“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.”
It’s 1967 and you have just graduated from college. You return home to Los Angeles amid the expectations of a generation that represents everything you despise. Your peers are starting to drop out and drop acid. What’s a poor little rich boy like Benjamin Braddock to do? Sleep with your parents friend and run off with their daughter of course. Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
I chose the photo above to represent The Graduate rather than the classic visual of Benjamin Braddock as seen through the leg of Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson because the story of The Graduate can really be summed up by the look on the faces of Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus that is taking them not to start a new life together but to avoid the life that was predetermined for them by society and their parents. The look is priceless. Ben has just burst into the church to save Elaine from becoming the wife of fraternity boy Carl Smith and he should be beaming because Elaine has chosen him, but instead he and Elaine both look like deer in the headlights because they have no idea what is in store for them. Is it a happy ending? Who the hell knows. Is there any such thing as a happy ending?
Here are a few things I do know about The Graduate. It’s funny. It’s funny in a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm cringe-worthy way. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is a classic character. His facial expressions make you laugh. When he gets stressed he makes a little “hmm” sound that cracks you up. When he walks out of his parents house in full scuba gear upon being forced to show off his birthday present to his parents friends you laugh out loud. When he questions Anne Bancroft about her intentions: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” he makes us laugh. It’s really a brilliant yet understated performance that is portentous or things to come in Hoffman’s great career. You can’t imagine anyone else in the role and that is a testament to his performance.
Bancroft is of course beautiful and sexy and vulnerable while at the same time mischievous enough to seduce Benjamin — he was doomed from the moment she decided to sleep with him and he was in no position to resist. He was utterly out of his league in this exchange. She manipulated him at every turn. Should we feel sorry for her when Ben chooses Elaine despite her warnings? Hell no. She knew what she was doing. Benjamin was as much a victim as Mr. Robinson! By the way, Bancroft was actually only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson despite playing a woman who was supposed to be twice Benjamin’s age. She created an iconic character that she was never able to top despite a full career.
The Graduate is a classic American film because it captures an era as well as any film ever. It was nominated for a lot of Academy Awards but only won one, for Mike Nichols as Best Director. And while Hoffman went on to win Oscars for Rain Man and Kramer Vs. Kramer, and be nominated for five others including The Graduate, you can see all of his future greatness in Benjamin Braddock. Great film.
Next: Sunset Boulevard
Orson Welles said The General may be the greatest American film. Citizen Kane is number one on the AFI list, so if Welles thinks The General is better what should we make of that? I’ll tell you what we should make of it — Welles must have been high when he said it because The General was a boring, tedious, waste of time. I actually fell asleep halfway through and when I woke up I barely missed anything. Really AFI?
As I near the end of this cinematic journey it’s clear to me that lists like this (and maybe all “best of” lists) are made up faded memories, fake intellectualism and the subjectivity of art. I bet I could come up with 100 films off the top of my head that were better than half the films on this list. I’m sure you can too. But, alas, we’re not members of the American Film Institute so we are not qualified to comment on greatness. Well, I digress.
The General is a 1926 silent film starring Buster Keaton as a hapless train engineer who despite being turned down to fight for the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War manages to save the day anyway by single-handedly foiling the Union’s attempt to steal his train and cut of supplies to the southerners. And he does it by slipping, falling, failing and fumbling along the tracks. Don’t get me wrong, I like silent films and comedies in particular. I won’t argue that several silent films belong on the AFI list, and in fact several Charlie Chaplin films are on the list including City Lights which comes in at No. 11. I just thought this film was a bore.
Next up: The Graduate
Well, we’ve cracked the top 20 and things are heating up, literally. Temperatures are rising on the docks in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film that reminds one how amazing movies and acting can be. I don’t even know where to start with this film, so I’ll just jump right in. The story is intense, focusing on a washed up boxer (Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando) who works on the docks and runs errands for a mobster union boss. When he becomes the central figure in a mob hit and falls for the sister of the dead stool pigeon his life gets turned upside down and he’s torn between staying D&D (deaf and dumb) or singing like a canary (talking to the cops). Throw in a priest with the passion to make things right on the docks and you get the age-old right versus wrong debate.
For film lovers On The Waterfront has it all, but nothing better than Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy. Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three times prior to this film, but he finally won his first Oscar for his portrayal of Malloy. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that his performance is one of the greatest ever captured on film and it has become iconic. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Brando in the film as his character begins as a happy-go-lucky guy with a cushy union job and no worries to the central figure in a major crime wave. He plays Malloy with his characteristic intensity and you believe he is a dumb New York dock worker who maybe got hit a few too many times as a prize fighter. And of course, he utters the classic monologue in the back of a cab when his brother threatens to kill him if he snitches on the mob:
“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”
Nearly 30 years later Robert De Niro used the same lines while winning an Oscar himself for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, which for the record is No. 4 on the AFI list.
But back to On The Waterfront. It took home eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Eva Marie Saint. Kazan’s direction was marvelous and along with Leonard Bernstein’s Oscar-winning score provided the perfect mood for the big city docks. Karl Malden was terrific as the priest, who acts as the moral compass for the film and makes the comparison between the sacrifice of the “stool pigeon” and the sacrifice of Jesus. His speeches to the dock workers were also worthy of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
When you think of film in the 1950s On The Waterfront rises to the surface as a masterpiece. Four of the top 20 AFI films are from the 1950s, but On The Waterfront really encompasses the style of the decade. Bernstein’s score has a lot to do with it, but also Kazan’s direction and Brando’s method make the film edgy and alive. But make no mistake — this film as all Brando. And if you don’t like it then I’d be happy to give you a one-way ticket to palooka-ville!
Next: The General