Not faded by time
Remastered versions of ‘The Graduate’ and ‘The Holy Grail’ show their satire is as sharp as ever
Friday through Monday a newly struck 35mm print of “The Graduate” will be showing at the Coolidge. Also starting Friday, a digitally remastered, high-definition version of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” starts a run at the Kendall, along with a 12-minute short of “Grail” outtakes, “Terry Gilliam’s Lost Animations.” Gilliam co-directed “Grail” with fellow Python Terry Jones.
Comedy is the most immediate form of entertainment. You laugh — or you don’t — and that’s that. What seemed hilarious back in 1967 or 1975 might not necessarily seem so today. Both of these movies suffer a further burden of history. “The Graduate” is considered a ’60s landmark. “Holy Grail” was the Monty Python troupe’s first feature film and the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical, “Spamalot.”
The occasion for “The Graduate” showing is the 45th anniversary of its release. That’s right, not 40th or 50th, but 45th. Such an odd, in-between number suits such an odd, in-between movie. Or at least the actual movie is that way, if not the movie people remember.
What people remember is a paean from director Mike Nichols to youth and rebellion and “the Sixties” (which coincided with the chronological ’60s, but is not necessarily the same thing). That memory movie has sex (we do get to see Anne Bancroft in a bra and Dustin Hoffman in boxers) and rock ’n’ roll (if you think of Simon and Garfunkel as rock ’n’ roll) and protest (a few scenes are set on a very pretty-looking University of California at Berkeley campus).
That said, a movie released in 1967 whose protagonist is a draft-age guy without a deferment yet who evinces not a worry in the world about going to Vietnam is constitutionally incapable of qualifying as a ’60s movie. True, Hoffman’s character says, “It’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.” But that’s more Holden Caulfield than Abbie Hoffman.
No, “The Graduate” isn’t the arrival of the ’60s. It’s the end of the ’50s. Think of it as the culmination — or final demolition — of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson romantic comedies. The twist in the actual movie plot is that Hoffman’s Benjamin has an affair with the much-older Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). The twist in the parallel is twofold: The virginal Hoffman is Day, while the knowing Bancroft is Hudson; and they actually do have sex.
There are several strange things about “The Graduate” — far stranger than the frogman, scene, say, where Ben is forced to show off the scuba suit he got for his birthday. For starters, Bancroft was slightly less than six years older than Hoffman — six years! For another, we never learn Mrs. Robinson’s first name. Benjamin keeps referring to her in that way even after they’ve started sleeping together. Presumably, this is meant to tell us something about his deferentiality (not a very ’60s attribute). It says a lot more about Mrs. Robinson’s being a combination of male fantasy and misogynistic caricature. Then there’s the fact that Benjamin, this avatar of alienated youth, has not a single friend his own age. When not by himself or with Elaine, Benjamin’s almost always in the company of adults. The closest thing he has to a sidekick is his Alfa Romeo. It would be like Billy and Captain America, in “Easy Rider,” always hanging out with cops and truckers.
“The Graduate” plays with a shamelessly stacked deck. All of the adults are grotesques who lead lives of quite loud desperation. You can almost see the smirk on Nichols’s face when the camera shows a clown painting prominently displayed in Benjamin’s house or the tiki-style decanters at the Robinsons’ bar. The funny thing is, all the shag carpeting and leopard-skin prints look a lot less dated than Nichols’s hey-look-at-me hand-held camerawork and zoom shots. Still, he won the best director Oscar.
Cast and script make the movie so effective — and it’s no less crowd-pleasing today than it was in 1967. Hoffman had been 19th billed in his first movie, “The Tiger Makes Out,” also released in 1967. “The Graduate” made him a star — and a very unlikely one: short, plain, unheroic. (Ross is a different story. No one notices how insipid Elaine is because the actress is so meltingly beautiful. She could have spent her screen time just sniffing glue or eating cornflakes and the audience would still fall for Elaine as hard as Benjamin does.)
Everyone keeps talking about Benjamin being a track star in college. But on the several occasions in the movie when Hoffman has to run, he looks even less comfortable than when Mrs. Robinson is seducing him. That’s the point, though: Benjamin’s schlubbiness makes him sympathetic as well as comic. He always seems on the verge of whimpering, and the strangulated voice Hoffman uses is even funnier than the slightly bug-eyed stare and Novocaine-numb blankness (it’s a deadpan to rival Buster Keaton’s).
Already a star, Bancroft had won the best actress Oscar in 1963, for “The Miracle Worker.” She’s top billed, and rightly so. A lot of actors could have played Benjamin — maybe not as convincingly as Hoffman, but the movie still would have worked. Who else could have been Mrs. Robinson and managed to combine such sexiness, authority, and desperation? Benjamin can’t quite bring himself to look at Mrs. Robinson (they have sex with the lights turned off), and neither can we. Otherwise we’d know that this movie belongs to her, not him, and it’s a tragedy, not a comedy.
The script, adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb’s novel, is remembered for such classic lines as “Plastics” and “Oh. Sure” and “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me . . . aren’t you?” (Hoffman does wonderful things with punctuation: He lets you hear that period between “oh” and “sure” and that ellipsis after “seduce me.”) But masterly construction is what drives the movie. Billy Wilder couldn’t have done it any better. One way of looking at “The Graduate” is as a San Fernando Valley “Sunset Boulevard.”
Henry briefly shows up as a hotel desk clerk. It’s a cameo of genius, ranking with Gene Wilder’s in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which also came out in 1967. “The Graduate” is a more entertaining movie than “Bonnie and Clyde,” but “Bonnie and Clyde” is far greater — in its influence, its innovativeness, its richness of implication. Also, despite being set in the ’30s, it’s truly of its time: the sexiness, the subversiveness, and, of course, the violence.
Two of those things apply to “Grail” (a lifetime supply of Venezuelan Beaver Cheese to readers who can figure out which one doesn’t). Even more than the bits themselves, the greatness of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was how loopily they were arranged. Vikings have Valhalla, and segues have “Monty Python.” “Grail,” with its ruthlessly irreverent retelling of the King Arthur legend, has some excellent bits, from the increasingly limb-lacking Black Knight to John Cleese’s invective-spouting Frenchman. But the demands of extended narrative being what they are, the bits have to be ordered in something like a logical progression. Or logical by Python standards. So “Grail” has problems with pacing that make the Pythons’ hit-or-miss quality far more apparent than was ever the case on TV.
The wild card that made so many of the TV segues work was Gilliam’s animation. The previously unseen footage includes a giant bearded snail and a crumbling cathedral. They’re clever and funny, but not enough to make seeing them its own grail quest.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.