Fifty years later, 'The Graduate' remains a cinematic essential 

Editor's note: This story was originally published May 10, 2017. We're bringing it back on Dec. 22, 2017, which marks the 50th anniversary of the film's release.

Essential is a new series from Dallas Morning News critics spotlighting timeless works of art and culture.

Essential viewing: The Graduate (1967, directed by Mike Nichols)

The word Vietnam appears nowhere on the soundtrack of The Graduate, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary. And yet, Vietnam is the cloud that hovers over this landmark film, which debuted in late 1967 when the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Vietnam crept closer to a chilling 500,000.

On Dec. 22, 1967, when the movie was released, I was a sophomore at Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove. I remember no other film being talked about as much as the date-night classic, The Graduate. It captured the "generation gap" all of us were feeling, especially when it came to Vietnam, which we feared would snare us in its fatal grasp.

To put it simply, most of the members of our parents' generation just didn't understand why we opposed the war so bitterly. Wasn't it our duty to go off and fight for America, just because our government said we should?

If Benjamin Braddock, the title character played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman, was afraid of Vietnam, we never hear him express it, at least not overtly. He is, however, a twisted ball of angst, anxious and confused, endlessly bewildered about his place in the world.

And the middle-aged gentleman who whispers "plastics" in his ear at a party hosted by his parents doesn't have a clue.

Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, gets into an ill-advised affair with Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. (The Associated Press)

As a symptom of his twentysomething ennui, Benjamin says yes to an ill-advised affair with the wife of his father's business partner. Anne Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson, and hers is a performance for the ages. A sad, embittered alcoholic, Bancroft plays the part with a dark and disturbing, albeit erotic allure, getting a song named after her in the process.

Music alone is one of the best things about The Graduate. It is stunningly good. Paul Simon wrote one original song for the film ("Mrs. Robinson") but director Mike Nichols, its only Oscar winner, wisely decided to employ several of Simon's already completed compositions ("April Come She Will," "The Sound of Silence," "Scarborough Fair") to underscore the deepening introspection of the Benjamin generation.

The music of Art Garfunkel (left) and Paul Simon is an unforgettable part of "The Graduate." (The Associated Press)

It might be tempting to call it anything but subtle to play fox trots and rumbas any time Mrs. Robinson or her demographic appears on screen, and as a point of contrast, to use only the soft, serene folk of Simon and Garfunkel to elucidate Benjamin's inner turmoil. But it works, as does the comedy, which remains one of the movie's sweet spots. The laughs emanating from the Taft Hotel, where Benjamin spends his nights with Mrs. Robinson, go a long way toward making the movie a cinematic joy ride. And yet, the Taft scenes were filmed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where months after the movie's release, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, running on an anti-Vietnam platform, was assassinated.

So many careers took flight thanks to The Graduate. Nichols wisely cast Hoffman and Katharine Ross, who played Elaine, the daughter of Mrs. Robinson and the former high school classmate Benjamin finds himself falling in love with, despite dire warnings from her mother not to go there.

Nichols' casting appears even braver when you consider the ages of those involved. Hoffman was 30 when the film was released; Bancroft was 36. And there she was playing the mother of Ross, who was 27 on the day The Graduate opened.

Part of the folklore of the film is learning who wanted to appear in it but did not. Robert Redford was considered for the part of Benjamin, and Doris Day stood a strong chance of becoming Mrs. Robinson, until she objected fiercely to the minimal nudity the role required. Candice Bergen came close to being cast as Elaine.

And as good as all of those actors were and are, thank goodness Nichols got his way.

The cast, the music and the humor are among the reasons that some of us have seen The Graduate at least 50 times. Granted, most of us who belong to the boomer generation fit to a T what my SMU film professor once said: "The reason people see a certain movie multiple times is because they see themselves in it."

Half a century later, we still do. It allows us to remember the generation gap and Vietnam and how we felt as graduates in the psychedelic frenzy of the 1960s, which were made so much better by The Graduate and the soothing sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, as we plodded onward, into the fog of our collective future.

The official trailer of The Graduate:

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