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
Thursday 21 August 1997
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"
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