When I think of popular culture that has become kind of a “must experience” touchstone for young men – not boys, but young men – there are two that come to mind: Catcher In The Rye and The Graduate. The latter, written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie tells the story of young Ben Braddock. Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college and, feeling a bit aimless, begins an affair with the older and married Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Eventually the affair ends but Braddock soon finds himself in love with her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross), creating one of cinema’s more memorable uncomfortable romantic situations. Now the movie is getting a new Criterion Collection edition just shy of its 50th anniversary, so I felt it was a good time to revisit the film’s marketing.
The movie’s one-sheet has become a classic of the form for how it conveyed so much of the story in such a seemingly simple image as well as just the overall design sense. The producing credits appear at the top and the title treatment at the bottom along with the acting and directing credits. In the middle is what amounts to a still from the movie, with Hoffman standing in the background looking at a woman’s leg that’s either pulling on or taking off a stocking. Either way, the look on Hoffman’s face conveys a sense of powerlessness and confusion, like he’s not quite sure what to make of the situation happening in front of him. That’s reinforced by the copy off the right that says “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.
There are other versions of this key art but this is the main one and the one that’s become the most iconic. And it’s notable for just how simple and straightforward it is. It’s mostly white space and the only color is in the credits, which heightens the starkness of the emotions that are being conveyed. And Hoffman’s face tells you so much about the character, that he’s kind of clueless and certainly doesn’t have much “go get ’em” attitude that it instantly feels familiar.
Now I said the picture only “amounts to a still” from the movie. That’s because a couple years ago actress Linda Gray made waves for claiming – or revealing – it’s her leg on the poster and not Bancroft’s. That shattered much of the myth around the poster and the movie as a whole by basically saying the marketers pulled a double switch on the audience. Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a nice leg.
Moving on to the trailer, it starts out with the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel, which is quickly interrupted as we join Ben at his graduation party, where he’s being assaulted by one person after another who wants to know what he’s going to do with his life now that he’s done with college. Soon he’s being seduced by Mrs. Robinson and the two are shown in various stages of their romance, almost all of which involve Benjamin being very awkward and not quite knowing what to do with himself. It’s clear, though, that she has all the power. Later on we see he’s actually in love with Elaine, but that relationship isn’t without its troubles either, including the fact that she’s getting married to someone else. The trailer ends with Benjamin barging in on Elaine’s wedding, something no one is very happy with.
It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, why this is such an iconic role for Hoffman and such an iconic movie. The trailer lays out 75% of the movie’s major story beats, from Braddock’s first interaction with Mrs. Robinson through his arrival at Elaine’s wedding. It’s clearly his movie here and he forms the emotional center of the story. Also notable is just how prevalent the various tunes from Simon & Garfunkel are here. They really were a key selling point for the marketing here as their songs are used to underscore the emotions that are on display and provide some grounding for them.
It’s also a long trailer, running about three and a half minutes, a full minute longer than most modern trailers.That allows for a bit more footage to be shared, but the final 45 seconds or so are just the credits, including another prominent placement of Simon & Garfunkel.
What this campaign is selling is mostly uncomfortableness, an uncertainty about life and your place in it. Benjamin isn’t comfortable discussing his future, he’s not comfortable in his relationship with Mrs. Robinson. The only thing we see him actually be assertive about is his love for Elaine. Hoffman plays that perfectly, which is part of why this movie has gone on to become the classic it is.