Tuesday, June 5, 2018

“The Graduate” Rides Again at the Theatre at Ace Hotel

In 1927, Americans loved movies and radio. Last Saturday night, in an L.A. movie palace built in 1927, those two forms of entertainment were gloriously combined. Public Radio Station KPCC-FM (based in Pasadena, California) likes to amuse and enlighten its supporters at live events. Long-time AirTalk host Larry Mantle, a serious movie enthusiast, has recently been staging screenings of classic films with SoCal settings. This past weekend, just in time for the end of the school year, he offered 1967’s The Graduate. Afterwards, I was honored to appear as a panelist, along with veteran film critic Peter Rainer and two of the film’s invaluable behind-the-scenes contributors, producer Lawrence Turman and screenwriter Buck Henry. (As all fans of The Graduate know, Buck is also featured as a hotel desk clerk with a carnation in his buttonhole and the faintest of sneers on his face.)

For me, just walking under the theatre’s old-fashioned marquee was a treat. The United Artists, with 1600 seats, was not the biggest of the movie palaces that once lined Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. But in its day it may have been the most elegant. This theatre, the pride of the United Artists cinema chain, was built to showcase the output of the film studio founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin. Pickford, a savvy businesswoman as well as a matchless movie star, oversaw its construction with tender loving care. Its flamboyant style is Spanish Gothic, patterned after the cathedral in Segovia, Spain. While other opulent movie houses grew shabby over time, the UA was saved by coming into the hands of a megachurch that strove to keep it in pristine condition. Since 2014, it has been open for public events, as part of the über-hip Ace Hotel.

At Saturday night’s screening, some 1100 moviegoers laughed and cheered, then listened intently to what we panelists had to say. Producer Larry Turman explained how he found Charles Webb’s novel, put up his own money to option it, and got the bright idea of inviting Mike Nichols to direct his first movie. Buck Henry, physically weakened by a stroke but still game and funny, reminisced about working on the screenplay with Nichols, after an earlier writer had come and gone. Larry and Buck agreed that as young filmmakers they strongly identified with The Graduate’s leading man, though of course neither had ever quite found himself in Benjamin Braddock’s unusual romantic predicament.

It fell to Peter Rainer and me to put The Graduate into historic context. Drawing from my book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, as well as my memories of seeing this film while a college senior, I pointed out that The Graduate—though never touching on such hot-button 1967 issues as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War—was hailed in that era for grasping the anxiety of being young at a time of enormous social upheaval. I also chimed in on a discussion of why the casting of the short, dark, “ethnic” Dustin Hoffman rocked Hollywood. Peter introduced the legendary story of Robert Redford not getting the role after Mike Nichols asked him, “When was the last time you struck out with a girl?” (Supposedly, the handsome young Redford answered, genuinely baffled, “What do you mean?”)  Part of the fun was hearing Larry Turman set the record straight, pointing out that he was the one who convinced Nichols that Redford was just too suave to be funny in the part.

All of us panelists are much older now than we were in 1967, but happily The Graduate hasn’t aged a bit.

Heartfelt thanks to Larry Mantle, the KPCC staff, and my fellow panelists for a great evening of movie magic.

The Theatre at Ace Hotel in all its glory

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