the emotional turmoil brought upon by both Benjamin and her mother, and the expectations of marrying appropriately that obscure her, with a kind of bubbling anger that bursts in small moments of heavy distress; the screech as Benjamin refutes the story she’s been fed about him and her mother brings Elaine’s tension up to Ben’s level momentarily, then it pipes down in a matter of seconds. She is just as confused and astringent as he is, only, she’s better at hiding it in sweet, unassuming mannerisms. 

The casting process of Mrs. Robinson cuts in much of the post-studio system pandemonium; who was old enough but still sexy enough to play Mrs. Robinson? Who was looking for a job, or who needed a vehicle for relevance in a new age of American filmmaking? Famed names like Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, and Ingrid Bergman dominate interest in the “what could have been” conversation about The Graduate’s production (personally, I find more interest in the “what could have been” regarding Patty Duke’s casting as Elaine Robinson, but I digress); all of these women were actually considered for the role of Mrs. Robinson, but Anne Bancroft was the only actress who was officially offered the part by both Nichols and Turman. Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband, ushered her into the project, as it was written by his friend and Get Smart colleague Buck Henry, and after slight hesitation, Bancroft accepted (Daniel 142); if you were previously unaware of the hand Mel Brooks played in The Graduate, I suppose now you are. Bancroft was payed a healthy $200,000 for the part, and marked the experience of filming with a conflicted tone. Bancroft was never exactly comfortable with the kind of physical intimacy a role like Mrs. Robinson demanded of her, and she had never played a role with as much sacrifice of her bodily autonomy previously; a Broadway mainstay by 1967, Bancroft was much more familiar with and comfortable with roles that required intimacy of the heart over her body, starring in gritty productions like The Miracle Worker (1959), Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), and The Devils (1965), all with scant seductive tones. The role originally called for nudity, which likely gives credence to her reluctance towards accepting the job in the first place, but Bancroft, like every role she had previously acted in, was confident in giving her all. However, on the day the nude scenes were set to be filmed, she later recalled, “I just couldn’t do it. And, of course, that sort of left Mike [Nichols] up a creek” (2000). So, a double was brought in for the flashy shots of Mrs. Robinson’s naked body; similarly, while I hate to be the first one to tell you if I am, that wasn’t actually Anne Bancroft’s leg on the film’s poster, it was then-unknown model Linda Gray’s leg. Physicality was not the only emotionally strenuous term Bancroft would have to champion while filming The Graduate; she was playing a character who was canonically ten years older than her actual age, and the actor playing her junior was only six years her junior. While Anne Bancroft was, of course, a consummate professional more than capable of turning out a top shelf performance, her external points of stress were more than daunting, and should be considered with her legendary turn as Mrs. Robinson.

When Bancroft was preparing for her first largely unfamiliar role, Gittel Mosca of Two for the Seesaw, she saw to the great task of bringing an eccentric, grating character to fruition with sensibility enough the punctuate her sympathetic draws; she worked under the leadership of acting teacher Herbert Berghof, introducing her the teachings of Stanislavsky, coaching her to draw from her innermost conflict in order to connect with her character. Her strengths were honed for the first real time in her acting career, and she was allowed a space to exercise plenty of new tricks for a team who was rooting for her. She was the newcomer who got all the attention during Two for the Seesaw, a fare which would reverse itself during the filming of The Graduate; Bancroft was the largest acting name associated with the picture, as other major roles filled out with Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson, William Daniels as Mr. Braddock, and Elizabeth Wilson as Mrs. Braddock, and there was a certain expectation that she would be the dovetailing force of the acting side of the production.

Soundstage rehearsals at Paramount studios. Photograph by Bob Willoughby.

As filming began in March 1967, much of the film’s scheduling was allotted for rehearsals, where Bancroft could truly begin to understand Mrs. Robinson, how she should play her, and what she could draw upon within herself to add clarity to an otherwise unsympathetic, maligned role. Mike Nichols was perhaps her greatest champion on set, a man who had thoroughly considered the hang-ups and misgivings of Mrs. Robinson before Bancroft even had the chance to fill such exhaustive terms; though reminiscent of her time at the HB Studio and her formative lessons of the Method, Mike Nichols was increasingly novel in his approaches to culling great, nuanced performances from his actors. Nichols encouraged his stock of actors to consider the intricacies of the Braddocks and the Robinsons, both in conflict and as separate entities, in order to understand exactly the kind of people they would be portraying, an approach very similar to Berghof and Stanislavsky. He also encouraged his actors to consider the “theme of empty consumerism that had marked Mrs. Robinson’s life and now threatened Benjamin’s future” in creating a life for their characters (Daniel 144). Where Nichols differed, however, from the increasingly pedantic terms of method acting, was within his familiar comedy routine of calculated improvisation. A review of the film from 1967 noted how, “Sometimes it seems as if Nichols had just discovered the camera and is delighting in the freedom of the film medium over his more familiar stage” (McKinnon 24). He encouraged improvisation in both character study and blocking, inspiring Hoffman’s infamous and grossly inappropriate handling in the first scene where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in a hotel room together; as the story goes, Bancroft was unaware of the advances he would make to touch her breast but acted along professionally, and to smother his laughter, Hoffman turned to the nearest wall and started banging his head. Nichols was reportedly in tears by the end of the scene and his sexual assault made the final cut of the film. To anyone unaware of the scene’s context, this routine reads as characteristic to Benjamin’s self-sabotaging whim, blocked with enough awkwardness to guarantee audience laughs and at least a few winces out of relatability.

Improvisation crossed the line in that scene, and luckily a stunt like that wasn’t pulled again by Hoffman or encouraged by Nichols, because as the production wore on, the latter party became increasingly aware of how uncomfortable Bancroft was with being Mrs. Robinson. In addition to this strain of uncomfortable physical endurances, Bancroft caught pneumonia while filming and fainted while outside of the United Methodist Church where the last scene of The Graduate was being shot. Much of that sympathy Nichols had for her shows up in the film, as he later expressed, “‘Part of Annie’s genius is that you’re sort of on Mrs. Robinson’s side, partly because she’s so much fun and partly because…I don’t know. She’s a beautiful woman and I feel for her” (Daniel 145). Bancroft and Nichols are quite the collaboration for the books, certainly my books, and he was likely the greatest thing, creatively, to come out of The Graduate for her. The two appreciated each other’s company so much, Anne signed on to a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, with Nichols directing, shortly after The Graduate wrapped shooting; the production ran from October 26 to December 16 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and from December 19, just days before The Graduate was released in U.S. theaters, to January 20, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, closing after a modest run of 100 performances. Affectionately remembering her staggering performance in the 40th anniversary DVD commentary track for The Graduate, Nichols made the sharp observation that, “Everything she does is perfect.” It certainly seems so.

Call it her professionalism, her honest calling as an actor, because Bancroft gives an unsparing, gorgeous performance as Mrs. Robinson, all tensions considered. Bancroft spent much of her time on The Graduate considering each and every strain that Mrs. Robinson was acting under, and as the role became more and more synonymous with her name as an actress, her creative process was pulled further into the limelight than any of her prior afamed roles had been before. Bancroft later revealed to Charlie Rose where her sympathies aligned in her performance as Mrs. Robinson: “I think she had dreams. She had dreams and the dreams could not be fulfilled because of things that had happened, and so she spent a very conventional life with this conventional man in a conventional house, you know. Even though it was Beverly Hills, it was still a very conventional life. And meantime, all the dreams that she had had for herself, you know, and the talent–she probably was a gifted artist you know. I thought that she was. And none of that could happen anymore” (2000). Bancroft was careful and focused on the intentions of Mrs. Robinson, never mincing words about her character that would open the film up for further speculation of what was already done, behind her, and obviously perfected; she never divulged detail about Mrs. Robinson that hadn’t already been confirmed by her performance in the film itself: “‘There was such a delicate balance in The Graduate that I had to keep a straight line. If I took one step away from that line I would make her a caricature. And if I stepped the other way I would have made her a tragic character” (Daniel 145). I have a heart full of sympathy for Bancroft’s cause, and the complicated legacy Mrs. Robinson bestowed on her; she didn’t watch the film for nearly twenty-five years after its release, as she was entering her sixties. She took a five-year break from film before she embarked on her next project, Young Winston, in 1972; though this break did not spare her from public heckling and interview fodder, it certainly did separate her mind and body from Mrs. Robinson, a taxing role she never wanted to serve as her typecast. The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson are what first introduced me to Anne Bancroft, and though I’m grateful, I don’t consider either/or to be the crux of why I love Anne or why I love The Graduate; rather, I believe that Anne Bancroft is what makes The Graduate great. While I have been able to separate the legacy of Mrs. Robinson from Anne Bancroft, I realize that this is not nor has it ever been the agreed-upon expectation of American art; she is Mrs. Robinson, and sometimes she is just Mrs. Robinson to others, and though I can save a case with my research, I cannot expect everyone to disparage the conditions that American filmmaking requires of its greatest legends. Anne Bancroft graciously accepted the terms, even though she never should have needed to.

When I started to look beyond the obvious voice of The Graduate–Benjamin and his incongruous identity–I began to understand the film as more than a personal reflection, something so selfish I strongly held myself to, that was stealing away from the greatest pleasures of the film. To claim the obvious that was not so obvious to me until very recently, the film is riotously funny. My younger brother, now sixteen, watched the film with me not so long ago, and there was hardly a moment where we could stop laughing from sight gags, Hoffman’s disturbed mannerisms, the droning of Simon and Garfunkel, or simply just as a response to the increasing hilarity of the film’s events, from one absurd proposition to its ridiculous solution. Of course, we found different things funny. The scene where Hoffman and Buck Henry battle for dominance over the hotel lobby bell absolutely broke me up, but my brother could hardly spare a sympathetic chuckle, even after I rewound the scene just to make sure he caught just how good it was (“that was a classic Nichols bit,” I prodded). Before this, I could never escape a viewing of The Graduate without crying, receding maniacally into cycles of despair, hurt, guilt, all in vain: what was I actually crying for? I think I had that expectation of myself, but maybe a few of those tears were actually sincere; I don’t think it’s worth much to poke around guessing. I never let myself fully enjoy the keen comedic pitch The Graduate has, because as a teenager, I was so obsessed with the minutiae of the film: what was this film trying to say about the milieu of its time, and further, what did my connection to it say about my life and relation to my surroundings? Trying to diagnose why this film meant something to me from so early on has proven to be an exercise in futility, such as the case of Benjamin, such as the case of anything when you focus aim so hard on prescribing a meaning that is your own, that you miss the true greatness of that thing. No, I do not think I missed the beauty of The Graduate entirely, because it certainly did influence my writing, even landing me an acceptance from my dream school, apropos of my first screenplay, though I did not end up attending (and if I recall correctly, a college essay for that school was written about The Graduate and what it means to me as a writer. Embarrassing, but likely true). So at least I understood what made the writing great, even if I did not know how or why it mattered so much. The Graduate also struck me as something completely novel from the get, and I have always known just how special it was for me to recognize that movies can be so confusing but recognizably great, from as young as fourteen; I’ve always known that The Graduate is a great film, even when I could not understand it in simple terms, even when I could not understand it in the terms I decided it would have. I have stopped trying to align identity, meaning, and significance to The Graduate in such discernable terms; these statutes are instead completely arbitrary, but they are cyclically made up by me, and only me, as I get older. Benjamin might have wanted to say the same about the rules governing his own life, too.

Anne Bancroft is the best thing about The Graduate. In the essay I wrote about the film when I was seventeen, all I wanted to do was discuss the scene that has always moved me the most. This is the last scene Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson share in bed together, and it is a meticulously blocked, perfectly acted, painful scene that centers the true tragedy of the film: “you live in a world of objects you become an object” (Douglas 144).  That was the first scene, likely in any movie, where I was truly stopped in my tracks by a performance from an actor I was never previously aware of. The very clear and very frightening contention that this scene operates on is the working conversation that builds both Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson up to the point where they are both able to recognize that what they are doing to each other is misguided and cruel.

“I’m not good enough for her to associate with, am I? I’m not good enough to even talk about her, am I?”

“Let’s drop it.”

“We’re not dropping it. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough for your daughter. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough to associate with your daughter. That’s it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“You go to hell. You go straight to hell, Mrs. Robinson. Do you think I’m proud of myself? Do you think I’m proud of this?”

This is the first scene where it is obvious that Mrs. Robinson is a person, she is a parent. She is always cool and distant, a direct contrast to Benjamin’s constant unease, but not in this scene, not when the stakes are raised, where she fears the ramifications. She fears her daughter will become like her, but not just because of Benjamin, but because he stands for nothing she could’ve prepared herself for. She wants Elaine to go to graduate school, grow up, curate her own passions and interests on her own terms, a chance that she never had; Elaine has access to all of these things because of her mother and her great sacrifice, but the fruits of Mrs. Robinson’s labor are perpetually being threatened by anyone who might inspire dissent or discomfort, and Benjamin is that very threat. Only, she has no idea what to make of his intentions. Mrs. Robinson protects her efforts with enduring might and antagonistic fronts, but the generation her daughter and Benjamin belong to inevitably have plans that reject her sympathies and aim for the same disastrous fate that she once came into. It’s only under the idiosyncratic terms of liberation that that these things happen. Never once is there a moment spent in The Graduate where anyone thinks about the consequences of their actions, so these things happen.

Mrs. Robinson is a woman who champions her own hurtful losses by intricately stacking the cards in favor of her daughter who might do more, be better than her, all while allowing herself pleasure amid the pain. Anne Bancroft pulls a performance that has not only immortalized the maligned conflicts of grown women, but brings to Mrs. Robinson a scope of vulnerabilities that do not completely mark her as an embittered adversary. Anne Bancroft being both thirty-five and forty-five as Mrs. Robinson qualifies a kind of ambiguous identification, aligning her with those who do not entirely understand the blight that drives Benjamin and Elaine to their demise, nor do they relate to their parent generation; she is the dreams deferred, those who have carefully planned against others who threaten to attack their defenses, but she is also the face of a generation who might understand the terms that their parents operated under, because she is not without her sympathies. And most are willing to understand someone who is as beautiful and communicative as Anne Bancroft. I know that I was.

References:

Alpert, Hollis. “‘Mike Nichols Has Made the Freshest, Funniest, and Most Touching Film of the Year.’” Daily News, 22 December 1967, p. 66.

Daniel, Douglass K. Anne Bancroft: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

McKinnon, George. “Nichols, Hoffman Score With ‘Graduate.’” The Boston Globe, 22 December 1967, p. 24.

Kashner, Sam. “Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of ‘The Graduate.’” Vanity Fair, 25 February 2008.

Rose, Charlie. Interview with Anne Bancroft. Charlie Rose Show, 25 April 2000.

When I was sixteen and seventeen, respectively, I wrote about The Graduate, and I have published those personal works on here. You are more than welcome to read those short essays in accompaniment.

One reply on “We Should All Love Anne Bancroft: Revisiting “The Graduate””

Your 2020 piece on The Graduate is terrific. I look forward to reading the earlier stuff. Love that you call yourself a Bancroft historian, she really was something else, an incredibly connected and vivacious performer. Years ago, I did my dissertation at film school on the Method and Bancroft was one of the people I studied for it.

Good luck and do continue writing. All the best

Liked by 1 person

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