What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘The Graduate’

The persuasive power of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson lies not in proffering a singular interpretation of its meaning but rather in the open-ended way it encourages readers to give in to the scope of the film's meaningfulness.

Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How "The Graduate" Became the Touchstone of a Generation
Beverly Gray
Nov 2017

Is there anyone left who hasn’t seen Mike Nichols’ The Graduate? Is there even anyone left who hasn’t seen it a dozen times? Even in a younger generation that may not care much for classic films, it remains an iconic reference point in our modern world. When it debuted in 1967, The Graduate offered many things that were straightforwardly brand new. The impact of these was immediate and proved eventually to be timeless. Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about the movie, from its first reviews to its place in varying legacies of everyone who worked on it, to retrospective reappraisals of its contemporary cultural currency.

Beverly Gray, who spent a decade in the film industry as Roger Corman’s story editor and who also wrote a book about Ron Howard, bravely and personably endeavors in Seduced by Mrs. Robinson to collect the many disparate strands of thinking about The Graduate into one complete guide to—as the subtitle says—”How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation”. That it is a touchstone is indisputable; to attempt a catalog of all its ways and means of becoming so is rather a tricky feat that Gray tackles with the gusto of a lifelong fan with blessedly strong analytical chops. It’s fair to say Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is definitive—not because it settles into one clear and cohesive definition of the touchstone, but rather because it resists this impulse in favor of the more challenging task of defining the complete scope of what we talk about when we talk about The Graduate. She succeeds in distributing equal consideration among all the needed things and uses her 300 pages wisely.

The book is divided into three sections: “Making the Movie”, “The Screening Room”, and “After the Lights Came Up”. Each has a very different task that in total ends up showcasing Gray’s well-roundedness as a cineaste. The first section has seven chapters, each of which focuses on how the film made it to the silver screen. Instead of getting bogged down in industry lingo, Gray offers a highly readable and even suspenseful story of what happened. There was Charles Webb’s novel, then Larry Turman buying up an option to film it for a mere thousand bucks. Gray interviews Turman directly and his quotations show a producer trying hard to remain forthcoming while he is himself still grappling with the weight of the results. Then there’s the weak screenplay by Calder Willingham and the eventually killer screenplay by Buck Henry, followed by the terror of casting Dustin Hoffman and the potential anti-Semitic response to his character constantly lurking there. In discussing the shoot and post-production, Gray gives ample consideration to film editor Sean O’Steen, who was perhaps the most on-set and hands-on editor of his day. Finally, the movie is released.

In the second section, Gray shifts gears to an analysis of the film itself. Across just 70 pages, she provides what is easily the most complete and accessible reading of cinematography in The Graduate available today. Once again dispensing with much of the jargon, she articulates all the ways that certain shots, angles, lighting, lenses and so on are used to make meaning for Nichols’ vision of the story. One need not go back and watch the film first; all the necessary detail is there, and even readers with a weak memory of the scenes will find instant refreshment in Gray’s descriptive capacity. She’s also solid on the symbolism of costuming, locations, and soundtrack. Whatever one’s favorite bits, there’s meaningful and evocative consideration here of its contribution to the total work of art. Her analysis will be useful for those in the film industry, but it’s compact enough to interest critics and historians, and certainly, her style is approachable enough for budding high school film students with little knowledge and big dreams.

After all, The Graduate unquestionably did for independent filmmakers what The Ramones did for punk bands—it launched a thousand of them. The third section of the book casts a wide net in Gray’s examination of this impact. She moves from the film’s awards, to its fans, through its references in subsequent works of art with naturally a focus on other movies, to why there has never been a sequel, to what became of each of the film’s main collaborators, and ends on an appreciation of the film’s place in popular culture as a touchstone overall. It’s not only about how Hoffman became famous, and many directors cite the film as an influence. It’s about the full and ambivalent weight of The Graduate and how our consideration of it changes as we age. Most of us whooped and hollered for the young couple’s escape when we were ourselves fresh-faced graduates. Later, when most of us ended up with a job (possibly in plastics) at middle age, it’s easier to catch the whiff of suburban malaise permeating every scene and damping the happy ending we once championed.

Gray concludes that the movie’s “persuasive power lies not in its ideology but rather in the open-ended way it encourages its fans to resist the status quo” (244). She gets it, and it’s plain to see by the ease of her prose and the strictness with which she keeps to that bigger mission. The persuasive power of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson lies not in proffering a singular interpretation of its meaning but rather in the open-ended way it encourages readers to give in to the scope of the film’s meaningfulness. Not only will this book compel readers to go back to The Graduate—it ought to keep them coming back to any future film books by Beverly Gray.

RATING 9 / 10