Friday, November 17, 2017

Q&A with Beverly Gray

Beverly Gray is the author of the new book Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation. She also has written biographies of Roger Corman and Ron Howard. She has written for the Hollywood Reporter and teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. Her blog can be found at She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about The Graduate, and what do you see as its legacy 50 years after it first appeared?

A: I’ve long been interested in films from 1967, the films honored at the 1968 Oscars. It was the time I, as a young person, got interested in movies, many of which would be honored with accolades. It was the first time that movies had resonance for me as a young person living in America. There was violence, with Bonnie and Clyde; civil rights, with In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and moving beyond our parents, with The Graduate.

I was especially intrigued by The Graduate. It was not expected to be a movie blockbuster but a fun, sexy little comedy. But it happened to tap into the Baby Boom generation—not only the war in Vietnam, though it was not in the movie, but also something about the discomfort of young people [trying to] move beyond the life their parents were [planning] for them—so people like me latched onto it.

Q: What about its legacy?

A: It’s interesting to me as well, of the movies I mentioned above, some have left a legacy. There’s Cool Hand Luke – “What we have here is a failure to communicate” – and Bonnie and Clyde, which upped the ante on screen violence, yet these films don’t seem to get mentioned any more.

But The Graduate wormed its way into our culture. It had a tremendous influence in Hollywood. It influenced young filmmakers—Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Ang Lee, the Coen brothers. People took ideas away and put these in their own films. But also The Graduate has left a residue in our culture—“plastics.”

In politics, when Robert Dole was going to be the nominee to be the leader of the Republican Party, and Pat Buchanan was trying to wrest the nomination away, he predicted he would be like Benjamin Braddock, saving the party from an uninspired marriage to Bob Dole.

Q: You mentioned that the film wasn’t expected to be a big hit. Can you say more about that?

A: The people involved with it had very little Hollywood track records. The producer, Lawrence Turman, had produced one movie but wasn’t a big-name producer. Mike Nichols had never directed a movie; he had just started moving beyond his reputation as a comic performer. Dustin Hoffman was starting to make a name for himself in quirky roles Off-Broadway. Charles Webb, the novelist, was unknown. Anne Bancroft was the one with sort of a name. [These were mostly] unknown people.

Trying to adapt The Graduate for film, Turman went around to the studios and everybody turned the project down. He found Joseph E. Levine, who was best known for shlock movies. By no means was this a mainstream Hollywood product. It was sexier--it dealt with subjects that were not [usually] dealt with. It was a little European in terms of its use of sex.

Q: What impact did the casting of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft have on the film?

A: Dustin Hoffman’s casting was really interesting. I should mention it was not his first role. I knew he had a tiny part in an offbeat indie but I discovered he also played the lead in a strange movie shot in Spain, Madigan’s Millions, where he does a Jerry Lewis shtick.

In The Graduate he was playing a romantic lead in a part people imagined as an academic success story, about a young man who was also a jock, a big man on campus—basically Robert Redford, tall, handsome.

People were really surprised and almost appalled by the casting of Hoffman in this role. There were a lot of references in Hollywood to the casting of “this ugly boy.” There was a write-up of Dustin Hoffman in Life magazine, a big photo spread introducing this new young actor, that said “a swarthy Pinocchio makes a wooden role real.” It went on and on. It makes him sound like a horrible deformed little cretin. Other reviews made him sound like a troglodyte.

[But] young audiences fell in love with Dustin Hoffman. The Hollywood people would say, it’s a great movie, too bad you miscast the lead. They didn’t expect the outpouring from young people for someone who looks like them, who not only gets the girl but gets more than one. They were rooting for him.

Part of conventional Hollywood’s dislike for his looks was along ethnic lines. He is not the tall blond WASP…there was nothing Jewish in the story, but he [brought] the look of being ethnic with him, and suddenly that was okay. All of a sudden leading men were being played by Elliott Gould, Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Benjamin, Al Pacino.

It became possible to have a leading man who doesn’t look like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. McQueen was the classic Hollywood hunk. His wife described how he was in a panic about Hoffman’s screen success. He started worrying about his own place in the Hollywood pantheon—is that [Dustin Hoffman] the type everyone’s going to want? Hoffman’s casting has ultimately loosened up Hollywood. Ben Stiller or Seth Rogen can now be romantic leads.

Anne Bancroft was the one name performer. She had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker. She was not the first choice. The first person was not officially offered the role, but was someone Lawrence Turman was interested in attracting—he sent the novel to Doris Day. He thought that would be a strange and interesting switch on her usual virginal image. She said it offended her values, but I’m not sure she received the book—her husband, a controlling guy, kept it from her.

Other people who were considered included Jeanne Moreau, but a Frenchwoman wasn’t appropriate. Ava Gardner was still beautiful, but when she said she was going to phone Ernest Hemingway and he had died five years before, [they thought] maybe she wasn’t up to the part. Another actress who would have been an interesting choice was Patricia Neal, but she had had a stroke.

Anne Bancroft was a great choice. She wasn’t quite old enough for the part, she had to be made up to look older. Years later she said, I used to think I looked really ugly in The Graduate, and now I think I was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.

Q: How did you come up with the book’s title—and subtitle—and what do they signify for you?

A: I’m proud to say it was my idea. I liked the idea of putting Mrs. Robinson in the title but for copyright reasons I couldn’t quote directly from the song, “Mrs. Robinson.” “Seduced” is such a seductive word. We in the audience were seduced by Mrs. Robinson. The name “Mrs. Robinson” has come to evoke titters. There was a woman named Mary Robinson who was elected president of Ireland, and everybody joked, Mrs. Robinson is now the head of Ireland!

And the touchstone of a generation—I meant that to allude to the fact that an awful lot of what was going through our heads in the late ‘60s was captured in that movie. I talked to a lot of people [affected] by the movie. They felt attitudes and belief systems were changing. Most movies we shrug off, but some lodge in our brain, and this was one of them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Good question. I’m working on staying on top of the excitement about this book. I have written two biographies, one about the man I once worked for, Roger Corman, who is famous for B movies. He is a fascinating individual. I wanted to write a genuinely independent biography of Roger, and I did. And a biography of Ron Howard. That was a very different kind of book, and a very different kind of person.

Writing biographies can be tricky. I’m also interested in some of the other groundbreaking movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I have some ideas, but no time to develop them. I need some sleep!

Q: Anything else we should know about your new book?

A: The Graduate was lucky enough to come out at a time of great social ferment. It was originally supposed to be shot in 1965, a quieter time. By ’67 a lot of things had formed to affect my generation. People like me were very much aware of the fact that we had a young handsome president killed on November 22, 1963. That darkened the world for a lot of us.

We were very aware of the civil rights movement, which started out as idealistic and hopeful and then there were racial disturbances in the streets of major American cities. Our lives were feeling less stable than we had imagined. Then of course there was the Vietnam War, which had been going on in miniature for quite a while but ’67 was when it hit the fan. Virtually every young man I knew was trying to figure out what to do to save himself from being drafted.

By the summer of ’67 President Johnson had signed a bill abolishing most graduate student deferments. Here’s Benjamin Braddock having graduated from college, lying around his parents’ backyard, and nobody’s saying, But you’re going to be drafted. The filmmakers hadn’t thought about that. It was an odd coming together of a story based in 1962, but it came out in ’67. People saw things in it that weren’t there, but seemed to fit the mood of the times.

After The Graduate, a lot of movies were made about the draft and the other problems I’ve mentioned. Those films were period pieces, and they’ve drifted out of sight. The Graduate was not trying to be about a particular era [but] we recognized it back then. Some young people today see it as who am I, where am I, who can I be? All those feelings are still with us.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb, from a transcription of a phone conversation. 

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