Mike Nichols: From “The Graduate” to “Working Girl” | Daily News

Mike Nichols: From “The Graduate” to “Working Girl”

Revisiting Mike Nichols’s The Graduate three decades after he first reviewed it, Roger Ebert struck a somewhat lukewarm note. Having seen it as a young critic in the late 1960s, he had immediately liked it: the first review, short and succinct as it was, welcomed it as a landmark in the American cinema. 30 years later he reconsidered and revised his opinion. It wasn’t that he disliked it – in contrast to the four stars he awarded in 1967, he gave it a not-so-bad three the second time around – but that he felt dissatisfied with how the story evolved. Moving into his fifties would not, I think, have helped: age has a curious way of shaping your opinions on not just politics and product brands, but also the Kardashians.

It’s hard not to like The Graduate. Yet unlike most other anti-conformist movies that came out in the 1960s – of which the high point must always be Easy Rider – Nichols’s exudes a conservatism at odds with its larger politics. It certainly rebels against the corruption of the old, but at the same time it hardly goes by way of redeeming the youth.

There is anger against the ways of the elderly generation of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) urban middle-class Americans, just not so much against their politics as against their personal lives. It’s of course hard not to see in Benjamin Braddock’s rebellion against the Robinsons the American youth’s frustrations with their mothers and fathers, neighbours and families. But it’s equally hard to discern any coherence in that rebelliousness. What does Benjamin want? Like a loose cannon, he offends everyone, but lacks focus. He’s not the stuff Civil Rights activists the Students for a Democratic Society are made of.

By contrast, the heroes in Easy Rider don’t flaunt their rebelliousness against the old: they turn it into the overarching goal of their lives. This is what salvages them, even at their lowest ebb. In Nichols’s movie, Benjamin Braddock has a comfortable enough cushion to stand on – when attempting to respond a friend of his parents about what he will do in future, that friend cryptically replies, “Plastics”, sealing and foretelling Benjamin’s dismal fate – but doesn’t so much defy middle-class existence as evade its responsibilities. He is against and opposed to the life his parents have planned for him, but this is owing more to a lack of interest in that life than to any politics – that is if he espouses politics at all, which he does not.

The elders in The Graduate’s world do not have faces. At his return party, Benjamin wearily walks everywhere, talking to everyone and to no one. This serves the same function, I think, as the mime artists in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, except that whereas Antonioni uses the mime artists pretending to play tennis as a symbol of the thin line between falseness and reality, Mike Nichols uses the facelessness, and namelessness, of the elderly to symbolise the falsity of the American middle-class. Unlike Thomas in Blowup, of course, Benjamin has no way to go: he’s stuck in this faceless world, and the only woman who he feels can rescue him from it – the deeply frustrated Mrs Robinson – constricts him even more.

The 1960s is dotted with the films of directors who vented their fury against the conservatism of their fathers and mothers by depicting them as lacking any agency of their own: they were always props in a preordained play, cogs in a machine. When Benjamin shouts at Elaine, Mrs Robinson’s daughter, as she’s tying the knot with her fiancée, we get close-ups of their faces: like the machines they are, they can only mutter noiselessly, angrily, not at the man trying to steal the show, but rather at the camera. Elaine is the only person who stands out: dazed and confused, she walks away from the podium, gazing at everyone and at Benjamin. This is her moment of realisation: in a split-second, the futility of it all – the marriage, the life she will be made to follow, the hypocrisies of her parents – finally dawns on her.

The failure of The Graduate’s vision – noble and exciting as it is – comes out in the last few scenes. Escaping what must have been a life in plastics to a freer world, Benjamin and Elaine laughingly stare at the rest of the passengers in the bus they are on. But like the passengers in the bus at the end of Midnight Cowboy – which featured the actor playing Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman – they are stony-faced, impassive, and utterly indifferent.

It is this indifference which hits Benjamin and Elaine in the face. Just as it took Elaine a few moments to comprehend the pathos of her parents’ existence, it takes Benjamin and Elaine a few moments to realise that while they’ve escaped that existence, they have no plans for what they are about to embark on. In a film where the protagonist and the lover set definite plans for their future and keep telling each other they will do this or that, such an ending is to me a little disconcerting. Perhaps it’s a symbol of the restlessness of most American youth, but it’s also an indictment of the plot itself, which provides an easy escape for its two heroes and then forces the smiles from their faces as they confront their future.

If The Graduate makes clear the director’s limited view of rebelliousness, Working Girl, which came 21 years later, confirms it. The alternative life Benjamin Braddock had in front of him – a life in plastics – is here idealised beyond permissive limits. If in that other movie Nichols celebrates Braddock’s rejection of that other life, here he celebrates his heroine’s venture into it. Released in the last few years of Ronald Reagan’s America, it paints a rather naive and simplistic view of the world of mergers and acquisitions. The protagonist of the story, played by Melanie Griffiths, finds herself in the centre of it all. But in contrast to her distinguished predecessor of more than 20 years earlier, she endeavours to clinch what she wants, which is a life in a comfortable executive post in a top conglomerate. Nichols doesn’t bother erasing the faces off from the corporate bosses, the Establishment jerks: the corporate boss who saves Griffith’s career towards the end is shown as a kindly old patrician, a fatherly figure who takes decisions in the interests of humanity, and not the bottom line.

Contrasting the one with the other, you realise how quickly Hollywood adjusts to the realities of its time. The Graduate, shot at the heyday of the anti-Vietnam protest movement, does not contain a single reference to the politics of the day; as Roger Ebert put it in his second review it has nothing that can help us identify the era from which it came. Mike Nichols was a great comedian, all things considered – his comedy veers to this side of the macabre, as seen in his earlier work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – but in The Graduate the humour serves to undermine the anti-establishment subtext of the plot. In Working Girl by contrast, the humour reinforces the pro-corporate, pro-establishment subtext.

Nichols doesn’t bother taking a moral high ground as far as the story’s class politics goes: the heroine ditches her ruffian boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) in favour of a nerdy corporate (Harrison Ford).

It’s a searing indictment, not so much on the politics of mergers and acquisitions, but on how a director, having made movies about teenage angst and rebellion, can turn the other way and make movies about teenage rebels growing up to become the CEOs and Executives their parents wanted them to be. 21 years after Benjamin Braddock decided he wanted a life beyond Plastics, the youth of America in Nichol’s universe have returned to world of Plastics. A more dismal turnaround between two films by the same director, I am yet to see.

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