Twice, in Mike Nichols’s motion picture, The Graduate, its young and fashionably unheroic central character, Benjamin, is shown driving to Berkeley across the familiar, still magnificent Bay Bridge. As most readers will know by now Benjamin, who has just graduated from an Eastern college, lives in one of the more expensive neighborhoods of the Los Angeles area; and the transition to Northern California is treated in the film as if it were a passage from a region of unalloyed cruelty and egocentric sham to one of ambiguous but decisively human beauty. Northern California is shown as more real even though not always nice—a little like Paris in old René Clair movies. Accordingly, Benjamin soars toward Berkeley on the upper deck of the bridge in his graduation present: a little red sports car, gay and promising against the superb blue sky and the distant skyline.
Unfortunately for Mr. Nichols’s purposes each deck of the Bay Bridge is one-way; and, in fact, traffic to Berkeley travels on the prosaic lower deck from which no picturesque view is possible. They don’t close the Bay Bridge to facilitate such Southern Californian activities as movie-making. The distant, alluring skyline Benjamin is driving toward proves, on scrutiny, to be not that of the East Bay but the industrial skyline of San Francisco south of the bridge—the familiar landmarks like Telegraph Hill and Alcatraz that might have given the trick away are all north of it and out of sight. Benjamin, of course, is presented throughout the movie as a disoriented youth with confused goals, and it would be quite in character for him to try to drive to Berkeley on the top deck; after the initial shock I thought this was going to turn out to be the point and prepared myself for a Keystone-type chase. But no, this is just a bit of artistic license for the sake of the scenery. Benjamin has no trouble on the bridge; it is about the only place in the whole film where he knows how to handle himself. He gets to Berkeley both times, though he has trouble enough there.
In a more obviously conventional picture this little gimmick would not be worth mentioning, and would in any case be well within the director’s rights as a way of establishing place, mood, and atmosphere. But from the very beginning The Graduate is cutely literal and pseudo-documentary. The picture opens with a scene in the coach-cabin of a westbound jet in which the Captain is announcing, in the conventional liturgy, that the aircraft is beginning its descent into the Los Angeles area. Then the idiosyncratic details are thrust on the viewer: as the credits are shown, Benjamin rides through the tunnel on an underground sidewalk linking the satellites where aircraft land in Los Angeles to the central baggage area—a feature, fortunately, shared by no other airport. There is a closeup of the baggage tag LAX; and when he finally comes out of …