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Remembering Mike Nichols And The Cinematic Landmark That Was 'The Graduate'

The late director Mike Nichols, recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, on the red carpet outside the ceremony in Culver City, California, on June 26, 2010. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
The late director Mike Nichols, recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, on the red carpet outside the ceremony in Culver City, California, on June 26, 2010. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
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You certainly don’t need a professional critic to determine that Mike Nichols, who died yesterday at the age of 83, was an historic talent. The guy won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. Enough said.

Nichols is, perhaps, best known for directing "The Graduate," the 1968 film that starred Ann Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, the ultimate proto-cougar. Her prey is a feckless college grad by the name of Benjamin Braddock, played by a young Dustin Hoffman.

He was the first director who used the songs on his soundtrack to advance the plot of his film and to make us feel the exalted melancholy of his hero.

Over the years, a number of reviewers have cast aspersions on "The Graduate," arguing that the film has aged poorly, that it is too much of its time.

What people forget is that "The Graduate" changed American cinema.

For one thing, Nichols, already a famous director when he made it, cast Hoffman, despite the fact that he was virtually unknown and looked nothing like the leading man described in the script, which called for a tall, blond track star, not a short, Jewish guy with a schnoz for the ages.

More than launch Hoffman’s career, what Nichols did in "The Graduate" was invent the modern rock video. He was the first director who used the songs on his soundtrack to advance the plot of his film and to make us feel the exalted melancholy of his hero. Long stretches of the film are nothing but extended montages set to the songs of Simon & Garfunkel.

Nichols’s original plan was to use a more traditional score by André Previn. But in post-production, he heard the songs of Simon & Garfunkel and recognized that they — and “The Sounds of Silence” in particular — better captured the mood of his anguished and archetyal hero. For entire sequences, Nichols ditched the original script, which called for conventional voice-overs, and instead let the music and images tell the story.

Yes, there were musicals, such as "A Hard Day’s Night" and "Help," which showcased hi-jinx set to music. But nobody relied on songs to deepen our understanding of character and theme the way Nichols did in "The Graduate."

This may not seem like a big deal in 2014, but nearly half a century ago, nobody else in film was using music as a form of evocation and narrative.

What’s more, Nichols had the courage to offer an ending that was utterly subversive.

As fans will recall, Benjamin Braddock sleeps with Mrs. Robinson but falls in love with her beautiful daughter, Elaine, who is, understandably, repulsed when she discovers what her mother and boyfriend have done.

Undaunted, Benjamin pursues Elaine and crashes her wedding. She takes flight with him in her gown, and the two wind up sitting in the back of a bus.

It’s supposed to be a triumphant moment. The pair has managed to rebel against the expectations of their controlling parents. It can be read as a kind of parable of the younger generation’s desire to liberate themselves from the constraints of conventional expectation.

This may not seem like a big deal in 2014, but nearly half a century ago, nobody else in film was using music as a form of evocation and narrative.

Then Nichols does something astonishing: He shows us a single shot of the couple sitting side by side. They laugh initially, high on their subversion. But they don’t celebrate or kiss. Within a few moments, their smiles fade, and all that remains are two scared kids who have rebelled against conformity but have no idea what to do next. They don’t even know whether they love each other.

I’ve always felt this shot does more to explain the failure of the ‘60s — the moral impotence of rebelling against authority without having developed any personal sense of authority — than any other image in cinema.

And, of course, Nichols knows just what to do as the camera lingers on our young couple. He cues up “The Sounds of Silence.”

Hello darkness, my old friend.


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Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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