Saturday, January 4, 2014

THE GRADUATE Looks Excited

I've written previously about this 1967 classic directed with such wit and intelligence -- and sexiness -- by Mike Nichols.  Dustin Hoffman as The Graduate gave one of the signature performances in an American film of the 1960s.  The same goes for his co-star, Anne Bancroft, as Mrs. Robinson.  To me, she's the real juice and spark of the movie.  Young wannabe actresses today need to watch and study her performance.  Bancroft was not an alluring screen beauty like an Ava Gardner, a Sophia Loren or an Elizabeth Taylor...but she is so damn sexy as the seductive Mrs. Robinson that you really can't imagine anyone else playing that part.

When I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I took film studies courses offered by the Journalism Department.  The professor, James Arnold, really showed you how to watch, appreciate and review a film.  He also showed a movie after each weekly lecture.  I loved that class.  It opened doors in my mind -- like when Ingrid Bergman kisses Gregory Peck in the Hitchcock movie, Spellbound.   James Arnold was one of my favorite university professors.  Another great teacher that came my way was not technically a teacher like Professor Arnold but the way he taught me to look at film images gave me a deeper appreciation for cinema and, to this day, influences the way I look at and write about movies.  His name is Michael Heider.  Mike was a cameraman I had the extreme good fortune to work with when I was on WISN TV, the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee.  We'd shoot features for the weekday afternoon magazine show that I co-hosted in 1984.

The Graduate is a rich example of the new vision I got from Prof. Arnold and cameraman Mike Heider.  Film is a collaboration.  It's not just the actors and the director.  The set design, the costume design and the photography help the director and screenwriter realize their vision.  I'm sure they also help the actors find their characters.  In this clip, notice the design of Mrs. Robinson's upscale suburban home in Southern California.  With all the patio plant life behind her, it looks like she's in a jungle scene.  The awning calls to mind zebra stripes.  Notice the slinky shininess of her dress as she proceeds to seduce the young man.  His father is her husband's business partner. Her dress resembles snakeskin.  Mrs. Robinson is a predatory creature in a suburban jungle.  Benjamin is her sexual prey.  The camera angles show us that she has the power in the scene.

There is a lot of visual information in that scene that you may not even realize at first viewing.  It continues when Mrs. Robinson has trapped Benjamin, The Graduate, into a sexual relationship.  A still of this iconic scene in the film made the cover of the hit soundtrack.  Take another look at photo from that scene.  There's sexy shadow play in it. Notice how the shadow of a hotel room light fixture in the upper left corner resembles a sex toy.  That's what Benjamin is to Mrs. Robinson whose leg is extended.

Now look at Benjamin's shadow to the right and below the doorknob behind him.  It looks like there's another knob, if you know what I mean.  The shadow suggests a male getting sexually aroused.  Mike in Milwaukee, like Prof. Arnold, taught me that some images can go by so quickly that their content is almost subliminal.  And there's a reason for widescreen movies.  That "light fixture" information was lost when The Graduate got TV airings before the days of letterbox presentations.  It's designed for widescreen.

The jungle  motif in the costume design for Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson character carries over from the bedroom encounters with Benjamin... the climatic scene in the church when she's seated and watching a marriage ceremony.
Benjamin will consistently be shot in a way that makes him looks trapped, a target or blocked in -- whether he's in a bedroom, a telephone booth or in church.
In that chaotic church ceremony scene, Mrs. Robinson will show her leopard-like claws.
At WISN TV, Mike remarked once that shots in films can be so visually brilliant while conveying information that you could frame them as art and hang them on your wall.  He was so right about that.  In The Graduate, look at the moment when the bitter Mrs. Robinson feels emotionally cornered.  Benjamin has fallen in love with her daughter.
Mike gave me a great respect for the beauty of a frame and for the overall cinematography.  Because of him, I've enjoyed many movies that were a bit average in the acting department but the visuals were stunning.

Robert Surtees was the cinematographer for this Mike Nichols classic.  He won Oscars for his work on William Wyler's Ben-Hur and one of Nichols' favorite classics, Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful.  His other credits included 1955's Oklahoma! and three big hits of the 1970s -- Summer of '42, The Last Picture Show and The Sting. 

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