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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Graduate (#7)

Entertainment 150The Graduate (1967)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft
Written by Calden Willingham and Buck Henry (screenplay), Charles Webb (novel)
Directed by Mike Nichols

The Graduate reminds me an awful lot of Harold and Maude, which came out about four years later. Both feature young, intelligent, sensitive heroes who have no idea what they want out of life but are certain that their well-meaning parents don’t understand them. Both of them strike up unlikely, inappropriate relationships with far older women. And they both have a comedic style that aims to present outrageous situations in the dryest possible way, hoping that the juxtaposition will create a tension that just must be released with laughter. This might have worked back then, but it rubs me the wrong way now.

There’s something about the face of the comic who tries out dry wit while knowing he’s delivering a killer line that just makes me want to punch it. Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman both have this affectation early in their movies, and it’s a little off-putting until we get to the meat of their stories. While The Graduate ranks much higher than Harold and Maude on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies (number 7 and number 45, respectively), I think I actually like the latter a little better; it had an ultimately more likable protagonist, a more engaging relationship and a better, more genuine ending.

Hoffman, though, is great as Benjamin Braddock, a newly-minted adult who’s just graduated from college. His parents have the next few steps all planned out for him, but Benjamin doesn’t want any of it. The pressure of expectation just makes him nervous and uncomfortable, so he tries to duck out of his graduation party at the earliest possible opportunity. Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), one of his parent’s friends, corners him and insists that he drives her home. Once there, she tries to seduce him.

Benjamin initially rebuffs her advance, but eventually caves. They spend the summer meeting up in a hotel under assumed names and having a lot of sex. A LOT of sex. Unhappy with the way he’s spending his time, Benjamin’s parents set him up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). They hit it off, which drives Mrs. Robinson just insane with jealousy. The whole thing blows up rather quickly, of course, and the rest of the film follows Benjamin as he tries to put the remnants of his relationship with Elaine back together.

Directed by the great Mike Nichols (this was only his second film; he went on to do Working Girl, The Birdcage, the amazing movie Wit and Charlie Wilson’s War), the film admittedly has plenty of style. Mrs. Robinson’s attempt at seduction is an iconic moment in cinema, and Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack was a pretty new move at the time. Credit where it’s due — a lot of the tropes we use in our cinema today were first popularized here. It’s a cultural touchstone that people should know about.

But is it enjoyable? That’s a different matter. As likable as Hoffman is, Benjamin Braddock is really a selfish jerk. He has the self-absorption of youth and the boundless capability to make really bad decisions without any sense of purpose. He doesn’t know what he wants, so we really don’t care when he strives for something. There’s a sort of mild amusement at his discomfort, a sympathy for his tendency to flee from the expectations of the adults around him, but no real connection with him. When he chases Elaine through the final hour of the movie, you know they’ll end up together simply because they must, not because Benjamin has gained the things he needs to actually be good for her.

The Graduate is one of those movies that makes me feel how age has crept up to me when I’m not looking. I have less affection for the folly of youth, especially when I see how much it hurts the people around the young. Benjamin’s parents are clueless, but well-meaning and harmless; it’s his privilege to completely disregard their investment in him, their desire to see him mature into the best possible person. He has a mother and father who are willing to give him anything he needs to succeed with his life, and he turns up his nose. It’s surprisingly, fundamentally frustrating. Is it because I grew up poor, or is it because I’m too old to connect with that adolescent ennui? I’m not sure.

Mrs. Robinson is clearly a woman who doesn’t really care about the feelings of the people around her; she’s only concerned with her own pleasure. She uses Benjamin because he’s easily used, and threatens to blow up his life to get her way. When he calls her bluff, it destroys two families. How are we supposed to root for these people?

But this is a comedy; perhaps I’m overthinking it. Why would their behavior be any different from any other black comedy protagonist? I think the difference here is that the read I get from The Graduate is we’re supposed to root for Benjamin. With most black comedies there’s the gentlemen’s agreement that everyone knows these characters are terrible, and we root for the people who can be terrible most artfully. Here, there’s no charisma behind the malice; when Mrs. Robinson confronts Benjamin, we’re very much supposed to feel he’s the victim, even though the only reason he’s breaking off the relationship is so he can actually make a move on her daughter.

Maybe that’s the big disconnect between me and this movie; it feels an affection for its hero that I don’t share. Nichols does a great job with carving out a new, youthful kind of film, and Hoffman plays Benjamin as bewildered, confident, detached and driven by turns — all quite well. And as important as the movie is, it just leaves me kind of cold at the closing credits. Benjamin rides off into the sunset, on towards his new life, where presumably he’ll make the same mistakes he did before. It’s a new life, perhaps, but he’s the same old selfish boy.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: All About Eve (#16)

Entertainment 150All About Eve (1950)
Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and Celeste Holm
Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

There’s an awful lot going on in this movie, especially considering the time in which it was made. Just a quick bit of Internet research has uncovered a multitude of perspectives detailing what All About Eve has to say about homosexuality, Cold War politics, gender roles and the tense relationship between Broadway and Hollywood. The fact that I saw none of this through my first viewing, but see how all the symbolism actually tracks with these various, scatter-minded theories speaks to the strength of the writing. It’s a truly impressive film with a lot on its mind, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.

Bette Davis is fantastic here as Margo Channing, the current Grand Dame of Broadway. She occupies the office of her archetype with the expected theatricality, regally generous with her favor when her audience plays their roles and cements hers. She’s a bundle of contradictions, expectant and needy at the same time, surprisingly warm and casually cruel. Just when you think she lives on the shallow surface of her fan’s adulation, she says something that points to a deep understanding of the society she inhabits and her place in it. Margo is one of the most complex movie heroines I’ve seen in a really long time, and Davis embodies the assured magnetism of an actress at the top of her game.

Almost as hypnotic is Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington. We meet Eve as a pathetic groupie in an alley where Margo’s best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) takes her in. According to Eve’s story, she’s a war widow who left her meager life in the Midwest to follow Margo’s career. More than anything, she wanted to be near her idol, so it’s a dream come true when she’s slowly collected into the star’s inner circle. Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life more and more, eventually becoming her trusted confidant and personal assistant. Eve works with polite blandness and total efficiency, and most people can find no fault with her. They’re mystified when Margo reacts so violently to slights that look like “innocent” mistakes to the casual observer.

Of course, there’s something far deeper going on here. It’s only a matter of time before Eve’s scheme is laid bare — by the time the victims of her plans realize what’s going on, it’s far too late to do anything about it. And that’s when the movie gets to be at it’s most interesting.

As it becomes increasingly clear that her time in the spotlight is over, Margo reflects on her ascent to the top of the New York theatre scene and how she’s treated the people she met along the way. For the most part it feels like she’s so accustomed to having her way and wielding her considerable influence that she won’t go down without a bitter fight for her crown. What’s amazing is that when she realizes what the fight will cost her in the relationships of those closest to her, she gives it up. She realizes that holding on to power doesn’t mean much if you don’t have something more permanent and lasting to go with it. As awful as Margo can be (and has been) to the people around her, she has a very mature appreciation for them. It’s this support network that she retreats into when Eve officially supplants her as the toast of New York.

Bette Davis: Queen of the Side-Eye

Bitchily, of course.

Eve, on the other hand, uses people and discards their relationship as soon as she has what she wants from them. While her ambition is fulfilled, the only person by her side is a theatre critic who is using her for his own purposes. We begin the film with her crowning as the latest jewel of the theatrical community, and after we find out the number of awful things she did to get there we see just how hollow her victory is. The award she receives means nothing to her, and the party thrown in her honor is so worthless to her she skips it to pack for her imminent trip to Hollywood.

The thing that strikes me most about this film are the wonderful relationships that manage to survive the sabotage orchestrated by Eve. Margo and Karen have their strains, and their husbands and lovers have similar struggles — especially when they’re targeted by Eve’s ambition. But it manages to hold; the affection shared by these people is deeper than the business they’re engaged in. Margo realizes this and chooses to nurture it, even though it takes her a bit longer than it might have if she were a bit more centered to begin with. But the fact that she’s off-kilter is one of the things that makes her so much fun.

A few critics have tied Margo’s acquiescence to the general push for women to give up their agency and return to the homemaker role in post-war America. There’s a lot in the film to support this, too. Sociologically the film takes on a darker undertone with her willingness to fade; she realizes that her personal community won’t tolerate her strength, so she weakens herself. It’s difficult to see Margo’s turn in the latter parts of the movie as a positive thing if you view it through that lens, especially if you see it as Joseph Mankiewicz pushing a hetero-normative agenda there. Through Eve’s example and Margo’s pre-fall life, he’s outright telling you that ambition is bad and folding to your dominant partner is good. Of course that’s not a “truth” that should be tolerated. But on a purely personal level, it feels more like Margo made a choice that brings her the most happiness. Holding on to her fleeting position at all costs would simply cost too much.

The subtext of societal normalcy notwithstanding, All About Eve is a totally engaging movie buoyed by incredible performances, sharp and layered writing, and wonderful characters. The fact that it inspires such passionate and thoughtful debate six decades later cements its worthiness as one of the best American movies ever made.

 

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