The Graduate

I didn’t see this movie when it came out.  (I was eleven; the content would have been considered too mature.)  So maybe the first time I saw it was in college, when it seemed dated.  Why was Benjamin so passive?  The obsession with marriage:  what was that about?  Even the Simon and Garfunkel songs felt old.  All that wistful harmonizing about herbs, and those koo koo ka choo’s. Embarrassing.

Sometime in the 1980s I saw “The Graduate” again.  By then, it had become a classic and I approached it in that spirit.  I couldn’t wait to hear the famous line, spoken by one of the Dustin Hoffman character’s parents’ friends, “I just want to say one word to you.  Just one word.  Plastics.”  I recognized the famous shot where Hoffman is framed by Anne Bancroft’s leg.  And the scene where you see Hoffman high up in the church window, hands outstretched like he’s being crucified.  So symbolic, you know?

This time around, I watched it as a period piece.  How sad that time seems to me now.  There’s Anne Bancroft, all of thirty-five when she made the picture, a beautiful woman playing a washed-up housewife.  She’s got no life, admits she’s an alcoholic, is messing up her daughter while having meaningless sex with a boy barely out of his teens.  We’ve come a long way, baby!

As for Hoffman’s character, how vapid can you get?  There he is, confused, alienated.  An award-winning student at a prestigious east coast school, managing editor of his college newspaper, who has no interest in anything but himself.  Really, you’d hardly know there was a war in Vietnam, or that the battle over civil rights was still raging in America during the period when the film is set.  Katharine Ross’s character is a student at Berkeley.  We see Hoffman’s character looking for her on the campus, hanging around in bookstores and coffee shops.  Wasn’t Berkeley a hotbed of student activism in 1967?

At one point, Hoffman’s character tries to explain to Ross’s character why he’s confused and alienated.  “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

Sheesh, get a life!

(26 April 2011)


lenny2The anger did him in.  You hear it in the early monologues, but there’s still a lot of warmth in his jokes.  He loves life:

“Fuck you.” Never understood that insult, because fucking someone is actually really pleasant. If we’re trying to be mean, we should say “unfuck you!”

He cares about the world:

All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.

The film splices the late monologues into the early years of Bruce’s career, so even as you see him falling in love with his wife, Honey, a stripper, and starting to hit the big-time, you know their relationship is doomed.  His career is doomed.  There’s also a mock-documentary being recorded as you’re watching Bruce’s rise and fall.  Mostly it’s Honey talking about him with sadness, regret, guilt, the occasional sweet memory lighting up her face before the interviewer’s questions drag her back into the downward-spiraling story of Bruce’s many arrests, some for obscenity, some for possession of narcotics.  Everyone talks about how much they miss him, but nobody could divert him from his self-destructive path.

At some point, the injustice of his harassmentlenny film by the government became his act, and Bruce stopped being funny.  His rage was now focused on himself, you feel; the world was still terrible, and wonderful, if you looked at it the right way, without censorship and prudery:  “If something about the human body disgusts you complain to the manufacturer.”  But Bruce knew he’d screwed up.

I’m still feeling badly for trashing the character Dustin Hoffman played in “The Graduate.”  So let me say that his Lenny Bruce is letter perfect.  When he goes out on stage in his final monologue, so strung out on drugs that he can’t remember his shtick, can’t summon up the outrage to be funny, your heart will break for what this country did to the man, and it’s all thanks to Hoffman that we appreciate the talented comedian on his own terms.

“You can’t shut up the deviant,” he tells the judge who convicts him in a New York courtroom.  “You need the deviant to tell you when you are fucking up!”

Damn straight.