Precisely 50 years ago, we flocked to the old Pikes Theatre and heard a familiar two-syllable word enter the English language as never before. The word was “plastics.” The movie in which it was uttered was called “The Graduate.” It changed pop culture in ways that echo even now.
“I just want to say one word to you,” a middle-aged man tells young Benjamin Braddock. “Just one word. Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am,” said Benjamin, played by a newcomer named Dustin Hoffman, who had a face previously unseen on any leading man on an American movie screen.
“Plastics,” he was told.
“Exactly how do you mean?”
But if Benjamin didn’t quite understand, an entire generation did, and the word became a kind of comic shorthand. It stood for the modern world’s empty materialism. It symbolized the anxiety and confusion Benjamin felt about his place in such a world. And that little colloquy, uttered in the film’s opening minutes, set off not only the story’s underlying theme but an era’s.
Until then, mainstream movies about young people were called “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” They had a brainlessness meant to display young people’s alleged empty-headed approach to life.
“The Graduate” changed everything. This was generational angst disguised as comedy. Half a century ago, the movie arrived as young people were distancing themselves from an older generation’s creaky boundaries of love and sex and marriage.
Back then, we were still actively mourning John Kennedy. We were increasingly haunted by the bodies coming home from Vietnam. Here was a movie that mentioned neither but still managed to capture the growing uneasiness based on both these tragedies.
It was as if “The Catcher in the Rye” had been transformed to film and given a sense of humor and a musical soundtrack.
As Beverly Gray writes, in “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation,” her new book celebrating the movie’s 50th birthday:
“Hollywood insiders were thunderstruck by the audience reaction. Young people clapped and cheered. Their elders flocked to see for themselves what their offspring found so provocative.
“Soon intellectuals, religious leaders, and even politicians were weighing in, trying to use ‘The Graduate’ as a key to understanding those unruly post-World War II children who were now coming of age in large numbers.”
Before this, the ever-virginal Doris Day was the box office stereotype for women of a certain age. Now it was Anne Bancroft, slipping under the covers just a breathless half-step ahead of her very own daughter, Katharine Ross.
Before this, Jewish actors like Kirk Douglas and John Garfield found it best to hide their real names — not to mention, their profiles. If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider a couple of reviews when “The Graduate” first appeared.
Life magazine, in a piece headlined “A Swarthy Pinocchio Makes a Wooden Role Real,” said, “If Dustin Hoffman’s face were his fortune, he’d be committed to a life of poverty. With a schnoz that looks like a directional signal …”
Time magazine said Hoffman had a nose “like a 1948 Chevrolet.” Other critics were similarly nasty. Hoffman later said he saw “disguised anti-Semitism” in the remarks, and compared them to cartoon depictions of Jews in Nazi Germany.
(All of this preceded Hoffman’s current woes, in which he’s been accused of sexual improprieties.)
But the massive success of “The Graduate” overpowered such outdated ethnic attacks. Suddenly there was so much leading-man work for Jewish actors such as Elliott Gould, George Segal and Richard Dreyfuss (and the young leading lady Barbra Streisand) that one critic happily dubbed it “Hollywood’s Jew Wave.”
What’s more, it opened up work for such previously unemployable ethnics as Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino – despite what Hollywood had once called their “untraditional” looks.
Fifty years ago, the advertising posters for “The Graduate” showed Hoffman standing behind Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg. The caption read, “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.”
As it turned out, the future got brighter for a lot of people with the enormous impact of “The Graduate.”
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.