The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Lou Reed put it best two years after this movie was released: “I’m set free, to find a new illusion.” The Graduate is a complex and multifaceted comedy, but its thesis is just that: the harder you fight against perceived complacency, the deeper you often sink. Yet the film is less pessimistic than merely cautionary, a wise takedown of twentysomething impulses that finally reinforce old-world tradition — implicity, then, a passionate argument for real individuality and, conversely, a kind of warmth and real love that it never depicts, that almost never shows up in movies at all. But its sharp satiric takedown of bored, sexless middle-aged marriages, detached amoral kinkdom (which gets the least negative treatment, admittedly), and mind-meltingly superficial puppy love are so persuasive that the film’s done its job if it warrants the viewer’s immediate perusal for someone to have a deep and equitable conversation with. Though it’s an extremely funny film, its seriousness and melancholy are signaled quickly by its grave title sequence, following a boy on literal drift through an airport — a boy on autopilot, a boy who’s become, in director Mike Nichols’ phrase, an “object.”

The Graduate has received flack over the years for being a product of its time, an empty rail against the older generation and a naive, superficial Boomer picture. For me, though I have to recommend some compelling writings espousing this view such as Jonathan Rosenbaum’s semi-takedown of the film and Gavin De Becker’s passionate argument that it indirectly caused harm to women, this reading has always seemed weak and reductive to me. When I look at this movie, beyond its surprising technical extravagance and expertise, I truly see a bracingly sophisticated piece of storytelling rife with subtext, layering, and intricately built-up approaches to what outwardly seem like simple enough ideas. It’s one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen, and on every level, I feel it works — and my appreciation of it has deepened, not subsided, over the years. It would take little effort for me to produce a book’s worth of content about it, and I suspect that eventually I will have generated enough words on the subject to basically do so. For now though: some basic, less organized than usual points about what’s really going on in The Graduate and why it matters.

Benjamin Braddock, read with nearly supernatural brilliance and oddity by Dustin Hoffman, is back home from college and we initially find ourselves familiar and comprehending of him. Of course he’s really kind of a dick, or he grows into one in a violently destructive quest to assert his masculinity, to jerk his identity away from the things he perceives as threatening it. It’s in that process that he falls in “love,” or something like that, with Elaine Robinson, a girl who eats French friees at a drive-in with him while he yells at kids in the next car over to turn their music down. Their uncomplicated relationship lasts all of a single date, a few hours at best, with some revealing but inane conversation before all hell breaks loose. You see, Benjamin wasn’t supposed to go out with Elaine; her mother disapproved in classic Shakespearean fashion, for the even more classic Shakespearean reason that she and Benjamin had been having an affair for months. Ben and Mrs. Robinson have a regular room at a nearby ritzy hotel where he’s known under the alias Gladstone; Ben, dissatisfied with the silent gratification of casual sex, wishes they’d talk more, but Mrs. R isn’t keen on such, especially when the conversation turns to Elaine. He thinks it’s something class-conscious when she asks him not to see her daughter; he’s missing just how world-weary and knowing she truly is, missing that someone twenty years older than he might not merely be part of an “order” of things but may actually know far more about that “order.”

After much cat-and-mousing, Benjamin sets out determinedly to marry Elaine — not realizing he’s doing exactly what his parents want most, pursuing his dad’s partner’s daughter — and makes an ass of himself in his dogged, scary pursuit of her: he will lay down all life and disregard all social stigma and safety, it seems, entirely due to their few hours together being mildly less stressful than his life has typically been lately. In the end, he disrupts Elaine’s wedding to a douchey pipe-smoking prep named Carl and the families erupt into a major ruckus; Ben and Elaine escape via bus and we linger magically on their faces, their fading smiles, wondering what happens now as we discern slowly that these two just became another quickly-paired quickly-silenced pair of young marrieds, trapped. At least with the makeout king, Elaine might have seen some nice places and had a shot at something of a better life. With either man, she’d undoubtedly be out of love and yearning for something “different,” as Ben says early on, in just a matter of years.

The central irony in the story of The Graduate is so explicit that it’s rather hard to see what sort of a movie the film’s heavy detractors thought they were watching. Does it really seem that a director like Mike Nichols, a novelist like Charles Webb, a screenwriter like Buck Henry would really choose to tell a story sincerely about a young boy who fights The System simply by going out with a girl, deciding to marry her, and forcing his way into her life before riding off into an unfamiliar and scary (or scarily ordinary) oblivion? Love makes us lunatics, sure, but the thrust of a relatively normal kid who’s feeling the pangs of directionlessness and looming dread familiar to so many restless young adults transforming into a stalker determined to get his way? That sounds much more like a parable against knee-jerk rebellion than some bright onslaught of old-guard smashing (Roger Ebert would disturbingly remember cheering at the film’s conclusion, which reveals scarier things about Ebert than the film). Ben’s story is a drama of extremes: the passivity of someone unable to either accept the nature of his life or take initiative to change it, then the overactive imagination of someone who’s realized his time is limited but has latched hilariously on the wrong idea of what to do and how to do it, and will nail it down to its ugliest conclusion. He makes no steps in the right direction; he will walk backward until he falls off the face of the earth, and though his specific actions are exaggerated for satiric effectiveness, it’s a sad portrait of the way young people are still frequently capable of living out their most crucial, potentially active and memorable years (myself not necessarily excluded!): with crippling anxiety and fear.

That’s what The Graduate finally is — a beautiful film about fear and isolation that happens to be screamingly, almost unstoppably funny. There’s no way to translate its humor to the written word; good as Henry’s script (cowritten with Calder Willingham) is, so much of the greatness in the pile-up of perfect little moments here is in detail and delivery that can’t be captured except by seeing the film again and again to be further haunted by the divinity of so many of its mechanics. James L. Brooks would remember it as a movie that contains every kind of joke. (My favorite joke in the film, if you must know, is the one in which Benjamin asks Elaine a question outside a classroom, stands outside the door when the bell rings, and stands there for the full duration of the class then repeats the question as if in a time warp the instant she comes out.) Some similar statement could likely be made for its pathos, which manages to knowingly capture the pain of unrequited love, the awkwardness of relating to the outside world, and the holy terror of a person with conviction in the wrong places. Benjamin’s the prototypical Tyler Durden or even a kindred spirit of Anthony Burgess’ Alex — self-possession and assurance gone horribly wrong: an overcompensation of a meek, overgrown child.

The film can be at times genuinely heartbreaking, and gobsmackingly beautiful, as beautiful as any widescreen film ever has been in terms of its sequence of shots (many of them distant and lengthy), composition, and use of fluid movement. This was only Nichols’ second film, bearing virtually no resemblance to his first (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but he and cinematographer Robert Surtees (whose use of hard lighting is a landmark, and a film-textbook staple) make almost every frame sing with energy. No one has any issue parsing all that out, but what so many miss who take the film’s message at face value, ignoring apparently the ambiguous desperation of its final scene, is that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are finally the same person at different stages in their lives. Anne Bancroft’s embodiment of Robinson is one of the greatest performances in cinema; her control is remarkable, her work here a powerhouse. She’s not a sad and tragic figure, she’s perfectly familiar with exactly what Benjamin intends to do at any given time and why he plans to do it. The film belongs to her because she practically narrates it, tells the sad story with a cigarette hanging from her mouth and a drink in her hand. The hardened emotion in every facial expression she brings us elucidates on something we know instinctively — that she long ago fought as hard for something as Benjamin will fight now, and she knows the resulting misery is something she never wants for her daughter, knows how much this restless outsider will want for a road out of the placid life that’s inevitably to come. He’s just “drifting” stuck in a loop, and Elaine will set him free, again, to find a new illusion.

Of course, Mrs. Robinson’s explicit pessimism needn’t be our own. Someone could easily find happiness in our world or in the world in this film, but that’s irrelevant because, despite Henry’s claim that he’d scripted a love story, The Graduate is about regret of the past and fear of the future, not love. It’s about the human tendency to take the path of least resistance, even if it seems we’re fighting to reach it. But then, it’s about lots of things, even white male entitlement — really, much as I appreciate De Becker’s point, this could be a feminist screed almost for the way it pares down Benjamin’s privilege and analyzes its effect on his relations to others, even as he admits his ideas are “completely baked.” He never has the answer to questions Elaine poses — “What did you think was going to happen?” “What are you going to do?” — because all he has to do is assume something will work out. A common critique is that Elaine’s characterization is thin, as is the performance by Katharine Ross — but in a subjective film like this, we see what Ben sees. The stripped-down version of a person before us in Ross’ form looks like a dullard, but we must also appreciate how her eagerness to please and utter hollowness might look like heaven personified to Ben. This is something I can manipulate, he might unconsciously think, to suit my needs — including the need for someone whose name he can write down over and over on a piece of paper while looking anguished. Eccentric potential criminals have “needs” too, after all. “Don’t be confused,” he crows at one point, “we’re getting married!”

Quite outside of the commonly praised use of water and womb imagery in the film, the number of beautiful scenes is hard to count down: the stunning, nonchalant background introduction of Mrs. Robinson in an early handheld shot; the rainy confrontation in which Mrs. Robinson harshly confronts Benjamin in his car and Elaine discovers the truth about their relationship (watch Ross’ face when she figures it out, giving the lie to criticisms of her performance); the primal scene of Benjamin and Elaine in the former’s short-lived apartment at Berkeley, played in silhouette, the only truly romantic scene of the picture; and of course that alarming, unforgettable final sequence on the bus. So much of the credit for such magic belongs to the actors — Hoffman is sublime, Ross perfect for her limited role, and Bancroft, my goodness, there are only maybe a handful of performances more glorious on the screen; she alone warrants an essay of material in association with her Mrs. Robinson — and the music, the stilted and strange folk-rock of Simon & Garfunkel, alternately ponderous, cathartic, and sublime, and at least once, during a montage set to “April, Come She Will,” as crushing and powerful a marriage of pop music to film as I’ve ever seen. The mark of the film and music on one another is indelible; Nichols uses Paul Simon’s songs as a marker of rhythm, to such an extent that The Graduate, in addition to the million other things it is, might well be read as a musical.

There is so, so, so much more to say about this magnificent film. We’ve barely scratched the surface. It will have to wait, for now.


[Note: I posted additional thoughts about The Graduate eight years after writing this essay. Find them here.]

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