Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

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The Graduate, still resonating after all these years, screens at A/perture on Thursday.
The Graduate, still resonating after all these years, screens at A/perture on Thursday.

by Brian Clarey

The 1967 film The Graduate is The Catcher in the Rye of filmdom — a classic from the moment it was introduced to the public consciousness, each facet analyzed and meticulously pored over, with meaning drawn from nearly every aspect.

Even my father has an opinion about the use of shadow and light in The Graduate.

Like Salinger’s masterpiece, the Mike Nichols film still resonates today.

Is it possible to be an adult in the year 2014 and not know the plot of The Graduate? The young Ben Braddock’s illicit affair with an older woman whose daughter he eventually falls in love with? The first major role for Dustin Hoffman, who filled Braddock with wiry postgraduate angst? A classic turn for Anne Bancroft, who was just six years older than Hoffmann when she portrayed the seductive Mrs. Robinson? The Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack?

Come on.

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What was once avant garde now looks like a period piece.

And as with the story of the young and tormented Holden Caulfield, repeat viewers of The Graduate are rewarded with new insights — that’s the whole point of the Thursday afternoon screening at A/perture Cinema, part of a special film series in conjunction with Wake Forest University’s Lifelong Learning Program and the Winston-Salem Arts Council. A discussion by Wake Forest communications lecturer Stave Jarrett accompanies the screening.

It’s also streaming on Netflix, so I watched it again, perhaps my third viewing in the last 20 years. It totally holds up.

The modern interiors and fashion gave the film an avant-garde look when it was current, but in 2014 it screens like a period piece from late ’60s cocktail culture. The exterior shots of Berkeley and young Braddock driving his Alfas Romeo across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge come across like documentary footage.

There’s subtext in the wardrobes, too: Mrs. Robinson’s black stockings and dress, Braddock’s shifts from gray to white to black. Even his black scuba suit, I believe, represents his parents’ attempts to insulate and protect him from the world.

Most intriguing this go-round was the interplay between the two lead characters. Bancroft, who was an aging sex symbol at the time, never thought much of her performance in what was one of her best-known roles. But as an actor she was in her prime, imbuing the icy Mrs. Robinson with a barely concealed vulnerability. She took her third Academy Award nomination for this performance, and would go on to earn two more for 1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s Agnes of God before she passed in 2005.

Hoffman as Braddock is completely mesmerizing. His character, fresh out of college, is paralyzed by fear of the future and his own lack of ambition. He’s so young! But in his performance we can see flashes of future greatness — his deadpan takes, his body language, his stuttering monotone. It seems that Hoffman leaned heavily on this character for his role as the autistic savant in Rain Man. I could see Braddock describing himself as “an excellent driver.”

Other notable cameos include a few seconds of Buck Henry, who was working as a writer for “Get Smart” when he co-wrote the script. A decade later he would become a recurring host on “Saturday Night Live.” And Norman Fell, who played the irascible Mr. Roper on the ’70s TV show “Three’s Company,” inhabited a similar role in the owner of the Berkeley boardinghouse.

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There’s a little bit of Rain Man in Dustin Hoffman’s performance.

“You’re not one of those outside agitators?” he asks Braddock, in a bit of dialogue that gets lost without historical context.

But perhaps the best moment I caught was at the very end, after Braddock and Elaine Robinson, played with sweet naiveté by Katharine Ross just a couple of years before she co-starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, escape the wedding chapel and board a bus. They’re elated, but then, one at a time, they realize the folly of what they’ve done.

The author of the original 1963 novel, Charles Webb, says he’s written a sequel that hasn’t been published for legal reasons. It’s hard to imagine a realistic follow-up to the story of these families, bound by infidelity and whiskey and love. It would make for a pretty awkward Christmas.