Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
While not as definitive or landmark a film to me as it is to many people, especially those of my parents’ generation, The Graduate remains a potent, awkwardly comic, and ever-unsettling coming of age story. Given that the first time I saw it, I had not yet really “come of age,” it makes sense that it was mostly lost on me then. Re-evaluating it, however, in order to write this piece, I found myself smiling, cringing, and appreciating The Graduate in a way I distinctly do not remember doing before.
Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated with awards and honors from college, but he isn’t in a celebratory mood. Upset and disconnected, he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Enter Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), his father’s business partner’s wife, a woman he has known since childhood. When Mrs. Robinson tells Ben that she would like to sleep with him, the two enter into the least sexy affair you’ve seen in some time, one born of a desire to escape boredom rather than any kind of attraction. Things get immensely complicated when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross) comes home from college on break and Ben finds himself falling in love with her.
Part of the reason I felt so massively underwhelmed by The Graduate when I first saw it was its advertisement as a comedy. In seeing it a second time, I think I chuckled maybe three times, and smiled about half a dozen times. If you’re watching The Graduate expecting a laugh riot, well, don’t. Categorization of this film is tough, as there are certainly comic moments (“Plastics” is good for a smile, as is “You’re the most attractive of my parents’ friends”), but overall, I find it a very emotional story. Terms like “dramedy” were invented with films like this in mind. But I remembered that I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny, and approached The Graduate a second time watching it as a drama. The film makes more sense to me this way.
Benjamin’s tale is a difficult one; a young man who has achieved much in school but now finds himself lost. He is Hemingway’s Lost Generation, he is Generation X of the nineties, as he battles this sort of existential angst that threatens to consume his very soul. Benjamin does many things in The Graduate to try to distract himself from this frighteningly hollow sense of emptiness and despair, but he never really manages to succeed; the famous final shot is proof enough of that. Mrs. Robinson is a physical distraction, and her daughter Elaine isn’t much more. Benjamin becomes obsessed with the idea of Elaine rather than Elaine herself, and I have trouble buying that his protestations of love for her are real. He sees in Elaine a kind, gentle young woman and suddenly a possible pathway out of his despair appears to him. Had it been a different girl at a different time, he would have been pounding on the window of a different church at the end. It was not Elaine in particular, it was the notion of her. But neither the thought of Elaine nor Elaine herself can save him from his life, as the ambiguously downbeat ending seems to say. Nor is Benjamin terribly likeable. While, as the definite central character of the film, there is an automatic tendency to want to root for him, Benjamin does many things that make this difficult. Stalking Elaine, for instance, after knowing her a relatively small period of time and upsetting her greatly; engaging in emotionally self-destructive behavior for another. I suppose he is the “hero” of The Graduate, but that does not make him good.
Hoffman, in his first major film role, is tremendously good as Benjamin. His performance in the first half, before Benjamin has met Elaine, is nothing short of phenomenal. Hoffman is awkward and uncomfortable in everything he does, from robotically grabbing Mrs. Robinson’s breast to sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool in a diving suit to nervously checking out a room at the Taft Hotel. Rather than the Hoffman that is more well known today, one who overacts and typically delivers broad performances, this is an incredibly self-contained Hoffman. We feel how much he is holding on the inside as Benjamin, how much unnamed pain he carries around, how unhappy and depressed he is as he presents a bland smile to the camera. Hoffman loosens Benjamin up in the second half after Elaine has been introduced, hinting at her as his possible salvation, but the performance isn’t quite as interesting. It makes sense, yes, just not as compelling.
Mike Nichols, in only his second feature film (after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), directs a visually fascinating story. The influence of the French New Wave is all over The Graduate, most notably in the montage where Benjamin is against a black background and we see him watching TV or sleeping with Mrs. Robinson or avoiding his parents. There are a few nifty match cuts (jumping on a raft switches to jumping on Mrs. Robinson), some interesting point-of-view scenes (watching from Ben’s view as he is in his scuba suit and all we hear is breathing), and a lack of fear about getting too far away or too close to the actors. There are times when he physically distances the camera from the actors, there are long takes, and scenes where we cannot hear the conversation being carried out. The Graduate burst on the scene in 1967 to much acclaim, and with filmmaking techniques this innovative for the time, it’s easy to see why. It still felt fresh to me, despite the fact that the film is *gulp* coming up on its fiftieth anniversary.
Having lived through my horrible twenties and some slight adventures in depression, I can, in some way, relate to Benjamin Braddock. I don’t approve of his actions, but his feeling of discontent feels all too familiar. Brilliant performances by Hoffman and Bancroft (which I did not mention here, but she fills the screen as the dominatrix-esque Mrs. Robinson), Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic soundtrack, Nichols’ glorious cinematography, and its undeniable place as a touchstone film for an entire generation ensure that The Graduate will continue to be discussed for years to come.
Arbitrary Rating; 8/10