The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
The people who made movies thought they knew what blockbuster films were. The Hollywood studios had a formula, and for years, that formula worked. People liked big, sweeping stories—mythic sagas with costumes and stars and vast action sequences. They liked period pieces. They liked musicals. They liked to see the faces of movie stars, beaming, blown up to 50 times their actual size. And then The Graduate happened, and nobody knew anything anymore.
At this point, it’s become both legend and cliché: Movies changed in the ’70s. Auteurs took over. Directors with big ideas about social and political life suddenly seized control and launched an all-too-brief golden age, one that ended when Jaws invented the summer blockbuster in 1975. That story has been told a million different times in a million different ways. And in just about every version of that story, the whole saga begins in 1967—the year of The Graduate, Bonnie And Clyde, In The Heat Of The Night, and Cool Hand Luke. These days, The Graduate is a canonized masterpiece, one of those movies that you feel like you have to watch when you start to learn about film. But in the moment, as the phenomenon was happening, it must’ve been an absolute headfuck.
I’ve been writing this column about blockbuster movies for a few months now, and none of the pictures I’ve written about in previous columns look, sound, or feel anything like The Graduate. All of those prior entries were about long, ambitious, self-serious epics. All of them ran well over two hours, and I’m pretty sure all of them had intermissions. All of them were period pieces. (Even West Side Story, a relatively contemporary tale, seemed to be set in the mid-’50s, a few years before it came out.) In 1967, studios were still pouring their money into big roadshow musicals—Dr. Dolittle, Camelot, Thoroughly Modern Millie—all of which failed badly.
There were some signs of change on the way. European art movies like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita had done serious business in America. Sexy and literate English movies like Alfie and Darling had found audiences as well. And one of 1966’s biggest successes had been Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, a harrowing Edward Albee play brought to screaming life by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, two old-world stars. Virginia Woolf worked as a black-and-white art film, but it also became a cultural event, and it won Taylor a second Best Actress Oscar. But it still didn’t make as much money as John Huston’s ponderous and absurd The Bible: In The Beginning… If you were a studio head, maybe a film like Virginia Woolf didn’t seem like a sign that your world was crumbling.
Mike Nichols, the young director of Virginia Woolf, had already been a massive success in a couple of different fields. He’d become famous doing improv comedy with his old partner Elaine May on Broadway, and then he’d directed a serious streak of massively successful Broadway plays. Virginia Woolf had been his first movie, and it had done pretty much everything you might want a debut film to do. Nichols had challenged the mores of his day, he’d done innovative things with camera and lighting and staging, he’d pulled career-best performances from towering stars, and he’d made money. And Nichols still had to scrape to get The Graduate made. Virtually every major studio turned it down. The movie just didn’t make sense to anyone.
Nichols’ producer Lawrence Turman had optioned The Graduate from a 1963 Charles Webb novel. It wasn’t quite a comedy, and it wasn’t quite a drama. It was mostly about a young man’s internal life, which wasn’t a particularly easy thing to depict on screen. There was sex, but that sex was more about power dynamics than desire. And once he got it going, Nichols, after considering every young potential leading man in Hollywood, had cast Dustin Hoffman, a long-struggling New York theater actor who’d done almost no film work and who didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a leading man. Nichols heard, again and again, that this was a mistake.
If you watch The Graduate today, it’s a remarkably assured piece of work. After suffering through The Bible, this thing is a total joy—funny, pretty, light on its feet, rich with ideas and possible interpretations. And it’s also full of moments that other filmmakers have quoted or parodied: the opening airport scene from Jackie Brown, the climactic wedding interruption from Wayne’s World 2. Watching The Graduate for the first time in a while is a bit like listening to a classic soul album and picking out all the bits that rap producers later sampled.
It’s not really a movie about the ’60s. The era hadn’t fully defined itself at that point, and baby boomers had not yet remade the cultural landscape in their own image. (They would do this quickly, and The Graduate would be a big part of it, but it hadn’t happened yet.) The movie’s use of Simon & Garfunkel’s music is vaguely revolutionary; most Hollywood directors had not yet figured out how current pop music could enrich their stories. But the script only hints at the cultural upheavals of the moment, as in the quick scene where a Berkeley landlord warns Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock that he won’t stand for “outside agitators.”
Instead, The Graduate is a smaller, more personal story about alienation and depression. Benjamin Braddock was apparently a brilliant collegiate mind and a track star, but the young man we see is a dweeb who always seems to be dressed up in his father’s clothes. His parents speak to him like he’s a baby, and they trot him out like a prop at parties. He’s beaten down and manhandled by the people in his life, and when Mrs. Robinson, a woman who he’s known since he was a child, decides to start an affair with him, he simply drifts into it, meekly protesting even as he gives in.
Curb Your Enthusiasm-style discomfort-humor existed before The Graduate—Woody Allen, after all, did have a career—but Benjamin’s fumbling, uncertain sexual encounters (“I mean, I don’t know what you want me to do”) feel fully contemporary. For Ben, the affair with Mrs. Robinson becomes a kind of self-annihilation. He takes no pleasure in anything but his own inertia. He doesn’t even seem to have any friends. When he falls in love with Elaine, a girl his own age, he seems to be grabbing hold of the first shred of connection he’s had to another human being. After one date, he’s obsessed with her.
The character of Mrs. Robinson shows a different kind of depression. At first, she doesn’t make any sense. Why would this beautiful older woman see anything in this bashful and inept kid who can barely look her in the eye? But eventually, we learn bits and pieces of her story, and everything falls into place. She’s seen her youth stolen by pregnancy and marriage, and she has nothing but contempt for everything around her. So she becomes a nihilistic predator. She wants power. She wants to control a situation, even if it ends up destroying her own life. Attraction might not even come into it. For her, Benjamin is a vehicle, a way to seize dominance over something. And when her lover falls in love with her daughter, the real betrayal is that he’s disobeyed a direct order. She can’t abide that.
But that’s all conjecture, since we only ever see Mrs. Robinson the way Benjamin sees her, and he’s not sure what to make of anything. Maybe that’s the real innovation of The Graduate. It’s a completely subjective movie, a novel with an unreliable narrator. With that Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, the whole thing plays soft and dreamlike—a weird guy’s idealized vision of himself. By the time that great final scene rolls around, Ben has become a hero in his own head, and the film itself has loosened its grip on anything resembling reality. The faces of the people at the wedding are grotesque, distorted. Benjamin becomes a chivalrous knight, holding back the ghouls by swinging a crucifix like it’s a sword.
We barely even register that he’s only showed up after Elaine has already gotten married—that he’s breaking up a marriage a moment after it starts, rather than before. The final shot—Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, their faces registering that fading moment of euphoria and the realization that they’ve just destroyed their own lives—is where it all comes crashing down.
On paper, this story about a young man who fucks his parents’ friend and then falls in love with her daughter could’ve easily played out like American Pie. But Mike Nichols turned it into something mythic and resonant. Audiences reportedly stood up and cheered during that wedding scene; maybe they didn’t let the implications of that final shot fully sink in.
Of course, to watch The Graduate now is to confront all the ways in which this movie, once so shockingly new, now feels like a relic itself. Benjamin Braddock is, after all, a self-obsessed rich white guy, and the problems of self-obsessed rich white guys have been thoroughly explored elsewhere. It’s hard not to notice that the movie doesn’t feature a single character who isn’t white, and there’s barely any real difference between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson. (In real life, Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman.)
Benjamin is also clammy and entitled. His spluttering discomfort isn’t always endearing. At times, it’s downright creepy, as when he essentially stalks Elaine long after she quite emphatically dumps him. He never considers the effect he’s having on the people around him. When Mr. Robinson shows up at Benjamin’s Berkeley apartment, the movie has fun with him: “Is it just the things I stand for that you despise?” But the guy has a right to be mad! Especially when he thinks that Benjamin has raped his wife!
And yet The Graduate remains a fascinating and lovely piece of work, especially when compared to virtually everything else that was coming out at the time. When it hit theaters, plenty of people thought it was a movie about the generation gap; a very long New Yorker review argued as much. But it would be more accurate to say that The Graduate created a generation gap. This small, arty, uncomfortable movie suddenly threatened to unseat The Sound Of Music and Gone With The Wind as the highest-grossing picture of all time. If you’re a Hollywood executive, what do you even do with that information?
Mike Nichols won a Best Director Oscar for The Graduate, but the movie didn’t take home Best Picture. Instead, that honor went to In The Heat Of The Night, a sure-handed thriller about Southern racism that broke plenty of rules of its own and helped cement Sidney Poitier, for a time, as the biggest movie star in the world. Mark Harris’ great 2008 book Pictures At A Revolution looks at that year’s five Best Picture Nominees—arty trendsetters The Graduate and Bonnie And Clyde, well-meaning Civil Rights-themed middlebrow entertainments In The Heat Of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and ungainly and expensive musical bomb Dr. Dolittle—and uses them to tell a saga of Hollywood at a crossroads moment. Hollywood was still figuring out what to do with itself. But after The Graduate, nothing would be the same.
The contender: The obvious thing to do here would be to celebrate Bonnie And Clyde, another rule-shattering blockbuster that took its aesthetic cues from European art cinema and drove a deep divide into the moviegoing public. But my favorite of the year’s non-Graduate big hits was The Dirty Dozen, a real shit-ripping entertainment that effectively updated the men-on-a-mission war flick for a whole new era.
Whether it meant to or not, The Dirty Dozen spoke to its changing times. Instead of old-school movie heroes, bland and square-jawed, the story is about a crew of misfit-asshole rebels, forced into heroism as a way to avoid death sentences. The movie ropes in a wildly charismatic crew of hardasses—Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavettes, Donald Sutherland, a debuting Jim Brown—and wisely stays out of their way, at least until the violent and explosive ending. It’s one of the most endlessly rewatchable films of its day.
Next time: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey pushes blockbuster films into a psychedelic new direction, making every previous epic seem small.