Director Mike Nichols captivated film buffs

Director Mike Nichols, right, died on Wednesday in New York. He is seen in this photo with Richard Paradise on stage at the M.V. Film Center this past summer. — File photo by Tony Omer

Audience members at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s sold-out screening of The Graduate on Saturday night knew they were in for a retro delight as the 1967 film opened with then-unknown actor Dustin Hoffman playing the vaguely discontented college graduate Benjamin Braddock flying home with The Sound of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel’s signature folk rock hit, setting the just the right tone in the soundtrack.

But the highlight of the evening, a collaboration of the M.V. Film Society and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, was the appearance of Mike Nichols, the film’s 82-year-young director, for a post-movie question-and-answer session moderated by the Film Society’s founder and director Richard Paradise.

Mr. Nichols, one of the few entertainment industry professionals whose stage, screen, and television work has won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards, along with the National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors, and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of The Graduate, the highest grossing film of 1967 and one of the top earners in history to that date.

Responding to queries from the audience, he discussed the film’s popularity, theme, casting, soundtrack, collaboration with screenwriter Buck Henry, ambiguous ending, use of elaborate detail and metaphor. With wit and wisdom, Mr. Nichols dispelled the myth that Doris Day was a candidate for the role of the seductive older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But he also related a humorous anecdote about being summoned to New York City’s Regency Hotel to discuss the same part with then 44-year-old screen siren Ava Gardner.

“Why wouldn’t I go?” he quipped. According to the director, Ms. Gardner then informed him that she never took her clothes off for anyone and that she couldn’t really act. He assured her that she was marvelous and left shortly thereafter. “We never saw each other again,” he said.

As for the selection of Mr. Hoffman for the part of Benjamin, whose sense of anxiety and alienation from his affluent parents’ southern California lifestyle suffuses the film, Mr. Nichols offered: “We saw over 100 young guys, but Dustin had that thing — like Elizabeth Taylor — they get better on film. He’s a wonderful movie actor, beautiful but plain.” He said that he’d been largely unfamiliar with Mr. Hoffman’s work, deciding to offer him a screen test solely on the basis of having seen him in an off-Broadway play in which the actor had portrayed “a transvestite Russian fishwife.”

“She’s the dream,” Mr. Nichols said, describing the choice of the radiant Katharine Ross as Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s innocent daughter. Like Mr. Hoffman, Ms. Ross was one of scores of young women who sought the role. “She walked in wearing the rain jacket she wore in the film and I said, ‘She’s the one.’”

As for the sultry, husky-voiced Anne Bancroft, the director maintained that there had never been another choice for the world-weary, manipulative, and predatory Mrs. Robinson. “It was always Annie,” he said simply. “She was brilliant.” He compared her character to that of the devil or heroin, suggesting that she was “all the things that arouse the senses and give you hours of joy and kill you slowly.”

Characterizing the plot of The Graduate as a retelling of the Hippolytus and Phaedra myth of the younger man/older woman, Mr. Nichols said it took him 48 years to recognize its origin. “That’s why it’s such a popular theme,” he said. “It’s an old story but it always comes back.”

Simon & Garfunkel’s quintessential songs, The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, and Mrs. Robinson comprised the soundtrack, along with jazz musician and composer Dave Grusin’s instrumental tracks. Mr. Nichols explained that he had spent hours listening to Simon & Garfunkel as he conceived the film, realizing suddenly and accidentally that, “It was the score.”

“We put the music in and it fit to the frame,” he said. “It changed everything. It means that you’re young. It happens once or twice and then it doesn’t happen again.”

But happening again is what Mr. Paradise and Mr. Nichols promised the audience for next summer. “We’d love to have you come back to spend an evening with us,” Mr. Paradise said. Mr. Nichols nodded in agreement, offering film patrons another opportunity for an intimate event with one of the Island’s most cherished talents.