How The Graduate ruined Mrs Robinson: Tracy-Ann Oberman’s radio play reveals the film’s back story

The former EastEnders actress is fascinated by the iconic cougar, but the thought of her own young Ben Braddock leaves her cold...

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Is Tracy-Ann Oberman a household name? That depends on the household. To millions, she will be known as classic soap bitch Chrissie Watts from EastEnders (below). To West End theatre-goers, she stands out for her brilliant comic timing in plays such as Loot. To radioheads, she’s the familiar voice from more than 600 (yes, 600) radio plays, comedies and sketch shows since 1995. Oberman’s next role is similarly surprising as she takes on one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic dames, namely Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson from Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate. In a radio drama. Written by none other than Oberman herself. How can we categorise her?

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Don’t try, says Oberman, 48, as she prepares to be photographed as the woman she calls “the first cougar”. This is the third radio play she has written, in what she refers to as her Hollywood Tales trilogy. The first (in which she co-starred with Catherine Tate) dealt with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford getting old, the second with Rock Hudson admitting he was gay on a Doris Day petcare show – and now this third unpicks the history behind The Graduate: how it was made, and how it both created and – as Oberman would have it – destroyed Mrs Robinson.

“I have always had a theory about The Graduate. It made all these young men – Mike Nichols, the director [who won the best director Oscar for it], and Dustin Hoffman – and yet the iconic, standout performance is by Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson,” says Oberman.

“She never bettered it, and yet it killed her career. She brought a quality to the part that was so world-weary and knowing about being a woman and having it all behind her, and missing out on the birth of feminism, that I don’t think anyone could see beyond it.” 

The Graduate also fascinates her because she says it was the first film in Hollywood to champion the outsider. “Dustin Hoffman would never have got a foot through the door otherwise. All these Jewish-run companies in Hollywood, they didn’t like Jewish-looking talent on screen. Basically, you got your nose fixed and your hair dyed. But Mike Nichols auditioned everybody, all these Robert Redford and Paul Newman types, and said, ‘No, there is something outsider about this role.’ Nichols made it into a story about being an ethnic oddball.

“The film was supposed to star Candice Bergen and Robert Redford, with Ava Gardner as Mrs Robinson. But Nichols, sensing a sea change, said, ‘No, I’m going to cast this small, hook-nosed little Jewish actor to play my Ben Braddock and a sultry dark woman who is a theatre actress to play my Mrs Robinson, and a bunch of outsiders to surround them.”

It’s a story that chimes with Oberman’s own history. “Inside me and all the people I love, we are all Ben Braddocks. We are all on the outside, looking in. and we are all trying to find our place. Maybe I don’t feel really English. Coming from an immigrant family, there’s a feeling of not quite belonging.”

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Even the music in the film was strange, from a couple of kooky New Yorkers named Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. “The reason the music was put in was that Mike Nichols’s brother-in-law sent him the Simon and Garfunkel album Sounds of Silence. He couldn’t get the music out of his head and, while he was editing, he would put it on in the background. Suddenly he thought, ‘Why don’t we use it in the film?’” (Mrs Robinson was the only track written specifically for the film by Paul Simon.)