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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.