June is graduation month, which means a long parade of commencement ceremonies and family parties celebrating the new graduate. And at many of those parties, someone will make a joke about Mrs. Robinson or the word “plastics,” because the 50-year-old film “The Graduate” has become part of modern folklore, even for people who haven’t seen it. That’s an impressive achievement for a movie that nobody wanted to make.
“The Graduate” opened nationwide on Dec. 22, 1967, and by the third week, Variety described its box office as sockeroo. Even 42 weeks after its debut, the film was in theaters, still doing “socko” business, as Variety reported on Oct. 9, 1968. It went on to earn $104 million, which roughly translates to $740 million today.
While many films date quickly, this one still works, thanks in part to the stylish direction of Mike Nichols and the script by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, adapting Charles Webb’s novel. And of course the performances by Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Katharine Ross.
When the movie opened, it captured the zeitgeist. There were no references to Vietnam, student protests, or race relations. But the film struck a nerve, thanks to Benjamin Braddock’s alienation from his family’s superficial values and lifestyle.
The film had another key ingredient: sex.
Almost a year before it began production, on March 25, 1966, director Nichols warned Variety columnist Army Archerd that the film would be “adult” because it centered on the affair between a college grad and a 40-year-old woman. In the 21st century, many people mistakenly believe that the entire decade of the 1960s was about free love and hippie vibes. In truth, many people in America, and Hollywood especially, were pretty prim; if characters were shown having sex in movies, it was either saucy (the 007 movies, “What’s New Pussycat?”) or lurid (“The Carpetbaggers,” “Valley of the Dolls”). Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock seemed to regard sex as a nice break from their daily routines. It was a shocking notion for movies (while on TV, sex was practically non-existent; even married characters had separate beds).
Like all great successes, “The Graduate” had a long and difficult journey to the screen. But producer Lawrence Turman stuck with it. Most studios were either indifferent or vaguely offended by the project. Coming to the rescue was Joseph E. Levine, an old-fashioned showman whose Embassy Pictures had released titles ranging from genre films like “Hercules” (1958) and “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” to arthouse favorites such as Federico Fellini’s “8½” and the Julie Christie-John Schlesinger film “Darling.”
Among the actors considered for the three leads in “The Graduate” were Doris Day, Robert Redford, and Candice Bergen. There are varying versions of Day turning down the project. Producer Turman said Day’s husband rejected the Webb novel without showing it to her. Nichols said Day got the script via their mutual friend Norman Jewison, but her husband Marty Melcher threw a fit that she was going behind his back. Day recalled later, “I realized it was an effective part, but it offended my sense of values.”
More Details @ Variety