More bangs for your Buck: Edinburgh Festival 97

Buck Henry's script for `The Graduate' captured the spirit of the age. But don't pitch him ideas for a sequel. By Liese Spencer

In Robert Altman's Hollywood satire The Player there's a scene where a writer pitches a sequel to The Graduate: The Graduate II - Mrs Robinson moves in with the now married Ben and Elaine. It's a good gag, made far funnier by the fact that the man doing the pitching is Buck Henry, the screenwriter of the original movie. "I improvised that scene to try to stop anyone from trying to bring up the subject again," says Henry. "People have been talking about a sequel to The Graduate for years. It's ludicrous but it comes up all the time. It's even come up among some of the film's major players, I'm sorry to say." The scene was greeted with a big laugh during the premiere, but outside in the lobby Henry was ambushed by a producer eager to develop the project. No matter how hard Henry tries to lay The Graduate to rest it keeps bouncing back. It's status as an icon is so firmly established, it's even had a homage on The Simpsons.

Sitting in Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel, Henry's pale leisurewear and peaked cap whisper "golfer". He looks remarkably like Jack Lemmon. At least the way Lemmon might look if he'd had a bag of clubs dropped on him from a great height. At 67 years old he's had a varied and successful career, directing with Warren Beatty, acting in films by Milos Forman and Cassevetes, even achieving infamy in the 1950s with his hoax Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. Yet it's for The Graduate that Henry will always be remembered. To say that he is weary of talking about the film is a bit like saying Mrs Robinson wasn't very maternal. He claims not to have read either Charles Webb's original novel or his own script for more than 30 years and can't remember much about the adaptation apart from the fact it was "one of the easiest" he's ever done. The movie's most famous line, "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs Robinson?" came, he says, straight from the book.

William Goldman once wrote that "in any screenplay the make or break work is done before the writing actually begins". For Henry, that process of assimilation started earlier than most. Born in New York in 1930, his mother was Ruth Taylor, who starred in the original 1928 version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, his father an Air Force General. His childhood was spent commuting between New York and LA: on the East Coast, the young Buck rubbed shoulders with Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman, on the West with Bogart. Parents of his schoolfriends resided at Hollywood's famous hotel, The Garden of Allah: a monument to the transience of Hollywood, like something out of Barton Fink ("I don't know how the Coens did it but they hit the nail on the head," marvels Henry), where writers and stars would stay overnight or live for years, drinking themselves to death.

"Now it's a mini mall," says Henry ruefully, "but then it was this great place filled with oddball characters." Henry grew up listening to their conversation. Although he didn't understand much he absorbed how different classes of people talked, picked up different rhythms of speech. He gained an ear for dialogue that would later make him one of the best screenwriters of his generation. "I saw how silly and funny and trivial these stars could be," says Henry, "but I also remember thinking, `Gee, this is a good way to live.' These people are not responsible for anything except their own talents and their own vices."

Henry made his own acting debut at 14 but soon found greater satisfaction and success as a writer. And in 1966, with a number of TV series under his belt, he began his first draft of the movie that would definitively capture the disaffection and dislocation of youth on the brink of the Sixties revolution.

"Webb's book had a very distinctive style," says Henry, "and it wasn't hard to improvise on it." Still, he had no idea how his script would translate to the screen and casting proved crucial. How different things might have been if the part of Benjamin had not gone to the unknown Hoffman but to Robert Redford, the actor originally ear-marked for the role.

"I pictured the Braddocks as high California dumb," says Henry, "a typical southern California Wasp family of Ronald Reagan and Doris Day, Candy Bergen and Bob Redford. Then Dustin did his screen test and wiped out the competition. He looked so uncomfortable that he fitted the character of Ben perfectly." Since "Ronnie and Doris couldn't have had Dustin without some kind of scientific intervention" the rest of the casting was freed up to include Anne Bancroft as Benjamin's heartless seducer. "It's amazing that she did it," says Henry. "All her friends were telling her, `You can't take that part, she's a monster!'" As important as the casting were the subtle changes Henry and the director, Mike Nichols, made to the original story. A tweak to the ending hammered home how the younger generation were rejecting the corrupt, conventional morality of their elders. "In the book, Benjamin gets to the church before the wedding is consummated," says Henry, "but that was too much like the cavalry coming to the rescue. We decided it would be more interesting if he didn't get there on time. Charles Webb was unhappy about that because he thought it was an immoral act." Happily, Nichols stuck with it, his "immorality" marking a new brand of sophisticated screen comedy.

One to one Henry is polite, thoughtful, cool. So it's something of a revelation to see him later in the day being interviewed about The Graduate in front of hundreds of people at the Film Festival. He walks on stage and pretends to take off his trousers. He cracks gags. He stonewalls the interviewer to great comic effect. It's a good performance and a reminder that the author of hits such as What's Up Doc?, Catch 22 and To Die For is also an accomplished actor. Disguised behind Malcolm-X specs he's the concierge in The Graduate, and has since appeared in several of his own movies. He swears he didn't write the parts for himself, but ended up with them after his voice "became lodged in the part" during read-throughs.

During his festival appearance, Henry shows the montage of Ben's affair with Mrs Robinson to illustrate one of the hardest things about screenwriting: compression. "It may be a sentence in the book but it can take days to capture that mood on film." The clip he's chosen shows Ben killing time, and that's exactly his job as a screenwriter. "It's basically the discipline of having to get all your great ideas into 120 pages or less."

Great swathes of dialogue were cut from Henry's script for To Die For, a movie that offered Henry a rare chance to be inarticulate. "I enjoy writing dialogue for characters who can't express what they're thinking," he says. Although To Die For shows another America to The Graduate, both films illustrate Henry's attraction towards an elliptical style. "What's interesting about Benjamin is that he's aware that no one's actually addressing the thing they're pretending to be talking about. He's aware of it and it makes him crazy."

Inevitably, we're back to The Graduate. A film that articulated alienation so entertainingly that Henry is probably doomed to have people pitching him sequels forever. "There's this lunatic kid in New York," he smiles, "who approached me with a script that he'd written. He felt The Graduate had been stolen from his life, so he'd written this treatment in which he and his girlfriend go to see The Graduate at the beginning of the film. But then his script just replayed every single scene with them in it. I mean they were exactly the same. He'd even reproduced the dialogue word for word. So I'd be walking along Seventh Avenue and this guy would fall in step with me and I'd try to explain. I'd say, `Look we made that film already.' But he didn't understand. It was loony but wonderful, in a Borges kind of way"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape