Mike Nichols (born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, but who's keeping track?) was a successful comedian, actor, and Broadway director before he morphed into a Hollywood force. He'd directed a bunch of Neil Simon plays, and had performed as a wildly successful satirical comedy duo with Elaine May.
By the time he was tapped to direct The Graduate, he'd already brought his theatrical sensibility to the big screen with the movie version of Edward Albee's hit play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That was in 1966, the year before The Graduate came out.
In crafting the film, Nichols said he was inspired by the character John Marcher in Henry James' famous short story, The Beast in the Jungle. Marcher is kind of like Benjamin Braddock in that neither know what they want to do with their futures, but they know that they want them to be "different." Yet whereas—spoiler alert—Marcher lives his whole life without anything really happening to him, failing to seize love when the moment presents itself, Braddock does (eventually) seize the day, pursuing Elaine Robinson despite various impossible obstacles. Nichols also decided to have Mrs. Robinson wear jungle-cat print clothing to make her look like a predator playfully stalking her prey (Benjamin), or like the metaphorical "Beast" of James' story.
Nichols also made important casting choices: he thought about giving Benjamin's part to Robert Redford, but decided Redford couldn't play an underdog, since he'd apparently never "struck out" with a girl. Choosing an actor like Hoffman was a risk; he wasn't someone with leading-man looks or demeanor. He and Turman cycled through and dispensed with many actresses for the role of Mrs. Robinson before finally settling on Anne Bancroft. By unanimous opinion, they made the right choices. (Source)
The Graduate defines everything people came to expect from Mike Nichols' directorial style: great acting, laughs, and a subversive edge. Later Nichols' movies with those same qualities included Catch-22 (also with Buck Henry as a screenwriter) and Carnal Knowledge, with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel (who, as half of Simon and Garfunkel, performed on The Graduate's famous soundtrack). He also continued his conquest of Broadway, racking up Tony Awards, and directing smash-hits like the 2005 Monty Python musical Spamalot.
Nichols was still going strong when he died in 2014. After his death, people who weren't all that familiar with his work read the obit and asked "Is there anything he didn't write or direct?" Nichols eventually won 4 Emmy awards and 8 Tonys and was one of only a dozen "EGOT" artists who won the award world's Grand Slam—an Emmy ("Wit"), Grammy ("An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May"), Oscar (The Graduate), and Tony (Barefoot in the Park). (Source) Add to that a Kennedy Center Honor and the American Film Institute's Life Achievement award, and you're looking at show-biz history. Yowza.
(Bonus fact: Mel Brooks, the real-life husband of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) was another EGOT-ist.)
Finding the right person to adapt The Graduate from Charles Webb's book wasn't easy. An early attempt with the playwright William Hanley fizzled out, and the next screenwriter, Calder Willingham, turned in a script that no one liked (partly because Willingham himself had no enthusiasm for Webb's source material). Finally, Lawrence Turman settled on Buck Henry, a young improv comic and a writer for the TV spy comedy, Get Smart. Fortunately, as Henry noted, he felt the same about main character Benjamin Braddock as Turman and the director Mike Nichols did: they all related.
According to Nichols, the script was really all Henry's work, although Willingham sued for credit, which he received. Much of the dialogue came directly out of Webb's book, but Henry did make changes, including one famous contribution, the movie's most iconic line. He was totally responsible for the now-storied, "Just one word… Plastics" exchange, in which an older family friend gives Benjamin some unsolicited and fantastically dull career advice. (Henry also plays the role of the room clerk who manages to accidentally disconcert Benjamin by asking him if he's at the hotel "for an affair," meaning a party.) (Source)
Henry's script helped transform The Graduate from a fairly unsuccessful book into a cinema classic. And it launched his career to new heights as well (as penning the script for one of the most famous movies of all time might have a tendency to do). He went on to work on screenplays like Catch-22 (another movie with '60s counterculture import), Heaven Can Wait (which captures his comic style, like The Graduate), and Grumpy Old Men. He had a successful TV and film acting career and directed a few films as well, not to mention hosting Saturday Night Live ten times. (Source)
Not a bad resume.
A young Hollywood producer happened to like a book that no one else really did. When Charles Webb's The Graduate came out, it got lukewarm and mixed reviews. Fortunately for the history of cinema, it struck a chord with producer Lawrence Turman, who decided to option the film rights to the book for $1,000 of his own money (this was in 1964). He felt that the main character had a kind of Holden Caulfield vibe and inhabited the same world of youthful alienation as himself.
So he started to assemble a crew who he thought could do the movie justice. He got Mike Nichols—hot off the success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—to direct, and eventually pegged Buck Henry to adapt the screenplay (after an unsuccessful attempt by one Calder Willingham). They were all pretty young and all felt a connection with the main character, Benjamin Braddock (the graduate of the title). Another producer, Joseph Levine, got on board, and later commissioned a college publicity tour that sent Dustin Hoffman to campuses to drum up an audience for the movie.
Turman played an extremely important role in creating the movie. He wasn't the kind of producer who tries to screw things up, only to be resisted by a valiant director, but was himself a creative force behind the film. Adapting it was his idea, after all, and he tapped Nichols to direct and rejecting screenplays from other writers before (correctly) settling with Buck Henry. Plus, he was able to smirk at his naysayers when the movie eventually became a huge success. (Source)
Turman went on to produce other successful movies, though many of them are wildly different from The Graduate, like John Carpenter's horror-sci-fi hit The Thing (1982) and a violent drama about racism and white supremacists, American History X (1998).
Like we said…wildly different.
Cinematographer Robert Surtees (who had previously worked on classics like Ben Hur) was familiar with Nichols' style from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and was impressed by his far-out camera direction and inventive shots. An example of this is the famous scuba-diving sequence, where we see Ben's parents and their friends from Ben's perspective inside a scuba suit, before he jumps into the swimming pool. Later, we look up at his father from the bottom of the pool. It's an example of cinematography being used to say something about a character: he feels separate and isolated from everyone else. Nichols uses frequent shots through glass and water to emphasize Ben's alienation and isolation. (Source)
Other famous sequences include one that cuts between Benjamin drifting in his pool and staying in the hotel room with Mrs. Robinson, making it look like he's moving from one place to the next without any change in place or time. It conveys how his aimless drifting and his meaningless affair are totally related. Surprisingly, Nichols was a stranger to this kind of montage, but what he was aiming for was a dreamlike sequence—maybe all this was just a fantasy. He had to make the different sets look as similar as possible so the viewer wouldn't notice the transition from one to the other until it actually happened. (Source)
The score is one of the most memorable parts of the movie: Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack echoes Benjamin's own alienation and worried melancholy with songs like "The Sound of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair." On the other hand, "Mrs. Robinson" is much more lighthearted—an ironic tribute to the artful seductress.
In fact, that was the only song written specifically for the movie, and it originally referred to "Mrs. Roosevelt" instead of Mrs. Robinson, being about Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, and nostalgia for an earlier time. Paul Simon was apparently a pretty slow, painstaking songwriter; his original agreement to write three songs for the movie had fallen through. But Nichols had become a fan of some pre-existing Simon and Garfunkel tracks, like "The Sound of Silence," and used those instead. The use of existing popular music as the soundtrack was a real break from traditional film scoring.
Writer Sam Kashner, perceptively points out:
"Simon and Garfunkel's lucid, poetic lyrics serve as Ben's interior monologue as he makes his way through the empty opulence of his parents' suburban paradise. The juxtaposition of 'The Sound of Silence,' a deeply personal cri de coeur, against the Los Angeles airport terminal—as Ben is carried robotically along a moving walkway—is both touching and funny." (Source)
Benjamin is experiencing the "sound of silence" because he's living in a mental cocoon, drifting on his pool, sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, but not really connecting with anybody. Even though he outwardly seems like a bright, privileged kid who should be thriving in the world, he's internally unsure and conflicted—and inert. Like Kashner points out, Simon and Garfunkel dip into this deeper undercurrent of emotion; the sad inner life existing behind the seemingly idyllic outer life. Pay attention: it's the song played during the last scene on the bus, as well. Maybe all's not well that ends well after all.
(Fun fact: Nichols rejected two Simon and Garfunkel songs which Simon actually did write for the movie, "Punky's Dilemma," and "Hazy Shade of Winter," the latter of which appeared on a greatest hits collection (Source)
Since The Graduate is a comedy-drama about a crazy affair and its unexpected consequences, it's managed to become popular without garnering the kind of extreme fans that Star Wars and Star Trek have. It's clearly not that kind of movie. But it's got its fans. It was especially popular with the '60s college crowd—people would watch the movie in theaters and yell "Plastics!" at the screen at the same time that Mr. McGuire was saying the famous line. Supposedly, student radicals at Columbia took time off from occupying the University President's office to go to repeat viewings of The Graduate on the sly. (Source)
(We always suspected that those student "strikes" were just an excuse to have fun.)
The film still has some fan sites scattered around the internet—like "The Graduate: A Resource for Film Students and Fans," which collects reviews and essays on the movie, along with pictures, fun facts, and other information. It's been re-reviewed on its 30th and 40th anniversary. By now, most of the hardcore fans are collecting Social Security. But they're secret subversives at heart and remember what it was like back then when everyone had expectations of you that weren't your own, and you felt alienated, angry about the war, questioning, and aimless. Benjamin was their cultural icon.