Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Graduate Returns to Berkeley

I’m just back from Berkeley, California, where the spirit of the Sixties lives on. Or at least tries to. Though I didn’t see any real live hippies, the campus of the University of California was full of chalked messages advertising a student protest. And in the recent election, voters apparently defeated (though narrowly) a measure that would make it a crime to sit or lie on sidewalks in Berkeley’s commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Telegraph Avenue would never be the same without its laidback legions of scruffy sidewalk loungers.)

But I really thought about the Sixties when I stepped into my hotel, the venerable Durant. Years ago, the Durant was known for muted elegance. These days, however, it tries to induce nostalgia in its patrons by decorating in a style we might call “Sixties Revival.” The Durant’s lobby is graced by an odd chandelier that looks to be constructed out of old exam bluebooks. One wall features photos of student activist types. Across the corridor there’s a display of protest buttons, as well as a case containing a burned bra.

Upstairs, the theme continues. My room key-card bore an ID picture of a dude with an Afro. A room service menu suggested goodies that might be of interest “if you have the munchies.” The Do Not Disturb sign looked like an athletic sock, the kind you might hang on your doorknob to warn your roommate of romantic activity in progress. Bedside light fixtures vaguely resembled lava lamps. I was charmed by the black-and-white photo in the bathroom, of two long-haired young streakers who’ve just exuberantly flung off all their clothes for a romp in the woods.

In every one of the Durant’s guest rooms there’s a full-sized poster of a woman’s shapely leg, behind which stands a young man in a sports jacket, looking vaguely perplexed. The wording of course reads “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.” It’s a reminder that –- even though its characters seem to have chosen their wardrobes in the JFK era –- The Graduate rocked moviegoers in 1967 because it captured the angst of young Baby Boomers on the brink of entering the adult world.

It’s wholly apt that the Durant uses The Graduate to represent Berkeley in the Sixties. After Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock suffers through the stifling pretensions of nouveau-riche Beverly Hills, he finds personal liberation when he hops into his sports car and heads for Berkeley(famously going the wrong way on the Bay Bridge) to persuade Elaine Robinson to marry him. Director Mike Nichols did take his cast up north for some atmospheric shots along Telegraph Avenue. But permission to film on the UC Berkeley campus was denied, which is why the only genuine glimpse of the campus (a brief moment showing Elaine walking with friends near the famous Sather Gate) was shot guerrilla-style. Meanwhile, back in L.A., the University of Southern California stood in for UC Berkeley in several key scenes. The poignant sequence of time elapsing as Ben sits sadly by a campus fountain were shot in front of USC’s Doheny Library, as any Trojan would be happy to point out.

Though The Graduate so effectively embodies the spirit of the late Sixties, it contains neither hippies nor references to the Vietnam War. Years later, Katharine Ross acknowledged that while making The Graduate, “We were sort of still in the Fifties mentality.” It was only while the film was in production that “the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco, and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”


  1. Interesting -- I never thought about the fact that The Graduate, while embodying a lot of the mindset of youths in the sixties, doesn't incorporate anything about hippies. Definitely a lot of the interior decor, etc. looks late fifties, now that I think about it.

  2. Actually, The Graduate was meant to reflect the year of the novel it's based on, which was published in 1963. In point of fact, a young man in 1967 could never have been as aimless as Ben, for the simple reason that he would have been subject to the draft. Some young people loudly faulted the film for that reason. But many feel that The Graduate lives on partly because it's NOT really so very era-specific.

  3. It's been a while since I've seen The Graduate - but I certainly didn't look at it with an eye to its style or sensibilities - but that it was evocative of a late 50's era while being ostensibly set in the early 60's makes sense. I think I need to see the movie again now - and it's bound to have a different impact since I was roughly Benjamin's age (a little younger, actuallY) when I first saw it.

    I love your description of the Durant - was the overall effect fun, or does it come off forced and cheesy?

  4. I enjoyed it (and appreciated how much material it gave me for a blog post!), but the overall effect was a tiny bit weird.

  5. I thought the hotel was quite comfortable and the faux-college touches were silly but fairly easy to ignore (another was that the guest info folder in the room was made to look like a composition book). Also, the Graduate poster and streakers were the decor in all the rooms, it would've been better if they'd mixed things up a bit.

    The only time things went off the rails a bit was when the Durant (as we were repeatedly warned) went nuts Saturday night during a Berkeley home game. Even that was easy to ignore with my door and window closed, but the following morning, with the hotel overfull, any attempt to use my in-room coffee maker shorted out half the circuits in my room, and apparently the whole hotel.

    As to the movie itself, I remember watching it in my own early 20s (which would have been the early 80s) and thinking that it was trying to tell me...something...but I couldn't quite get it. But times had changed very dramatically by then.

  6. Thanks for writing, Minda. What intrigued me at the Durant was how the very serious passions of the Sixties were transformed via the hotel's decor into fun and games. Also, the fact that a Berkeley crowd was so excited about a football game shows the extent to which times have changed. In 1967, I suspect there would never have been this kind of big-game hoopla at Cal, though I may be wrong.

    Regarding The Graduate, I've come to view it as something of a Rohrschach test, with everyone both then and now seeing it in the light of very personal issues. For me it's about learning to defy your parents' expectations, but I've had great conversations with women who've focused on Mrs. Robinson and the tragedy of being a bored housewife. I've discovered there are all sorts of other points of identification too (for some guys it's certainly about sexual liberation!), but I'll stop here, and maybe write more at a future date.

  7. Oops -- misspelled Rorschach, one of those annoyingly tough words that always stumps me. Sorry about that.

  8. You captured it beautifully, Beverly. I love how the hotel didn't take itself too seriously while working to connect with Berkeley's college-town, war-protesting, bra-burning image.

    Sandy Beckwith

  9. I think Sixties radicals -- those who still keep the torch burning -- would have something colorful to say about the way the hotel is trading on the vibes of their era! Thanks for writing, Sandy!