AFI #17: The Graduate


“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

AFI # 43: Midnight Cowboy

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

Midnight Cowboy is one of those films that people seems to either love or hate. You can count me among those who really like it. It was certainly controversial at the time it came out, earning an “X” rating from the MPAA for sexual content and adult themes, but it’s tame by today’s standards. It is, of course, known for being the only X rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and one of only two ever nominated in any category (ironically, the other, A Clockwork Orange, is also on the AFI Top 100).

The film is the sordid tale of would-be “hustler” Joe Buck (Jon Voight, AKA Angelina’s dad), fresh off the boat from Texas and trying to earn a living in New York by being a gigalo. He quickly finds out that the naked city is no place for a naive cowboy like him, until he runs into a street urchin and scam artist named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two fall in together and try to survive on the streets, but things go from bad to worse. Ultimately it’s a tale of starting over despite the circumstances of ones situation.

For me the film is really driven by the characters of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Voight and Hoffman both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and both characters have become archetypes of sorts and prove that a film can be held together solely on the strength of characters. Ratso is certainly a legendary character that has been spoofed and copied for decades. “I’m walkin’ here!” Truthfully though I think Voight’s Joe Buck is a more compelling and interesting character — we learn from flashbacks about his difficult childhood and perhaps what led him to leave Texas for New York and a chance at the big time. And of course ultimately it’s his story and he is the one who grows and changes by the end. Speaking of the end — spoiler alert — a lot of people complain about the depressing ending of this film but the ending is a new beginning for Joe Buck and the viewer has to think the experiences he had in New York will lead him to a better life…and we see signs of that along the bus ride to Florida and at the end. Joe is a survivor and you feel like he’s going to be OK.

The other thing about Midnight Cowboy that is pretty compelling is the way in which it was shot, with the flashbacks and the 60s psychedelic stuff. It’s the same treatment I hated in other films of this era but it works nicely here and adds to the flavor of the film as a period piece. Finally, a word about the song. That ever-present Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me. It’s hard to think of another song that always brings to mind the film from which it is associated. But to a person if you say the words Midnight Cowboy people start to sing the song and vice verse if you sing the song people will have visions of Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. That’s hard to do. Ironically, the song did not win the Oscar — it didn’t even get nominated. That award went to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is another song that has become synonymous with a film. And by the way, Butch and Sundance was also nominated for Best Picture that year and lost to Midnight Cowboy, a travesty in my humble opinion.

One last nugget of film lore. In the famous scene in Midnight Cowboy where Joe Buck allows a young man to perform oral sex on him in a theater in exchange for money, that young man was played by a 24-year-old Bob Balaban in his first movie role. Balaban, for film connoisseurs, is of course the brilliant character actor known for his roles in the great Christopher Guest films like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show and…of course…as Russell Dalrymple on Seinfeld!

Next Up: Bonnie & Clyde

AFI #69: Tootsie

One way to tell if some of the films on the AFI list hold up is if Connor enjoys them. A film that translates well across generations surely must be a worthy film. Given that, 1982’s  Tootsie definitely belongs on the AFI list.

Tootsie is a funny film that doesn’t rely on the silliness of Dustin Hoffman in drag to get laughs but rather provides its laughs through the brilliant writing of Larry Gelbart and others. Sure, Hoffman is not exactly an attractive woman, and there are a few moments of physical humor thrown in because it’s always funny when a man tries to walk in heels, but the dialogue makes this film so amazing. Here’s an example of my favorite rant by out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey:

Michael Dorsey: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?
George Fields: No, no, that’s too limited… nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either. I can’t even set you up for a commercial. You played a *tomato* for 30 seconds – they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn’t sit down.
Michael Dorsey: Of course. It was illogical.
George Fields: YOU WERE A TOMATO. A tomato doesn’t have logic. A tomato can’t move.
Michael Dorsey: That’s what I said. So if he can’t move, how’s he gonna sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber… I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.

A juicy, sexy beefsteak tomato! And some of the best lines are left to Michael’s playwright roommate Jeff, played deadpan by Bill Murray. Teri Garr is classic, and Charles Durning is great as Jessica Lange’s smitten dad. And Dabney Coleman is perfect as the chauvinistic soap director. Jessica Lange was just ok, but somehow she managed to get an Academy Award for best supporting actress. You gotta feel for Dustin Hoffman being nominated against Ben Kingsley for Gandhi — he never had a chance. Gandhi also rightfully beat Tootsie for best picture.

I can’t provide praise for Tootsie though without saying something about director Sydney Pollack, who not only directed the film but acted in it as well, stealing some scenes as agent George Fields. Pollack was a great director who along with Tootsie is well known for directing Absence of Malice, Out of Africa, The Way We Were, The Firm and many more. Pollack liked to act as well and over his career he had some memorable roles, none better than George Fields. He made some cameos in Entourage, The Sopranos, Michael Clayton, Husbands and Wives, and many more. The guy was a Renaissance man and we lost him too young.

Next Up: Unforgiven

AFI #77: All the President’s Men

I was 10 year’s old when All the President’s Men came out and I remember going to see it with my family at the Campus Drive-in on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego. I know it may be hard to believe, but the film had a major impact on me even at that young age. I knew then I wanted to be a journalist. Over 30 years have gone by and I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times or so, and each time I am glued to the action as if I had no idea of the outcome. Watching it yesterday was no different — it is undoubtedly one of my all-time favorite movies. But as a bonus, this time Connor watched it with me and he loved it! How cool is that?

It seems to me that Watergate marked a critical turning point in American politics. I’m sure we knew politics wasn’t all pretty, but when the events of the break-in and cover up came to light in such a public way America lost its innocence about just how corrupt government can be. If you look back at the record, Nixon wasn’t such a bad president — he was just a bad person. In the nearly 40 years since Watergate we have come to expect that politics is a dirty game played by people who most likely don’t have our country’s best interests in mind. Reagan began to divide us along ideological terms, Bush continued his legacy, Clinton created  a mockery of the office with his sexual exploits, Bush Jr. used the office to advance his personal agendas and now a weak and vision-less Obama presides over a fully corrupt government that can’t even agree on what to disagree on. At least during Watergate Americans pretty much agreed on the fact that Nixon was a crook. But looking back the frat boy antics of Watergate seem like child’s play compared to going to war without cause, purposely dividing the nation along class and moral boundaries and bailing out special interests. Should we long for the days of Watergate?

All the President’s Men is wonderful because it’s a great detective film, with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And of course it’s even more compelling because it is based on fact rather than fiction. It features great acting and powerful moments of realization. It also features some very cool directing by Alan Pakula, especially in the way he weaves in real footage. I love, for example, the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are working alone in the newsroom while the rest of the staff are gathered around the TVs watching Nixon being sworn in for a second term. The Nixon swearing-in is real footage which makes the scene feel even more real. Pakula does this several times during the film and it’s very unique. And of course the film is chock full of great performances by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook and more. Interestingly only Jason Robards, for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee,  won the Oscar. In fact, All the President’s Men didn’t win for Best Picture. It was nominated along with Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. That’s a hell of a year for film — Rocky won by the way!

All the President’s Men made journalism seem important and romantic. It was a noble calling. I remember reading David Halbertam’s The Powers that Be in college and thinking being a journalist was one of the most important jobs in the country. How many of us feel that way today? Journalism itself has fallen victim to the times of division. We either watch Fox or MSNBC. We believe the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but not both. Local news has become nothing more than the crime report and a vehicle for advertisements. The Internet has given us the ability to read more news than ever, but none of it has any teeth — the lie of “balance” has given way to articles with no heart and mind. The Fourth Estate has become just another tool for the corporatocracy.

Regardless of how you feel about journalism, All the President’s Men surely harkens back to a different time. It’s a great film and an important film. And just like then, today if you want to know who is in charge of things all you have to do is what Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward — follow the money!

Next Up: Forrest Gump