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On their golden anniversary, finding Berkeley in 'The Graduate'

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DECEMBER 10, 2017

W  riter Thomas Farber remembers a Berkeley of art stores and leather shops and cafés. Swinging by the campus twice — once in 1964, to visit, and once more in 1966, to stay — the essayist and, later, UC Berkeley lecturer, observed and experienced firsthand the vibrancy, community and embitterment of the city during the era that would come to define its spirit.

“The film, like Berkeley, was created by and for its time … it is both difficult and anachronistic to draw direct comparisons. Each generation, after all, would insist on its own disillusionments.”

In his 1971 book, Farber charts the burbling political discontent and artistic iconoclasm that, by the power of leftist coffee shop assembles and rumbling voyage narratives, fueled the fire of the ‘60s Free Speech Movement, the antiwar, anti-imperialist movements and swaths of others: feminism, sexual liberation, gay rights — all of which existed concurrently within a cultural confluence of rabble-rousing and leaflet-passing.

This is the era during which Mike Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate” found its clamoring audiences. They filled theater after theater, cementing the film’s box-office record of $104,945,305, laughing through its absurdities and nodding in recognition to its moments of self-reflection.

Film historian Elaine M. Bapis pronounced it “a new vision” — the film won 21 awards, including an Oscar for Best Director, brought in $30 million more in DVD sales and rentals over the years, and it made its way onto countless lists of the all-time bests. The accompanying Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, equally applauded, topped the charts at the time of the film’s release and remains an enduring classic.

The crowds came to see a vivid biopic of disillusioned, era-reflective ruminations, and in many ways, “The Graduate” told that sort of story.

An image of "The Graduate" held up in front of Moe's Bookstore in Berkeley

Mark Unger / Staff


There’s Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), the graduated valedictorian of some prestigious East Coast college, unwilling to retreat into the WASP-ish comfort of his parents’ empty materialist living — “There’s a great future in plastics,” his father’s businessman friend whispers menacingly by his shoulder — but uncertain of how to move beyond it.

The film’s opening scene finds Benjamin sitting alone in his darkened bedroom, a little statue of a diver bubbling in a tropical fish tank behind him as he contemplates his future. His father enters, flooding the room with sound and light, and the illusion of thought dissipates.

Then there’s Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the art-student-turned-housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage, who initiates an affair with him — while he, in turn, falls in love with her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), setting in motion a staccato series of conflicts.

The film is replete with enough wistful guitars and empty-eyed closeups of its various players to drive home the supremely identifiable sentiment of being marooned unto oneself, with satisfaction and fulfillment only fleeting.

After a few scenes, the diver figure appears again. This time, the stone figure is Benjamin himself, dressed in scuba gear and completely submerged in his parents’ pool. He is awash in the sound of silence, and, for a just moment, content in his own glass-walled sanctuary.

But “The Graduate” is also the story of Berkeley, of the city whose university Elaine attends and of the place where Benjamin, fueled by a moment of startling clarity, flings himself down Telegraph Avenue and past Moe’s Books in pursuit of the bus she rides.

That Berkeley — which three years before rose to national prominence for the free speech protests — was chosen as a setting simply re-reflects the dogged, determined effort on the part of the film to remain contemporary.

“Joined in so many different ways in our separatedness, we shared, for a few moments, a single circle of life, each of us with a position on the rim, spinning in our individual changes as the entire wheel turned.”

— Thomas Farber, 1971

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in January 1967 — nearly a year before the film’s release — Nichols, reportedly underwhelmed by the stereotypical facade of sunny Californian settings, commented on his resolve to “show the place as it really is.”

That place, according to historian W. J. Rorabaugh, was undergoing a period of strident instability as political and cultural vanguards were supplanted by insurgency and the city itself struggled to define what it wanted to be.

The conservative factions that had governed administrations from city hall to the state assembly were besieged and, in some instances, successfully succeeded by leftist powers of various radical persuasions. Around the university and the Bay Area, the Beat Generation boomed their disdain for conventional living. Activists like Jack Weinberg — locked inside a police car for hours after his arrest while students surged forward to stand on its roof — found their voices.

Benjamin drives over the Bay Bridge

MGM / Courtesy


So in many ways, Berkeley shared in Benjamin’s struggles and bereftness, where the grating divide between generations and values yawned wide and gaping. “You’re not one of those agitators?” asks Benjamin’s landlord in Berkeley, squinting at the young protagonist suspiciously when he attempts to rent a room. “Those outside agitators? I hate that. I won’t stand for it.”

Yet amongst the angst of cultural warfare and directionless existence, the film is not without its moments of joyful camaraderie. When Benjamin crashes Elaine’s wedding to another man at the conclusion of the film, he beats off a wave of the wedding party — mostly, if not all, composed of aging white men — and grasps the hand of his beloved.

“Elaine, it’s too late!” shouts Mrs. Robinson in the final moments of the scuffle, slapping her fleeing daughter across the face as though compelling her to wake up. Elaine screams back: “Not for me!”

The image of Benjamin and Elaine warding off the onslaught of generational opposition recalls that famous Jack Weinberg quote: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Laughing and sprinting across a lush green lawn, the young couple board a bus to make their escape, personifying that “them-us,” people-dividing-behind-battlelines-defined-by-class-and-age dynamic discussed by scholar Siegfried Schnütgen.

Dustin Hoffman stands behind the silhouette of a leg in the Mike Nichols film, 'The Graduate'

MGM / Courtesy


But even in the midst of a cross-generation cultural crisis, there seemed to exist a solace in belonging to a conscious collective in search of a purpose. “Joined in so many different ways in our separatedness, we shared, for a few moments, a single circle of life,” wrote Farber in 1970, “Each of us with a position on the rim, spinning in our individual changes as the entire wheel turned.”

He recalls a moment of freeing joy: flying over the Bay Bridge with his eyes on the road and his mind on the city — a moment mirrored in the film as Benjamin guns his car under the signature white cables and towers, his face finally losing some of its sodden blankness as he chases his newfound mission.

The film, like Berkeley, was created by and for its time. Parts of each still reside there, in that bygone era of ‘60s swagger that persistently echoes into the present, and as the city’s university both celebrates its history and reckons with its legacy, it is both difficult and anachronistic to draw direct comparisons. Each generation, after all, would insist on its own disillusionments.

And yet, Simon & Garfunkel’s mournful lyrics “Hello darkness, my old friend” still filter anew through computer screens around the world. In Berkeley — especially in Berkeley — the raw, yearning spirit of the film lends itself to inevitable timelessness as students stroll past the film’s landmarks: Sproul Plaza, the fraternity house, the now-closed Caffe Mediterraneum  and Moe’s Books, with its now bright red awning.

Blind nostalgia for an era is instinctive enough. Even those who came after will happily wear its tie-dyed T-shirts and sing its songs of revolution, sensing the decade’s electric, eclectic spirit.

“The crowds came to see a vivid biopic of disillusioned, era-reflective ruminations, and in many ways, ‘The Graduate’ told that sort of story.”

Yet, as a city and as a community, we are also moving past the less visible landmarks of that age, wherein no minorities appeared on screen and wherein sexual assault by powerful Hollywood figures — like that of which Hoffman has been accused — were overlooked and disregarded.

In place of cultish longing and devotion, it feels somehow simpler to remember, or to experience firsthand, our own little rebellions: the giddy urgency of grinning uncontrollably in the back of a crowded bus to a sea of stern, disapproving faces of another generation — the last shining moments before youthful rapture gives way to reservation, and the smiles fade.

Primary sources were examined at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The following sources were also used:

Bapis, Elaine M. Camera and Action: American Film as Agent of Social Change, 1965-1975 (2008), in particular, Chapter III: “The Graduate: Representing a Generation.”

Schnütgen, Siegfried R. Culture Consciousness: Development and Dissolution of a Changing Awareness in the Berkeley Area Culture during the latter 1960’s and Early 1970’s.

Rorabaugh, W. J. Berkeley At War: The 1960’s (1990).

Weinstein, Dave. It Came From Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed the World (2008), in particular, the section: “How Berkeley Promoted Free Speech.”

Farber, Thomas. Tales for the Son of My Unborn Child (1971).

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that la Mediteranee appeared in the film. In fact, Caffe Mediterraneum appeared in the film.
Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.

DECEMBER 11, 2017