Friday, November 30, 2018

And Here's to YOU, UC Berkeley . . .

I’m recently back from Berkeley, California, where (in the wake of the horrendous fires that destroyed the town of Paradise) students were walking around the famous University of California campus wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from breathing dirty air. How times have changed! When I was of college age, student-activist types didn’t seem to be worrying about the wear and tear on their bodies as they let themselves be dragged through the streets in anti-Vietnam protests. And I well remember one scruffy young woman boasting that she was newly able to stomp out cigarettes with her bare feet.

I’m by no means making fun of the Camp Fire and its victims (nor of student activists, for that matter). I’m just waxing philosophical about the thought that colleges and movies don’t always mix. Actually, I was in Berkeley at the invitation of Virginia Williams of the newly re-named  Graduate Hotel (formerly the Durant). Berkeley has a featured role in The Graduate (it’s where Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock goes in pursuit of his dream girl, played by Katharine Ross). And so I was asked to speak on The Graduate in the comfy hotel lobby, after which the film would be screened. The best laid plans of mice and men . . . .  Because of the smoky skies, the Big Game between Cal and Stanford was cancelled, and expected hotel occupancy dropped from 80% to 30% for the weekend. So I delivered my talk to two bartenders and a small handful of attentive guests.

The production team of The Graduate was equally disappointed when they appealed to the university’s chancellor for permission to film on campus. Trying to be persuasive, they got a studio executive who was active in the Berkeley alumni organization to plead their case. He thought a reference to the bad publicity generated by the raucous campus Free Speech Movement of 1964-65 would do the trick, suggesting in his letter that “the intended beauty of color photography would place the University in a better light contrasted with the hours of newsreels recording only Sather Gate Plaza. Berkeley would appear as the stable, respectable, educational community it is.” This appeal didn’t work, and so the filmmakers were forced to get creative. That’s why (with one very small exception) the campus scenes in The Graduate were all shot at a rival school, the University of Southern California.

Which is not to say that Berkeley doesn’t appear in The Graduate. Hoffman was filmed roaming Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue, spying Elaine emerging from the legendary Moe’s Books, and rushing up the steps of an ivy-covered Berkeley frat house. There was even a covert (or, in movie parlance, “stolen”) shot of Katharine Ross, as Elaine Robinson, sauntering across the campus’s Sproul Plaza.

Though The Graduate was filmed in the spring and summer of 1967, the film contains barely a single glimpse of the sartorial style—or the political angst—we associate with the late Sixties. Only a young couple emerging from a Telegraph Avenue jewelry store (he with bushy hair and sideburns, she in miniskirt, floppy hat, and carrying a small baby), seem part of the hang-loose generation I associate with college life circa 1967. Katharine Ross would later marvel at the ironic fact that, while filming a novel published in 1963, “we were still in the fifties mentality.” At the very time that cast and crew were shooting in Berkeley, said Ross, “the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco, and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”

              This post is for Virginia Williams of the Graduate Hotel as well as Bel McNeill, bookseller extraordinaire at Bel and Bunna’s of Lafayette, California. We sure had fun, didn't we?

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