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When little-known Dustin Hoffman was chosen to star in The Graduate 40 years ago, even he doubted he was up to the challenge. Author Mark Harris reveals how insecurity helped produce an iconic film.
In March 1967, director Mike Nichols gathered the cast of The Graduate on a Los Angeles soundstage for what was to be an almost unheard-of luxury for a small film: three weeks of rehearsal, during which the actors would have a chance to explore their characters, improvise scenes, and feel their way into relationships. Anne Bancroft and stage actor Dustin Hoffman took their places at a long table, scripts in hand, as did the rest of the actors Nichols had hired—Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson.
“Don’t do anything,” Nichols told his cast before they opened the script. “Don’t push. Don’t try to perform. This is just for us.”
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Two hours later, as the actors reached the moment when the characters Benjamin and Elaine flee from a church and jump onto a bus, panic had spread to the entire table. The bus was not moving.
“That day I’ll never forget,” Hoffman says. “That movie just fell on its ass. By the time the reading was over, there was a glumness on everybody’s faces. The same expression.”
“I don’t think there was a lot of love in the room,” says screenwriter Buck Henry. “Dustin was very withdrawn. And when Anne started working, I don’t know what was wrong, but I thought, Lord, there’s no Mrs. Robinson in there that I know of.”
Hoffman’s initial struggle wasn’t surprising: The 27-year-old stage actor was still worried that he had been miscast as a young superachiever in a romantic triangle. Bancroft’s troubles were harder to decipher. By 1967, she was an experienced film actress, five years removed from winning an Academy Award, at 30, for The Miracle Worker.
“Do you like my character?” the irritated actress asked Nichols after a few days of rehearsal.
“No, not at all!” said Nichols. “She’s much too nice! She doesn’t sound like that.”
“Why isn’t she nice?” said Bancroft.
“I can’t tell you,” said Nichols. “I don’t know why. But I can do it for you.”
“All right,” said Bancroft. “Let me hear it.”
Nichols read her one of Mrs. Robinson’s lines—“Benjamin, will you drive me home?”—with as much frosty, deadpan neutrality as he could muster.
“Oh!” she cried. “I can do that. I know what that is. That’s anger.”
“One of Mike’s gifts is as a casting director,” says Wilson, who played Benjamin’s mother. “He can somehow pick up on the essence and spirit of a person, and study it, and then tap into it.” For Bancroft, that meant unlocking her rage. For Hoffman, it meant exploring, and more than once exploiting, his awkwardness, his embarrassment, and his dreadful certainty that the experience of making The Graduate would end in humiliation for him—an anxiety that had, in a way, started the moment Nichols peered at Hoffman in the makeup chair and asked, “Can’t we do something about his nose?”
A few weeks into shooting, Hoffman paced the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, about to relive the worst nightmares of his early adolescence. Nichols was getting ready to shoot a scene in which Benjamin, with growing panic, attempts to book a room for his first tryst with Mrs. Robinson. The concierge was to be played by Buck Henry.
“Have you ever done anything like this?” Nichols said to Hoffman.
“I don’t think so,” Hoffman said.
“Let’s think,” Nichols said. “Did you ever go anywhere that unnerved you?”
Hoffman reached into his memory. “When I was a kid, I could never buy rubbers if it was a female behind the counter,” he told Nichols. “I would go into a drugstore, and if it was a man, I could ask him, ‘Could I have some prophylactics?’ But many times, just as I got to the counter, the man would move away and a woman would be there. And in mid-sentence, I’d have to think of something else.”
“Okay,” said Nichols. “When you’re going to get the room, you’re walking in to get rubbers. And Buck is a female pharmacist.”
Hoffman didn’t need much help to access his anxieties. By this point, he was so nervous that he even worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera. The more he opened up to Nichols, the more ammunition he gave his director to get under his skin and toy with his blackest fears. In the course of a single day, Nichols could both reinforce the confidence of his hypersensitive star and demolish it. “I never had the feeling he was happy with what I was doing,” said the actor. “He’d throw out a cookie occasionally, but I always felt like a disappointment.” At times Nichols was brutal, using the ear for perfect delivery he had honed in his years onstage to withering effect. “One time, I tried something in a scene and he said to me, ‘What are you doing?’” says Hoffman. “And I said, ‘Well, I made a choice. ...’ And he said, slowly, ‘I see. Well, the next time you get a thought, do the opposite.’”
The day he was filming the sequence in which Elaine slaps Benjamin in the face, Nichols wasn’t worried about Hoffman. He didn’t like what Katharine Ross was doing. At several points during the shoot, he struggled with the young actress’ inexperience, as well as with her natural reserve. “She can’t do it,” Nichols complained. “She doesn’t have it.” Patiently, he filmed take after take. Fifteen hard slaps later, Hoffman felt a stinging pain in his ear. The next day, he got into his deep-sea-diving gear for the swimming pool scene; when he jumped into the pool, he felt as if his head were going to explode. He emerged from the water, blood pouring from his ear. When the doctor examining his torn eardrum asked how he liked making a movie, he replied weakly that the food on the set was good.
In June, when Nichols and his cast and crew drove to La Verne, Calif., to shoot the film’s climax at a modern-looking church, they were so happy to get out of the studio that the several days on location felt almost like a field trip. Hoffman acquired his first groupie, a local girl who would hang out near his trailer and flirt with him between takes. “Beautiful, thin, a real shiksa goddess,” he says. “I think Nichols took that as a sign—at least somebody found me attractive. And it didn’t get past me, either!”
But the weather was scorching. Bancroft fainted during the scene in which everyone was pushing to get out of the church, and had to be given oxygen. The minister who had agreed to let Nichols film there was “very unhappy,” says Hoffman, “like they always are after they agree to have a movie come shoot.” When Nichols started to film Benjamin pounding on the glass wall, trying to get Elaine’s attention as she stands at the altar, the huge pane of glass began to shake ominously, and the reverend yelled, “Everybody out! Out, out, out!” Trying to save the shoot, Nichols asked Hoffman if he could think of any other way to get Elaine’s attention. The actor came up with the idea of spreading his arms apart and just tapping on the glass tentatively with his open palm. “The clincher was all the reviews saying this was Benjamin’s Christ moment,” says Hoffman. “It was a fix. That’s all it was. You gotta love critics.”
When he had decided to make The Graduate three and a half years earlier, Nichols thought he knew exactly what his satirical targets were. “I said some fairly pretentious things about capitalism and material objects, about the boy drowning in material things,” he recalls. But the deeper he got into the shoot and the more intensely he pushed Hoffman, the more Nichols realized that something personal was at stake, and always had been, in his attraction to the story. “My unconscious was making this movie,” he says. “It took me years before I got what I had been doing all along—that I had been turning Benjamin into a Jew. I didn’t get it until I saw this hilarious issue of MAD magazine after the movie came out, in which the caricature of Dustin says to the caricature of Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Mom, how come I’m Jewish and you and Dad aren’t?’ And I asked myself the same question, and the answer was fairly embarrassing and fairly obvious.”
Nichols—the immigrant son of a German mother and Russian-Jewish father—finally understood why it had taken him years to settle on an actor to play Benjamin. In Hoffman, he had found an onscreen alter ego—someone he could punish for his weaknesses, praise to bolster his confidence, and exhort to prove every day that he was the right man for the role. By the time the actor got into Benjamin’s Alfa Romeo to shoot the montage in which he drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to find Elaine, “I don’t really think they cared whether I lived or died,” Hoffman says, laughing. “There was a helicopter and a remote, and the direction I got was, ‘Pass every car. Traffic was moving fast, and I would hear on the walkie-talkie, ‘Just drive.’ I remember thinking, I can’t get hurt—this is only a movie!’’
“There’s no question I was in the grip of something,” says Nichols. “Part of me knew what I was doing in terms of the outsider and so forth, but another part of me, a part that I had no inkling of, must have known I would never get material so suited to me again.”
That fall, when producer Joe Levine started to screen the movie for his friends and people in the industry, the response wasn’t entirely enthusiastic. For the first time, Nichols’ composure began to fail him a little, as the single biggest gamble he had taken in casting the movie seemed to have fallen flat. “The first of the people who saw the movie would go up to him,” says Henry, “and say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful, Mike, so, uh, beautiful to look at—it’s just a shame about the boy.’ They had only derogatory things to say about Hoffman.”
Hoffman hadn’t been invited to any of the early private screenings. After the movie wrapped, he returned to New York and the cocoon of his former, anonymous life. He survived for a few months on the $4,000 he had saved while working on the picture and then registered for unemployment, lining up on East 13th Street every week to pick up a $55 check while he looked for acting jobs. He had little idea what to expect when he heard the movie had been booked into a theater on East 86th Street for its first sneak preview before a paying New York audience. He and his wife-to-be, Anne Byrne, went in just before the film started and sat in the back of the balcony.
The house wasn’t sold out, but it was pretty full. “I had no sense of whether it was working or not,” says Hoffman. “I think there are laughs, but mainly I’m looking at scenes and thinking, I should have done that better.”
Then the movie gets to the church.
“What got me out of my self-flagellation,” he says, “is that I looked down, over the edge of the balcony, and these kids were on their feet, cheering for me to get away. They had gone wild.”
From Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris. Published by the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. ©2008 by Mark Harris.
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