To Look for America

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The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.

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We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.

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The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?

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Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.

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Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?

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Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.

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A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.

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The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.

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Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.

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21 Responses to “To Look for America”

  1. I always enjoyed the ambiguity of that ending. Any ambiguity at all in fact…its so rare.

  2. Legend is, Oliver Hardy’s famous looks into the camera were deliberately filmed at the end of the day. when Ollie was eager to get to the golf course. As the crew fussed and the sun went down, those looks of exasperation and self-pity became more real.

  3. But they’re not being uncertain Dustin and Katharine; they’re being uncertain Ben and Elaine, if they are any sort of craftspeople at all, which they are. I would always have assumed they were completely in character here, especially given what a massive Methodhead Hoffman was.

  4. What Nichols does here is a trick Warhol had discovered several years earlier: Point the camera directly t the subject, tell them to “do nothing” and they will automatically emote, in spite of themselves.

  5. Chris Schneider Says:

    I like this ending a lot — even though the realization thereof might not’ve been kind to the actors. For me, the discomfort of Ross and Hoffman is like an acting out of Gooch’s line in AUNTIE MAME, “I *lived*! What do I do now?”

  6. Hannah: no no no. The actors were given the scene but understood that it would end on their happy faces. While like true professionals they would never break scene before “cut” is spoken, their uncertainty (according to Buck Henry anyway) is genuine because the scene has failed to end.

    The thing about actors is, if you don’t give them anything to do, they don’t do anything. And Nichols found a way to exploit that for dramatic purposes.

    (Hoffman wasn’t exactly able to be a methodhead here as Nichols directed him to within an inch of his life, essentially making him play the role the way he, Nichols, would have. Hoffman has never been very keen on the film.)

  7. On a commentary or interview somewhere, Mel Brooks says that Hoffman was the original casting for the Nazi playwright in “The Producers”. He was surprised when Hoffman begged off to do “The Graduate”; he knew about the project thanks to Anne Bancroft and couldn’t imagine Hoffman in the part.

    Now it’s probably harder to imagine young Hoffman in a Brooks film.

  8. That would certainly have been interesting! Of course Hoffman was ten years too old for Benjamin and Bancroft ten years too young for Mrs Robinson, which may have helped audiences accept the relationship, at least subconsciously.

    And Gig Young was going to play the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles… Brooks thought casting a real alcoholic would be a great idea, until he experienced half a day’s filming…

  9. What does Buck Henry know? I’m totally with Hannah on this.The Graduate was full of unscripted improvisations, like Hoffman slowly banging his head against a wall. It’s not abuse to keep a camera rolling and see what happens, it’s fun. Sir Ben should lighten up off camera.

  10. Of course who’s to say John McTiernan would have got this face if he’d dropped Rickman on three as promised, and not two? http://www.causticsodapodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2013/05/hans-gruber-fall-1080.jpg

  11. I always hold the shot a few seconds in case anything evolves. But I wouldn’t hold for a minute to watch them squirm… unless there was some strong reason… and I’d think very carefully about it.

    Buck Henry is in the film, he wrote the film, and he knew what went on. I don’t think he sees it as a dirty trick, that’s purely the Kingsely interpretation.

  12. Wouldn’t Brooks have known about The Graduate even before Bancroft? He was already working with Buck Henry on Get Smart from 1965.

  13. True, but who knows how much news they were sharing? Opposite coasts at that point.

    The casting process was fascinating. I forget who was considered for Mrs R but Ben was nearly Robert Redford and they were thinking Doris Day and Ronald Reagan as perfect for his parents. Hoffman’s casting freed up their thinking.

  14. Nichols realised Redford was wrong for Ben when he asked him “Have you ever struck out with a girl?” and Redford didn’t know what he meant, which meant Redford didn’t get the part. Katherine Ross experienced puzzlement and dismay when she saw the miniscule and unkempt Hoffman, initially mistaking him for the tea boy.

    There were hundreds of potential Mrs. Robinsons, including Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner and Jeanne Moreau.

    Apparently Gene Hackman was considered for Mr Robinson – he and Hoffman had been roommates at the Pasadena playhouse.

  15. Ah, it turns out Buck Henry came on board later to revise Calder Willingham’s script so I was probably dead wrong to imagine Brooks had the inside track.

  16. Henry never saw CW’s draft, and started from the novel. So he was appalled when CW demanded and got a screen credit. He would have been involved prior to Bancroft’s casting, I’m sure.

  17. Ah, so it turns out I was wrong about that too! I just won a gift voucher in a quiz, though, so if anyone has any questions about songs that were banned from radio 1 during the first Gulf War, feel free to drop me a line.

    Charles Webb and his wife/unwife, Fred, seem like great people.

  18. A flip on the whole camera-running thing. There was a book on “The Battle of Britain” and the director revealed he’d tell some actors to slowly build to something at the end of a scene, then in editing he’d cut before the end. It was a trick to get overly showy actors to rein it in for the shots he did use.

  19. I recall Boom Bang-a-Bang and Killing an Arab were verboten…

    Chas. Webb DID write a Graduate sequel, didn’t he, or did he only moot it?

    The Battle of Britain idea is brilliant. Olivier is still ropey in it, but he was very ill.

  20. Fair enough – I don’t know much about how actors operate on a film set, I sort of assumed they stayed in character unless told otherwise. But if the uncertainty is real, that may well account for why it’s such a memorable moment. Light breaking of character, if handled well, can be oddly effective. This is why I love animals and babies in films: you know the actors aren’t fully acting when handling them, because part of them is preparing for an unplanned interjection from a creature that doesn’t know it’s in a movie… there’s a beautiful bit with Julia Roberts and a baby in Erin Brokovich that I remember more than anything else she does in the movie. Incidentally, re Mrs Robinson casting, I know (from just reading a biography of her) that Ava Gardner wanted to do Mrs Robinson, and met with Nichols about it…

  21. Actors OUGHT to stay in character until “Cut!”, but if they haven’t been given any sense of where the scene is heading past a certain point… what we get is a blend of the actors’ emotions and the characters’. They may have suspected that this uncertainty was exactly what Nichols wanted to capture (that may be in fact what Hoffman’s grin means) but they aren’t SURE. Sure, Hoffman can improvise, but what is he going to improvise here? It’s THE END OF THE MOVIE!

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