Dustin Hoffman was already set to play a role in Mel BrooksThe Producers (1967) when the opportunity to audition for "The Graduate" came up. Deferentially, Hoffman asked Brooks' permission to audition for the part in the other film. Through his wife, Anne Bancroft, (already cast) Brooks was familiar with the story of "The Graduate". He allowed Hoffman to audition, blithely confident he'd be found unsuitable for role of Mrs. Robinson's lover.
In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft's first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls' breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.
Two interesting camera techniques are used in the film. In the scene where Benjamin is running, he is shown at some distance running straight at the camera, an effect which makes him look as if he getting nowhere as he's running. (This technique is accomplished with a very long telephoto lens, which foreshortens distances in relation to the camera.) In another scene, Benjamin is walking from the right side of the screen to the left, while everyone else in the scene is moving from left to right. In western culture, things that move left to right seem natural (think of the direction you read words on a page), those that move right to left seem to be going the wrong way. These two visual techniques echo the themes of the film, Benjamin is going the wrong way, and getting nowhere in life.
Apparently, Dustin Hoffman's screen test consisted of him fumbling his lines and awkwardly trying to grab Katharine Ross's behind, which angered her. As he left thinking he didn't get the role, his awkwardness was just what director Mike Nichols needed for Benjamin Braddock.
Although Mrs. Robinson is supposed to be much older than Benjamin, Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman are just under six years apart in age. He looked naturally boyish, and she was made up to look older. For the same reason, Bancroft was only 8 years older than her "daughter" Katharine Ross, William Daniels (Mr. Braddock) only 10 years older than his "son" Hoffman.
In the famous promotional still for this film, Dustin Hoffman is seen in the background framed by Mrs. Robinson's shapely leg. The leg in that photo didn't belong to Anne Bancroft, however; it belonged to a then-unknown model, Linda Gray, who later played Mrs. Robinson in a London stage musical of The Graduate.
Robert Redford screen-tested with Candice Bergen for the part of Benjamin Braddock but was finally rejected by director Mike Nichols because Nichols did not believe Redford could persuasively project the underdog qualities necessary to the role. When he told this to Redford, the actor asked Nichols what he meant. "Well, let's put it this way," said Nichols, "Have you ever struck out with a girl?" "What do you mean?" asked Redford. "That's precisely my point," said Nichols. Redford told Nichols that he perfectly understood the character of Benjamin who was a social misfit. He went on and on about his ability to play the part. Nichols finally said to him, "Bob, look in the mirror. Can you honestly imagine a guy like you having difficulty seducing a woman?"
When Elaine tracks down Ben in his gloomy room and he causes her to scream, a number of other tenants gather behind the landlord in the doorway. One says, "Shall I get the cops? I'll get the cops..." It's Richard Dreyfuss in one of his earliest film roles.
The movie's line "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" was voted as the #63 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100), as the #5 of Premiere's "100 Greatest Movie Lines" (2007).
According to Dustin Hoffman at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Graduation 2003, his friend and former roommate Gene Hackman was cast as Mr. Robinson but was fired after a few weeks of work. Mike Nichols decided he was too young for the role. He was actually a year older than Anne Bancroft, who was playing his wife, but for whatever reason it wasn't working. He and Nichols parted ways amiably, and Murray Hamilton took over the part.
Paul Simon wrote two songs for the film that director Mike Nichols rejected: "Punky's Dilemma" and "A Hazy Shade of Winter". Both appear on the Simon and Garfunkel "Bookends" album. The song "Mrs. Robinson" was not written for the movie; it was the working title of a song Simon was then writing (originally called "Mrs. Roosvelt", and about Eleanor Roosevelt) and Nichols decided to include it. Simon and Art Garfunkel only sing the chorus but none of the verses of the later hit song. Additionally, the chorus portion sung contains some lyrics not featured in the more popular "final" version of the song.
Ava Gardner sought the role of Mrs. Robinson, and reportedly called Mike Nichols saying,"I want to see you! I want to talk about this Graduate thing!" Nichols did not seriously consider her for the role (he wanted a younger woman as Bancroft was 36 and Gardner was 45), but did end up visiting her hotel. He later recounted that "she sat at a little French desk with a telephone, she went through every movie star cliché. She said, 'All right, let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.'"
Within a year of the movie's release, plastic manufacturing companies became enormously successful. Many people attribute this to Walter Brooke's quote about "plastics". Brooke himself once told his nephew that he would have invested in plastics, if he had known that the remark would lead to such success.
Mike Nichols realized one reason why he had so much difficulty casting for Benjamin Braddock when he read the Mad Magazine parody of his film. One of the jokes was Benjamin asking his parents why he was Jewish and they were not, and Nichols, who is Jewish himself, realized that his film had a subconsciously autobiographical element about being an ethnic outsider in a privileged WASPish society.
Mike Nichols initially wanted French actress Jeanne Moreau to play Mrs. Robinson. The idea behind this was that in the French culture, the "older" women tended to "train" the younger men in sexual matters. The producers for the movie, Joseph E. Levine and Lawrence Turman, were completely opposed to the idea. Mike Nichols was even more set on having Simon and Garfunkel do the integrated soundtrack for the film. Nichols agreed to switch actresses for Mrs. Robinson as long as he could still use Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
Anne Bancroft loved Mike Nichols' description of Mrs. Robinson as someone who was angry with herself for giving up who she really was for wealth and security, the moment in the book that really captured his interest. When they shot the scene of Mrs. Robinson and Ben discussing art in the hotel room, Bancroft had forgotten Nichols' initial revelation about the character but managed to capture that anger and regret on subsequent takes. Nichols thought this was very important because he really wanted to drive home the point about the character having bargained away her life. "That seems to me the great American danger we're all in, that we'll bargain away the experience of being alive for the appearance of it."
The film takes a different visual approach before and after Ben falls in love with Elaine. According to Mike Nichols, the first part is meant to have a cold, glassy, plastic look, while the romantic scenes were done with long lenses and diffused shots (although he later noted it was time to retire that pictorial style for good).
Dustin Hoffman found it difficult to make the film because he was used to acting on stage. Mike Nichols would tell him what he was doing was good but to try it again without doing anything. Hoffman said he soon adapted to Nichols' minimalist style, which turned out to be just right for his character.
Mike Nichols said that the use of images to suggest Ben is "underwater" and out of his depth in life --e.g., the fish tank, the pool, the scuba outfit--was deliberate, although he didn't care if anyone noted this or not. He also emphasized the use of glass as barriers with people cut off from each other and the life around them.
Mike Nichols said that the scene of Ben's seduction by Mrs. Robinson "was all about him being stalked....We talked about it being a jungle, and it was a jungle. There were all these plants and the Beverly Hills garden behind the glass that surrounded the sun porch. And we talked about her being the tiger in the jungle and she had a tiger-striped dress on and it was all built to be a trap, a tender trap. We wanted to find a way to express the fact that she was being provocative... And there was her leg and it was up and it seemed logical."
Mike Nichols wanted to change the notion of a musical score by using popular songs that didn't necessarily correlate to the scene but set a certain mood. He secured the rights to several previously released Simon & Garfunkel recordings. Paul Simon also wrote one song specifically for the film, "Mrs. Robinson" (although some sources say it was a song he was already working on with the tentative title "Mrs. Roosevelt"). Dave Grusin, who had written music mostly for television shows prior to this, was hired to compose the incidental score for scenes not using Simon and Garfunkel songs.
Sources vary on precisely what the truth is about the possibility of Doris Day playing Mrs. Robinson. One rumor says the property was acquired with her in mind as Mrs. Robinson, and producer Lawrence Turman sent the novel to her manager/husband, Martin Melcher, wanting to know their opinion of Day in the role, but Melcher was so disgusted by the thought that he refused to even mention it to her. Doris Day wrote in her 1975 memoir, which is probably more accurate, that she was actually offered the role, but "I could not see myself rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age whom I'd seduced".
At the AFI tribute to Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman recounted that when he was first called to discuss auditioning for the role of Benjamin, he told Nichols that he thought he was being made fun of a little, considering how "wrong" he seemed for the character described in the source novel. "'It [the book] says he's five-foot-eleven or something, and he's a track star, and he's head of the debating club, and he's from Boston or something, he's a WASP, and I... it feels like this is a dirty trick, sir.' And in his inimitable way, he says, 'You mean, you're Jewish'. And I said, 'Yes'. 'And that's why you don't think you're right.' I said, 'Yes'. And he said, 'Well maybe he's Jewish inside'. And I then got the part, after a screen test."
Cinematographer Robert Surtees was given license to experiment with filming techniques, such as shooting Dustin Hoffman running toward the camera in extreme depth with a telephoto lens. Even though Hoffman is running very fast as his character races to prevent Elaine's marriage to someone else, the effect of the shot is that he is furiously running in place, getting nowhere.
Although Calder Willingham and Buck Henry share screen writing credit, Buck Henry wrote the shooting version of the screenplay without assistance, and Henry was not even aware of Willingham's draft. Henry was the fourth screenwriter asked to try to adapt Charles Webb's novel, however, and Willingham filed a challenge with the Writer's Guild for screen credit after the movie was completed. Because Webb's novel consists of large passages of dialogue, and both writers lifted various lines that appeared in each version, Willingham's challenge was successful.
Mike Nichols and production designer Richard Sylbert talked at length about how to accurately capture the look of middle class Southern California in a unique way and not just what had been seen in movies for 20 years, "like a Doris Day picture." In a later interview, he said, "California is like America in italics, like a parody of everything that's most dangerous to us."
The movie is full of womb imagery. From Benjamin's constant desire to stay immersed in his parent's swimming pool, to the slow close-up shot of the hips of Katherine's roommate as she brings the "Dear John" letter to Benjamin, to returning to the actual womb of the elder and maternal Mrs. Robinson.
Many of the exterior campus shots were actually the University of Southern California in Los Angeles which served as a stand-in for UC Berkeley. Some of the scenes, however, were actually filmed on the Northern California campus and in the town of Berkeley.
Dustin Hoffman was only paid $17,000 to make the film and after taxes and living expenses, he had only $4,000 left. An overnight success in The Graduate, he nevertheless found himself collecting unemployment checks after its release. It wasn't long, however, before he landed his next major feature role, Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969), a part Mike Nichols warned him not to take for fear it would ruin his image and emerging career.
Dustin Hoffman was told before his test that all the other actors who tested had agreed to a six-picture contract, but he refused, telling his agent he would rather do it for free and not be obligated to appear in pictures he didn't like. He ended up getting paid $17,000 without further contracted films.
Mike Nichols said he felt bad for the gentle and very shy Dustin Hoffman, who became an instant celebrity after the film, because he would see his great discomfort and reticence while being interviewed on television. "He seemed exactly like the boy in the picture."
As of 2016, it remains the last time a film won the Best Director Oscar without winning any other category. Usually, the Best Director award goes either two ways: winning along with the Best Picture or winning without Best Picture but taking other categories along. Mike Nichols was the only person to win an Oscar (the movie received six other nominations) for his work in this movie.
Mike Nichols said what convinced him he wanted to make the film was one moment in the book, when Ben and Mrs. Robinson are trying to have a conversation and she is reluctant to discuss art. We find out shortly after that art was her major in college, where she met her husband and became pregnant. "That tiny moment allowed me to see a Mrs. Robinson I knew very wella woman who had been one kind of person and had consciously moved away from what she was into something for which she had contempt, a woman who had a very low opinion of herself, who was now almost parodying herself out of anger with herself for having left who she had been," Nichols told Leonard Probst in an interview for the book Off Camera.
Dustin Hoffman said his test for the role of Ben was a disaster but that Mike Nichols saw something in him that was right for the movie. "Panic, maybe?" Nichols said Hoffman was chosen because he had a face that suggested suffering. Hoffman was sure he was wrong for the role, however, because after reading the book he found Ben to be "a young, conventional, square-jawed Time magazine Man of the Year type."
Mike Nichols said he tested a number of actors who were the actual age of the character, but he chose 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman because he had enough distance from his early 20s to have an attitude about that period in his life and "get rid of that self-pity."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
On Inside the Actors Studio (1994), director Mike Nichols claims that the final "sobering" emotion that Benjamin and Elaine go through was due to the fact that he had just been shouting at the two of them to laugh in the scene. The actors were so scared that after laughing they stopped, scared. Nichols liked it so much, he kept it.
When Benjamin is shown banging on the church window with his arms raised and extended, many reviewers felt he was portrayed as a Christ-like image. In actuality, this was a compromise with the minister of the church. The minister had threatened to throw everyone out when the scene was rehearsed with Benjamin pounding his fists on the fragile window, which had been a gift to the church.
Mike Nichols often remarked about how Ben and Elaine in the final scene looked frightened and confused after their initial elation over escaping on the bus. Yet during an appearance on Inside the Actors Studio (1994), he said the looks on their faces were due to being nervous and scared after he shouted at them to laugh during the scene. He liked it so much, he decided to keep the cameras rolling and cut it into the final movie.
When the film was first released in Portugal, it was cut to end with Ben behind the glass at the church, watching Elaine get married. The ruling military regime at the time did this to preserve Catholic doctrine and to let no suggestion pass that church, state, and parents could be opposed.