The Graduate came out in 1967 starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman and directed by Mike Nichols. Truly a coming-of-age gem, it launched Hoffman into stardom and highlighted Bancroft’s best years. It was released to much critical acclaim but wasn’t a prime example of the generation gap. Though perhaps that wasn’t its intent at all. The film is rich with humor, satire and commentary on the human condition.
Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, recent college graduate and floundering quarter-lifer living with his wealthy parents. This was definitely a breakout role for Hoffman and he plays it almost like he’s preparing for Rain Man. Straight-edged, awkward, rebellious, strange and obstinately polite most of the time, Benjamin is not exactly a nice guy and not exactly a bad guy either. Nothing he does is without self-interest. But the situation he finds himself in, direction-less and destined to work in “plastics”, is surely a reference to the luxury and falseness of his community. We can all relate to his plight of not knowing what step to take next at a young age. So he takes many wrong steps and somehow ends up the hero anyway.
Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson, an aging beauty (though only 36 at the time to Hoffman’s 29) looking for some thrills in an unhappy marriage. She finds herself drawn to the innocence and apparent charm(?) of Benjamin and the affair begins. Her vacuous character is richly defined, unlike that of her daughter’s. The affair between Benjamin and Elaine seems rushed and superficial by comparison. I wish we had more proof that it was actually love between the youths, though little evidence is presented.
The late 60s were an interesting time for this movie to take place. He lives in an emerging sexual revolution where a film like this will be far less deviant than it formerly might have been. Elaine Robinson, played by Katharine Ross, reacts to Benjamin’s confession that he had an affair with an unknown married woman with near nonchalance. Even today this would be a pretty taboo confession. The younger generation is shown as both wilder and at the same time, just as conservative in some ways as their parents.
But the strangest part of his “rebellion” is Benjamin’s willingness to jump into marriage, a traditional choice that would obviously be in his parents’ vision of his life, pushing him more towards becoming like them. Even though the triumphant ending is vicarious and romantic, it still leads back to the life he didn’t seem to want. Perhaps that is the moral of the story. The ending is intentionally ambiguous.
Nichols, having already been highly praised for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, reaped the rewards of another hit and he still makes great films today. This filmmaking era also helmed new concepts in cinematography. The scenes depicting Benjamin’s day-to-day during the affair including swapped settings were fairly great. Additionally, the Simon and Garfunkel-dominated soundtrack is fantastic, though often not representative of what is happening in the movie itself. Some of the songs seem the focal point of the scene, overtaking it entirely. I’m not going to fault it though since it added real atmosphere to scenes where Benjamin was meandering both literally and figuratively within his life.
The Graduate deserves the praise it has been given. It may be a satire that lampoons confirmity while embracing it. It may also be a commentary on alienation, best conveyed by the strange scene where Benjamin appears in a scuba suit for the entertainment of his parents’ friends. Perhaps he rebelled straight into the life his parents chose for him. In any case, it is compelling, well-crafted and memorable.
The Graduate scene: