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50 Years Later, Just How Jewish Was ‘The Graduate?’

As a superfan of “The Graduate” I was thrilled to get my hands on Beverly Gray’s new book “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How ‘The Graduate’ Became the Touchstone of a Generation.” Fellow enthusiasts of the film will more than enjoy this brisk voice-y historical read timed to the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release in December.

Despite the All-American storyline of the novel, “The Graduate,” the film version has always signaled a very Jewish sensibility to me, starting with Dustin Hoffman oddly cast in the lead as super-Waspy Connecticut kid Benjamin Braddock. I wanted to talk this out with someone with greater expertise. Happily, Gray said yes, she would have a bi-coastal kibitz. In fact, she had a lot to say on the matter. Maybe my theory was not so meshugge?

Laurie Gwen Shapiro: Even though I was a toddler when the film came out, this film has always been special to me — my first real lover took me to a revival house to see it when I was a young woman. And then, when he was no longer mine, I watched it on VHS so many times until the next format came along. Why do you have a personal obsession with the film?

Beverly Gray: I came of age, as a young woman and a moviegoer, in the late 1960s. 1967 was particularly important to me, because the American films released then – and honored in 1968 – were so successful in capturing the mood of a very complicated and difficult time, one marked by social strife and the fear of the military draft — “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood” and “In the Heat of the Night.” But though I hugely admired Bonnie and Clyde on its artistic merits, I didn’t personally identify myself as a rebel or an outlaw. In the case of The Graduate, the world of the film felt like a place I knew all too well. And it was so much fun to watch! I wanted to write about the impact of Sixties films on the moviegoers of that era, and the fact that The Graduate remains with us in so many ways made me all the more eager to explore its long-term appeal.

How exactly did cultural coding change when Mike Nichols – aka Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky — got his hands on the option? Of course, “The Graduate” was not meant to read Jewish at the start: very-not-Jewish Charles Webb wrote the 1963 novel when he was just out of Williams College, which at that time was notoriously anti-Semitic, even at the administrative level. How Jewish is this movie to you?

The film seems to me Jewish in a social sense, in terms of the Jewish outsider, which is certainly the way Mike Nichols viewed himself. Nichols was feeling a bit askew among the comforts of bourgeois America. It’s important to remember Nichols as a very young refugee from Nazi Germany. He never really got over the experience of fleeing Berlin at age 7. I’d go on to add that Nichols has made the following comment: “Dustin has always said that Benjamin is a walking surfboard. And that’s what he was in the book, in the original conception. But I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.” It’s a provocative statement, because Nichols was neither short nor dark, though clearly he felt a strong inner discomfort about the way he presented himself to the world. He certainly identified with the angst felt by Benjamin Braddock. But I wouldn’t say that Nichols was specifically out to cast a Jewish actor.

Wait — wasn’t his other choice Charles Grodin — also Jewish?

What he was looking for was someone who didn’t fit the norm (despite all those collegiate triumphs that the movie tells us about but doesn’t show).

Why was seeing a Jewish male lead in the 1960s an important breakthrough?

I was disheartened (and so was Dustin Hoffman) by the number of early write-ups that described him as “ugly.” Even an article by David Zeitlin in Life referred to Hoffman as “a swarthy Pinocchio,” and made “humorous” reference to his prominent nose. What was important was the way young audiences embraced Hoffman, big nose and all. Suddenly it was ok not to look like Robert Redford and still play a romantic leading role. What followed was a long line of ethnic actors who were finally able to be cast as romantic leads.

You mention in the book that after Dustin Hoffman broke through other Jewish men could land leads – but in 2017, Jewish women still struggle to be cast in a lead if they don’t look like Natalie Portman, Mina Kunis or (yes, she’s Jewish) Scarlett Johansson. Men can keep their original noses and surnames (Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman Adrien Brody, Adam Brody, Adam Levine) but Jewish women elect for plastic surgery to “correct” what Hollywood execs like Harvey Weinstein deem “unfuckable” looks, and then hide their names and heritage. And how many juicy Jewish biopic female roles are cast by the likes of Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Any thoughts on this?

I’ve certainly noticed this too, and it seems to suggest that Hollywood has never considered Jewish actors (and especially actresses) pretty enough. It’s all quite discouraging, especially given the backgrounds of the men who founded the American film industry. But of course they were immigrants trying very hard to fit in with “American” values. I’m thinking all the way back to “Holocaust,” a TV miniseries (from 1978). It was quickly clear to me that the sympathetic leading characters were being played by non-Jews like Timothy Bottoms, James Woods, and Fritz Weaver, though there were loads of “haimish” Jewish character actors in the smaller roles. A young Meryl Streep, as the loving and heroic non-Jewish wife who follows her man into a concentration camp, as I remember, played the standout female role. At least Tova Feldshuh got to play a gutsy partisan. But perhaps we should bypass this as well as “Bridget Loves Bernie” (1972 sitcom featuring David Birney as attractive Jewish boy who marries a shiksa, and hilarity ensures) and stick closer to the present day. I think there are certainly Jewish actresses around who meet and even surpass most people’s standard of beauty: Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis. But Hollywood seems to have never gotten over its infatuation with blondes, especially when paired with dark-haired men.

Dustin Hoffman was once quoted as saying “The idea that the director was connecting me with someone as beautiful as her became an even uglier joke to me. It was like a Jewish nightmare.” I read that quote two ways, sure, knocking his own looks but maybe he is also elevating an ideal, inadvertently telling Jewish women we would never be that beautiful as untouchable shiksa in his eyes.

Maybe indirectly. But I think it was more an indication of his profound self-loathing. From everything I’ve read and seen, Hoffman was very hard on himself as a young man. But other sources say he was extremely good at attracting (and bedding) young women. At the time he made The Graduate he had a steady girlfriend whom he later married. She was tall and slim, a professional ballerina. So he seemed to be going after a type as different from himself as possible.

Abigail Pogrebin says in her 2005 book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” that when Hoffman auditioned for the film, Nichols told him Benjamin Braddock was Jewish inside. When Pogrebin then directly asked Nichols what he meant, Nichols asked her if she had ever read “Tonio Kröger” by Thomas Mann. Pogrebin reported that Nichols said: “It took place in Germany one hundred years ago and it was about the blond, blue-eyed people and the dark people. The dark people were the artists and the outcasts. And the blond, blue-eyed people were at the heart of the group and were the desired objects.’”

I love this quote and I appreciate your introducing it to me. I had never heard before about Nichols’ reference to the Thomas Mann story. Of course, I know at this point that you can’t trust all the old tales about the making of “The Graduate”: people’s memories get cloudy over time. But I can believe Nichols taking Thomas Mann to heart. He was a serious reader, one who got a key idea for the art direction of “The Graduate” while reading Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle.”

What was the most devilish thing you did in the 1960s? Were you a rebel or a star student?

You’ve probably guessed it by now: I was a star student who never got into serious trouble. That was part of the appeal of “The Graduate” to me: here was a “perfect” young man, one who ultimately couldn’t stand the pressure to keep making his parents proud.

Any thoughts on the other Jews connected to the making of The Graduate – like Simon and Garfunkel?

Regarding Simon and Garfunkel, it’s perhaps pertinent that their first record label dubbed them Tom and Jerry, because their actual names sounded too Jewish. Looking back on it, there were many Jews connected with the making of this film. Larry Turman, who discovered Charles Webb’s novel and was determined to make it into the film, is Jewish, the son of a man in the “shmatta” trade. Along with Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry is Jewish. And of course the film’s financier, Joseph E. Levine, came from a Jewish immigrant background. Perhaps the film is basically Jewish in a Lenny Bruce sense: New York neurotics are all Jewish, whatever their ethnic and religious background. Interestingly, the two overtly New York characters in the movie, in terms of speech patterns, are Ben’s father and Mrs. Robinson. I can certainly see Mr. Braddock (played by William Daniel) as an upwardly mobile “Jewish” man, enjoying the fruits of his labors. And of course Mrs. Robinson is the very definition of neurotic. But her husband and daughter don’t seem in any way Jewish to me, despite their presence in a Beverly Hills mini-mansion of that type that Jews of that era favored and that I recognized all too well. Larry Turman personally told me that “The Graduate” was “a quintessential WASP movie.” But I don’t think he’s right. This movie strikes me as having a Jewish soul.

A few days after I first touched base with Gray – Dustin Hoffman was in the news in a big way. Did Beverly Gray have any follow-up comments about the explosive article by Anna Graham Hunter in “The Hollywood Reporter” on Hoffman’s 1980’s alleged behavior on the set of “Death of a Salesman?” She sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t add any insight on the topic of Hoffman’s behavior in 1985. These disturbing allegations are outside the scope of my research on ‘The Graduate.’”

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