Peter Bart: 50 Years Later, ‘The Graduate’ Reminds How Drastically Oscar Campaigning Has Changed

The Graduate
Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

The reviews were strong. Filmgoers in key markets lined up around the block. Enthusiastic media coverage of the $3.2 million dark horse stunned industry veterans. Given this reception, the confrontation between producer and distributor was inevitable: With the Oscars looming, there surely had to be a campaign to support the film’s chances for an award. The response from mogul Joe Levine, whose Embassy Pictures funded the film: “I’m not spending a dime.”

Lawrence Turman, producer of The Graduate, this week recalled the events surrounding the release of his film exactly 50 years ago. His low-budget indie would go on to gross almost $800 million in today’s dollars and win an array of Oscars and Globes (it lost Best Picture to In the Heat of the Night). Its Best Director winner, Mike Nichols, was to go on to a brilliant career in film and theater, as would stars Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman.

All this is a reminder that 50 years ago, while distributors coveted their kudo wins, none anticipated the fervor or the “spend” of the present-day awards circus. There were no grand parties, no rounds of Q&A sessions with stars or filmmakers. There were low-profile lunches and cocktail parties, and studio employees were reminded of their obligation to vote for their home product, but no studio chief would ever have imagined the scope of today’s Netflix initiative, mobilizing a team of almost 20 publicists dedicated to capturing the prize.

“The resources allocated to today’s campaigns is unbelievable,” marvels Turman, who, having produced some 40 movies, is in his 25th year as dean of USC’s widely respected Peter Stark Motion Picture Production Program. “So much is being spent that it’s difficult to gain attention amid the melee.”

Ironically, the movies caught up in the Oscars of 50 years ago arguably were more promote-able than those of the moment. They represented both the energy and dynamic of an emerging “New Hollywood” (embodied in The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde) plus the pace of more conventional fare such as Doctor Dolittle. Their casts, too, were a study in contrast: Hoffman and Warren Beatty competing against Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who starred in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

In The Heat Of The Night
“In The Heat Of The Night” Shutterstock

Hollywood was reluctantly, even clumsily, gearing up for a whole new audience – Midnight Cowboy and The Godfather were on the horizon. Turman discovered these conflicts in booking The Graduate – the prize theaters in Westwood didn’t want his film, forcing it to open in a rundown house near La Brea. Faced with a sharply changing landscape, Oscar voters themselves seemed baffled by their choices. “I could sense a division in the younger constituency, with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde going up against a more middle-of-the-road film like In The Heat of the Night,” Turman recalls.

At that time, he notes, film critics also played a more influential role in voter attitudes. Roger Ebert decreed that The Graduate was “the funniest American comedy of the year,” but Pauline Kael worried about its mixed message on morality. Kael, on the other hand, campaigned vehemently for Bonnie and Clyde, while Bosley Crowther of the New York Times fretted about its violent footage.

The critics of that era tended to treat Hollywood product gently in contrast to those of today: Manohla Dargis of the NYT last week proclaimed the industry and its product to be “creatively and ethically bankrupt.” As one award-winning director (he wanted to remain anonymous) said: “When critics announce up front that they hate you, they’ve surrendered their influence.” Some filmmakers of the 1970s carefully cultivated favored critics, as did Robert Altman with Kael, showing her rough cuts to solicit “her advice.”

Ted Sarandos Netflix
Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Mediapunch/Shutterstock

The incursion of Netflix, Amazon and other new players has been a key factor in increasing the noise level of today’s awards campaigning. The studios see Oscars and Globes as potentially boosting box office returns; to Netflix, awards could motivate stars and filmmakers to embrace streaming as a force in pop culture, weighed against the traditional rewards of theatrical distribution. Awards represent validation to a filmmaker who may harken back to the lines-around-the-block phenomenon of The Graduate.

“The changes in the industry require a restructuring of our attitudes,” observes Turman. His own program at USC once focused on film production, while today more than half his graduates move into television or streaming. To him and other industry veterans, the changes in Oscar rituals reflect a deeper transformation; with the approach of the Academy telecast, for example, the industry in years past looked forward to one symbol of stability: that Bob Hope would preside.

In today’s Hollywood, there’s no hope for Hope.

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