The Graduate (1967)
Written by Calder Willingham & Buck Henry
Directed by Mike Nichols
It’s incredible how some movies have remained as relevant as they were when they were first released. The Graduate is a movie straight out of the ennui of 1960s youth culture, but it’s far more nuanced than that. Roger Ebert’s reading of the film on its original release was to empathize with its protagonist. Thirty years later, he retracted many of his comments to say how his sympathies had shifted to the older woman he has a tryst with, how she is the character the audience is meant to feel heartbreak for. The Graduate is a movie with no heroes or villains, simply people existing, making choices, and never truly knowing if the choices they make are the right ones or not.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns to his parents’ home in Pasadena. He’s swarmed by his folks’ friends, all beaming with pride over the golden boy with a bright future ahead of him. But Benjamin doesn’t feel satisfaction from any of the ideas these people toss at him. He doesn’t want to be like his father and feels isolated from those around him. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a family friend, asks Ben to take her home after his graduation party and proceeds to proposition the young man. He’s awkward but ultimately goes along, resulting in a summer-long affair with the older woman. Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, comes home during a break from her classes at Berkeley, and everyone expects her and Ben to become a couple. On the other hand, her mother wants him to stay away from her daughter. Ben is angry over his inability to understand what he and Mrs. Robinson’s relationship is and rebelliously takes Elaine out, a move that threatens to collapse the quiet, content lives of everyone around them.
Nothing about The Graduate has really aged. Being young still sucks. College degrees are not a guarantee of happiness & success. Women still get married and end up unsatisfied as they get older. Husbands live in willful obliviousness about how bad things are. The contemporary world & its institutions provide us with nothing of substance. The future is ever more uncertain, so today’s youth are experiencing an even more perilous sense of existential drift. The way Mike Nichols shoots this film doesn’t fall into the same aesthetics and blocking you find in most 1960s American media. Instead, the work has a modern tone, a maturity that pushes aside the jokiness you saw at the time. Nichols isn’t all serious, though; the film is full of hilarious moments, most centered around Ben’s nervous energy.
The camera makes every space either too large or too small, reminding us how Ben feels he doesn’t fit anywhere in this myopic white middle-class world. We can’t ignore the sadness that comes from Mrs. Robinson, though. She starts out as an enigma, something Ben can’t quite understand but gets swept up into. By the end, without using exposition, we understand she is an older woman whose passions are suppressed, who married a man like she was supposed to, and now has a life where nothing in it fulfills her. The brief mention of her art degree implies someone who appreciates beauty and takes pleasure in examining art on a deeper level. This remains hidden behind a brick wall of emotionless sex between her and Ben. He wants to know her, but Mrs. Robinson is adamant that she keeps that close to her vest. She offers up her body but nothing else.
While early readings of The Graduate came away saying it was about the struggles of the youth to find a place in the world, I’m not so sure of that after this viewing. Mrs. Robinson has learned to separate sex from love somewhere in her life, and Ben is not the first person she has had an affair with. We can also be reasonably sure that Mr. Robinson has likely had his own mistresses over the years. When Ben tries to strike up a conversation one night in bed at their regular hotel, Mrs. Robinson stiffens, and she can tell this is the moment where things are going south. Part of Ben’s problem is that he has been taught the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood is graduating from college. He did that. But nothing has changed. He still feels like a child. When Mrs. Robinson refuses to engage with him in a way that he assumes adults communicate, he turns and becomes vicious towards her. Ben’s follow-up is to take Mrs. Robinson to a strip club in childish defiance, and to her credit, she doesn’t blink; she simply realizes she probably made a mistake with this kid.
Ben’s decision to focus on Elaine is not because he genuinely loves her but because he’s mad about feeling like a kid. Mrs. Robinson embarrassed him by refusing to play along with his idea of what an adult is. Ben lies to his parents about asking Elaine to marry him. He goes to Berkeley and wreaks havoc in Elaine’s life at college. Ben’s worst sin is telling Elaine about his affair with her mother, tearing apart Mrs. Robinson’s life and potentially destroying the Robinson family. He does all this because he’s mad he doesn’t feel like a grown man. He certainly hasn’t earned the right to call himself that. This doesn’t mean Mrs. Robinson or the other adults are saints. They rarely authentically listen to Ben and instead tell him what he should do: be like them. But they are clearly living fucked up, awful lives despite the bright veneer they paint over everything.
This is why the film doesn’t have traditional protagonists or antagonists. These people live in a world they can’t make much sense of. The Graduate in the title isn’t simply about Ben finishing school but about the knowledge he accrues throughout the film. By the end, when he sits on a bus with Elaine, smiles quickly fading to looks of complete bewilderment, Ben has passed from childhood into the directionless clambering in the dark of adulthood. The future ahead of Ben and Elaine is not the bright, progressive future dreamed of by some at the time. It is the compromise with the system, a prescient realization that the youth of the 1960s would become potentially worse than their parents, the neoliberal professional class refusing their children the rites of passage.
The Graduate is undoubtedly a comedy, but it is also a sobering look at how sad it is to become a grown-up in the States. Dreams have been stomped out. Hope has been traded in for mundanity. Capitalism won’t let you be content with what you have, and you are constantly uncomfortable with thoughts of what else you could get your hands on. There’s a reason Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect piece of music for this film. It speaks to this void of life, and so many decades later, the silence remains as deafening as it ever was and growing larger.