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Say It Ain’t So, Mrs. Robinson 

The secrets behind The Graduate’s un-sequel

Thursday, Jun 24 2004
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Imagine you’re flying first class on Air France from Los Angeles to Paris, and seated next to you is an impossibly handsome stranger. You find out he’s a successful screenwriter, of that unique sort who looks as if his film career came effortlessly. You exchange small talk. Then big talk. Then, somewhere over the Atlantic as you both feel full from a too-grand gourmet meal and ready to snooze in your sleeper seats, you ask about the screenwriter’s next project. He begins to describe what is the single worst idea for a movie you’ve ever heard. You nod enthusiastically and say it sounds like a winner. But you leave the plane thinking: Poor bastard, that script is never, ever, going to be made into a motion picture.

Some time passes and you pick up Variety. That’s when you learn that not only has the movie been green-lighted, not only is it being directed by Ted Griffin, the screenwriter from the plane, not only is it being produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, but it’s going to star Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner and Shirley MacLaine.

And that’s when you know: Either you’re crazy or Hollywood is.

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Next month, filming begins on what is certain to be one of the most controversial films ever: a sort-of un-sequel to the seminal classic The Graduate. None of the players in the previous film are back: not Dustin Hoffman, not Anne Bancroft, not Katharine Ross, not Mike Nichols, not Buck Henry. It all sounds as blasphemous as a sequel to Casablanca. The end result could be like that suckfest The Sting II, in which different actors played the characters from the original. (Replacing Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw were Jackie Gleason, Mac Davis and Oliver Reed, respectively.)

And, since Jesus loves us more than we can know and heaven holds a place for those that pray (hey, hey, hey), you offer up a whisper asking Him (or at least his messenger Mel Gibson) to stop this sequel sin. For a moment, it seems you’ve been heard: Rumors are rampant that Jen is pregnant and pulling out of the project. But then there are denials. The movie’s still on.

“I would say this was inevitable,” Buck Henry, co-writer of the original with Calder Willingham, tells L.A. Weekly. “I can’t criticize something I haven’t read or seen.” But, once he hears about the cast and concept, there is silence — until he deadpans: “That’s not my idea of a good time. Would you really go to see this movie? I don’t understand where the impulse comes from. It seems like a silly inside joke.”

When you finally get Griffin on the phone, he is reluctant to say anything because Warner Bros. has jumped up and down and doesn’t want him to talk to journalists. But you remind him that you two spent the night together on Air France.

The screenwriter of two quiet flops before he hit the big-time with that Ocean’s Eleven remake in 2001 (a.k.a. Cliché’s Eleven), Griffin felt comfortable enough with director Soderbergh and star Clooney to pitch the producing duo his idea for an un-sequel to The Graduate. The 1967 film had been his obsession because of its long-rumored secret — that Charles Webb’s first novel, on which the movie was based, was actually a roman à clef about fellow Pasadenans, specifically a mother-daughter-boyfriend triangle.

“I can’t remember when I first heard it,” Griffin, who also penned Matchstick Men, tells L.A. Weekly, “but I remember I grew up watching the movie and hearing sometime in my teen years that it was based on a real tryst between somebody and somebody’s mother at the Huntington Hotel.” A Pasadena native who grew up on what he laughingly refers to as the rough and tough streets near Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, a coupla blocks off mansion lane, Griffin was understandably drawn to the novel and movie about people who grew up just like he did.

Many have speculated that the book grew out of Webb’s own Pasadena upbringing. Written when he was 23, the novel focuses on Benjamin Braddock, as much a child of privilege as Webb, a rich doctor’s son. Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and Benjamin’s sweetheart, evokes Eve Rudd, Webb’s girl back then — she is now legally known as Fred — and who is, bizarrely, Webb’s live-in ex-wife. (Don’t ask. It would eat up volumes of hippie-dippieness by the couple, who now live in England.) Eve’s mother tried to separate Eve from Webb, just like Mrs. Robinson. But Webb has long denied that Mrs. Rudd ever tried to seduce him.

No matter the catalyst, Griffin got wondering, “What if . . . ,” and started plotting a screenplay.

Though his still untitled movie is being tagged a sequel to The Graduate, Griffin claims that’s a bum rap. “It’s not a sequel. It’s the story of people who inspired the characters in the movie but not about the characters in the movie.”

L.A. Weekly obtained the hush-hush Griffin screenplay and, while it’s engaging in some places and poignant in others, there is no denying this is a gender-reversal movie premised on a fictional reality about a movie, as confusing as that sounds. It’s much more than just an homage.

For one thing, the music and lyrics — “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” — from the Simon & Garfunkel song are woven in and out of many dramatic sequences. There’s even a plot denouement based on that line “You’ve got to hide it from the kids.”

For another, MacLaine plays an elderly Mrs. Robinson who decades ago had an affair with not Benjamin Braddock but Beau Burroughs (the same “BB” initials), portrayed by Costner. Burroughs was also bedding the MacLaine character’s daughter, who is now dead of lupus. Unlike The Graduate and that famous scene of Braddock pounding on the glass yelling, “Elaine! Elaine!,” in Griffin’s movie the Katharine Ross character went ahead with the original wedding. The script’s contemporary action revolves around MacLaine’s granddaughter Sarah, played by Aniston. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to know what happens.) Sarah winds up having an affair not just with Burroughs but also with Burroughs’ son. So, the intergenerational angst of The Graduate is not just repeated but also turned inside out.

It’s a far cry from that infamous cameo in Robert Altman’s The Player where Buck Henry is hilariously pitching a Graduate sequel: ‘‘Okay, here it is: The Graduate, Part II! Ben and Elaine are married still, living in a big old spooky house in Northern California somewhere. Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She’s had a stroke. And they’ve got a daughter in college — Julia Roberts, maybe. It’ll be dark and weird and funny — with a stroke.’’ Later, on college campuses and at film festivals, Henry explained that he did the cameo primarily so no one would ever think of doing the sequel.

“It’s meant to be off-putting,” Henry tells L.A. Weekly. “But about 10 minutes after the first screening of The Player, some executive I didn’t know approached me, introduced himself and said, ‘I know it was a joke. But let’s talk seriously about it.’”

Everyone connected with The Graduate has been approached like that “many, many times,” Henry notes. “Dustin wanted to do the sequel. It comes up all the time, and I’ve done everything I could do to stop it. Because I think it’s bad karma. It’s cheating.”

Interestingly, Webb, now a recluse and in need of money, is reportedly considering writing a sequel to his first novel.

There’s an old adage in Hollywood power circles that if you’re going to remake or update a movie from the library, avoid the great films and look at the bad ones. Why? Because the conventional wisdom is that you can’t improve on great films, but there must have been a good enough idea in the bad ones for the studio to want to make them in the first place.

But a sequel to this film? As the song said, “Ev’ry way you look at it you lose.”

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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