The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols) : mark II

!!! A+ FILM !!!

[Note: please see here for our previous writeup of the film, which covers more of “the basics” about it than this does.]

There was a time when I watched The Graduate nearly every year; not only did I adore it quite fervently, naming it for a good while as my all-time favorite film, but there was also something that felt tantalizingly unresolved about it to me. It seemed that each time I saw it I came away with a different interpretation of what it was actually telling me, questioning on each occasion my previous impressions. Now, seeing it for the first time in nearly a decade and therefore the first time in my thirties, it continues to unfold with fresh secrets, unexpected meanings and chords that strike altogether differently than they once did. Although it no longer occupies the shrine I once afforded it in my heart, it still may be the classic movie that fascinates me the most, the one whose implications I still don’t believe I’ve fully appreciated even after roughly ten encounters, and a lifetime’s worth of mulling it over. That’s why it now becomes the first film to receive a second essay in this space; I don’t know whether others will — it’s certainly possible — but I can guarantee this still won’t be the last time I try to wrap my head around the whole of The Graduate.

What has never really wavered — with the passage of time, the aging of the film’s initial audience (most of its key creative operators are now deceased, while all were still working in 2000 when I first saw it), and the generations of interpretation, appreciation and reinterpretation greeting The Graduate — is that its basic structure is that of a young adult rite of passage; and not necessarily, as some uncharitable readings would have it, a male rite of passage. That is to say: fighting as hard as you can to end up in a situation you never especially wanted. The hippie movement that was once associated with the movie, despite actual radicals’ and leftists’ misgivings about its apolitical tone, has receded into a relatively quiet subculture; the squares of 1967 are now the corpses of 2020, the rebels (at least those who sprang up as a result of the cultural ubiquity of a certain revolutionary mindset, rather than those who came about rebellion by way of naturally evolving belief) have become the squares and then some. Babies born in that year are now older than Murray Hamilton, who plays Mr. Robinson, the epitome of out-of-touch masculinity, was then.

It’s fair enough to argue that Mike Nichols and Buck Henry must have seemed tonedeaf at the time by ignoring the student demonstrations at Berkeley and the protests across the country that were reaching a boiling point, by only acknowledging the flowering of a growing morality in the youth of those heady days through a throwaway joke about “outside agitators” (a line that unexpectedly became funny and incisive again in 2020), through the disapproving sneers and glares directed at Benjamin and Elaine at the climax, and through Mr. Robinson’s weighty line of inquiry “Is there something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt, or just the things I stand for that you despise?” But in point of fact, what Robinson “stands for” is what has ailed Ben from the first moments of the film, a sullen youth aboard an airplane, and what the film thus spends its time investigating, and what it concludes he hasn’t the werewithal, discipline or self-reflection to really understand or, certainly, to destroy. (It was a very different case for the author of the novel The Graduate is based on, Charles Webb, but more on that in a moment.)

Beyond its sheer fleet ingenuity in scriptwriting, acting and directing terms, the ticket to the film’s continued relevance is America itself, and by extension capitalism: more and more a system designed to beat down individuality while also shunning the collective love and compassion that might once have saved us. Benjamin, like many, knows he wants his life to be different, but knows no imaginative way to achieve this: his great radical act is nothing more than the disruption of two marriages and the implied forging of a new one, and the ideological limits of this solution to his travails are apparent from the moment we leave him behind. But what else is he supposed to fight for? What love can he know beyond that which is handed over to him, predetermined? Conversely, Ben’s “time” (meaning the late ’60s) is basically meaningless to his story; the outer world beyond his tortured introspection and his brightened moments of respite from same, at least the parts of it which are visible to us, are no more or less banal than what any of us might face outside our own narratives any day of our lives: a college bonehead feeding cereal to his dog, for instance; the mocking “do not tease” sign that greets him in a private moment of misery outside the monkey house at the zoo.

There is also the specter of Benjamin’s life before his return home, subsumed in culture shock like somebody coming back from the war, and his dalliance with Mrs. Robinson — what were those “college experiences” he had no interest in discussing with her? It seems most likely they were no more inspiring than her time as an art student, or Elaine’s at Berkeley; it just ended with a note of more auspicious and conventional success. Much as the creeping familiarity and destructive inanity of the stories that sprang up from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court coronation two years ago just pointed up how little boring people have changed in the specific and malicious manner of their boredom across generations, the tortuous flatness of the world around Benjamin does not feel particularly divergent from anything we ourselves know today; he is too sheltered to have to struggle for livelihood, but he is also too protected and too assured of his position in a well-oiled machine to experience anything like a real emotional cycle or, frankly, a human connection of any serious depth. When we meet him he lives for others, zombielike, with half-hearted, ingrained eagerness to please (even upholding a phony sexual prowess with a performative wink when an older woman sets him up for a boast about being past “the teenybopper stage”), surrounded by predatory actions and people; the only people he knows, it seems, are his parents’ friends, up to and including the one he has an affair with mostly, it seems in the beginning, to be polite.

You can track the ever-present banality of the passing years within the characterizations of Ben’s parents (Elizabeth Wilson and William Daniels); not only are these caricatures familiar, they are essentially identical to what a comedic depiction of the affluent suburban couple and lifestyle would be to this day. He is a lifestyle symbol to them; any moment in which he asks them to listen is met with impatience and derision. It’s undoubtedly the Braddocks that have given Ben the constant sense that he is being watched, even on the rare occasion when he isn’t; twice he demands to know what other, absent people would say if they saw what he was doing “right now.” Little wonder he constantly finds himself literally unsure of where to stand or where to go. Little wonder that he warms to the idea of being seduced then immerses himself in it, shutting out everything else. It becomes his only escape from the prison of preordained convention into which he was born.

Little wonder also that he leaps, equally headfirst, into his first encounter (since college, at least) with someone his own age; they don’t necessarily have much in common besides their youth and the social status of the families they come from — the Robinsons’ is a broken marriage, but it presents an outward portrait of normalcy — but after the inept, cruel date he tries to take Elaine on, he discovers or rediscovers the supernatural wonder of bullshitting with someone while eating french fries in the car (which nonetheless underlines the lack of a place for him in the purgatory between the straight world and the counterculture, as he spars with some local groovies over their loud music). Elaine’s “the first person” he can “stand to be with,” he says, later ominously adding the only direct statement of his mindset he ever offers: “My whole life is just a waste; there’s just nothing.” At first blush it feels like Katharine Ross, who really does look like she could be Anne Bancroft’s daughter, isn’t given much to do as Elaine — while Nichols and Henry are careful to show empathy toward her in the various kinds of pain and inconvenience she’s dealt in the course of the narrative, she also has to justify the central joke that Benjamin falls in love, or thinks he falls in love, with the absolute first person he runs across back home, and the exact person both his parents and Elaine’s dad were insisting that he take out, and this is his act of defiance!

But Elaine is just as confused as Ben is, and Ben is less of a monster than is sometimes reported; there is some intentional menace, and more than a slight touch of the pathetic, in the way he wanders around following Elaine after she discovers the truth about his affair with her mother, but it’s also just an oversized illustration of the way unrequited love sometimes makes a simpering fool out of everybody, and moreover, Elaine herself is clearly conflicted about Benjamin: quite attracted to and interested in him but finding it impossible — for familial reasons — to pursue anything but the most permanent union with him, and understandably uncertain about committing to that. Meanwhile the extremely naive Ben is all-in immediately because the idea of marrying Elaine feels like a clarification and a resolution for the great fear he’s been expressing throughout the film, about “the future” — a vague expression of inarticulate dread he keeps returning to because he has no better words for what’s upsetting him, then a motif he keeps returning to in order to explain away (to himself or to others) why that fear and dread won’t go away. It goes away when he talks to Elaine because he’s comfortable around her, opens up to her and admits to his compulsion to be rude to the people who are constantly demanding him to uphold a certain image, exhausting him; it even seems to go away later when her absence gives him something to pine for, as though playing the part of a seasoned suave playboy tormenting an exasperated woman gives him an identity. It’s telling that he seems oblivious to the moral implications of basically becoming a stalker, but feels scummy and irredeemable when doing something as primal and human as having an affair.

It may be easier for Benjamin to talk to Elaine, but the person who actually understands his mindset and what troubles him is her mother, who spins his vague discontent into the actions of someone who long ago dropped all pretense, outside the confines of her suburban prison, to living for anything except unassuming pleasure. When he asks her “Are you always this much afraid of being alone?” and she bluntly replies “yes,” she is speaking for his destiny — at least on the assumption he continues to live a life “playing a game” in which “the rules don’t make any sense to me.” The later fast food conversation with Elaine is the resolution of what he asked for when he requested that Mrs. Robinson talk to him instead of just fucking him (“I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she answered); that simple yearning for a connection in fact required far less of a conversational partner than her mother seemed to assume, even if perhaps it’s because she knows where such vulnerability can lead.

This is borne out by Mrs. Robinson’s own arc of insecurity and alcoholism — she “had” to leave college and marry her husband, and her face when she says the word “art” for the second time reveals the same exhaustion Benjamin knows from years of trying to play along with his parents’ social circle and their class-conscious hectoring as much as it parallels the departure from school that the film’s climax will require of Elaine. She has a narcissistic streak as well: when he makes any sort of objection to their arrangement, she reacts nastily, at one point prodding him along with “I’m disgusting to you,” and manages to so completely short-circuit his attempts at conversation that he ends a long argument with the ultimate concession, “Let’s not talk at all.” If it’s unfair that Ben thinks of Mrs. Robinson as a brief respite from the boredom of his summer at home, it’s fair to say that she thinks equally little of him, in fact seems to view him as trash because of her own self-loathing — but it’s equally possible that, in trying to circumvent a doomed partnership in the latter part of the film, she’s just serving as a kind of conscience for the film, just trying to prevent another loveless marriage, another pair of tanked lives. Her “goodbye Benjamin” after Elaine discovers their affair is the first time she doesn’t place herself above him somehow; they’re in the same desperate club now and, at least in her conception, always will be. But you can see why Ben comes to think of her as just another of those parental satellites chipping away at him; all he seeks is the young and simple and fresh love that should be anyone’s inalienable right. But he has walked into a spider web of a kind. The fact remains that he is leaping from one illusion to another, spinning the relationship his parents wanted him to have in the first place into an act of rebellion.

If Buck Henry did not revolt against this conception of Benjamin’s, Mike Nichols certainly did, first off in his refusal to demonize Mrs. Robinson (which the novel arguably does) and then in one of the most refreshingly and fascinatingly ambiguous endings to any film. The cloud of uncertainty and terror that slowly settles on Ben and Elaine’s faces in the last scene as “The Sound of Silence” reappears on the soundtrack — the end referring back to the beginning and plainly but not childishly giving an eloquent voice to what’s happening onscreen — is masterfully executed, and it remains distinctly unsettling even long after passing into the annals of popular culture. Frankly, there is no simple way to “explain” what is happening to these two people on that bus and why, just like there is no really handy simplification for the three-way conflict between Benjamin, Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. It seems to hang in the air after the fade, completely circumventing any temptation to take a simple black and white view of anything that happens in the preceding film. I can attest to this myself, if you’ll indulge me. I first saw The Graduate in July of 2000, the night before my girlfriend — who I’d never met face to face; we’d been fellow internet message board denizens in good old Web 1.0 — came to visit me for the first time to stay for a week. Our relationship had suffered much skepticism from my parents as well as hers, and coordinating this visit had been a Sisyphean task for a couple of powerless high schoolers. I was deep into a committed “love conquers all” mentality at the time, struggling through an emotionally taxing year by thinking of this relationship as the grand Odyssean quest of my life, and interpreted virtually all art I encountered during this period as somehow being about the importance and all-consuming inevitability of True Love, forever and for always, etc.

So of course, I found it cathartic when Elaine cried out Ben’s name and went running to him in the chapel, willfully missing (because deep down, I knew) that it was an expression of confusion, not love. I especially loved it when Elaine has her moment of revelation about the world being against the two of them, when she sees her parents and husband-to-be chiding her and cursing Ben in a series of impressionistic POV shots that demonstrate for the first time that she has now experienced the way that other people look at Ben. That us-versus-them mentality carries a universal ring of truth, especially in a world like ours that so often loudly presents genuine ideological enemies as targets for our resentment, but it undeniably sounds its bell loudest of all when you’re sixteen. Of course I howled with laughter at the outrageous moment when Ben wards off the wedding party and guests with a cross, then stops the door with it — it was funny and it felt good. And when the two of them boarded the bus and began to laugh at what had just happened, I laughed with them, thinking this film the perfect expression of what it felt like to fall in love and for no outsider to understand. I knew what was coming, of course; you couldn’t grow up watching television and not know, but it was still a rude shock in proper context — when Hoffman and Ross fell into that uncomfortable silence and started to look pensive, their hearts almost visibly sinking, I was left shaken. I wanted to deny what it was saying; I wanted to censure it as yet another missive from squares who thought they knew better than me — after all, the film showed no real solidarity with “the kids” either, passing Simon & Garfunkel (who I basically liked, and love now, though they were very much my parents’ music in a way that even the Beatles weren’t) as rock & roll and castigating nameless teens for making too much noise. I also loved the suggestion of unstated complexity; I found it truly haunting, but it all made the film so much more difficult to file away as validation for the sullen introvert who just wants to lay everything down for what he thinks, in his complete absence of lived experience and confronted with curt and emotionally limited surroundings, is love. I pushed the film out of my mind for a while, not finding its complex statements immediately useful and actually rather disturbed by them, but when I did recall it a couple of years later and sought out the shooting script I found myself retroactively thrilled by the bleak ambiguity of this finale, which by then had already borne itself out for me in a romance that had grown far more complicated than I once believed it would.

But the ending is not, in reality, a sharp rejection of Ben and Elaine’s courtship; that’s just the most obvious suggestion of Nichols’ decision to stage it in this manner. For the actual creator of The Graduate‘s story, novelist Charles Webb, the point is much different. Webb died in 2020, prompting the publication of a rather engrossing New York Times obituary, laying out among other things the narrative of Webb’s marriage and lifelong relationship with artist Eve Rudd, later known as Fred. Their own union mirrored that of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson, running afoul of disapproving authority figures and born of a general disillusionment with the establishment, and specifically with education. (“What was the point of that four years of hard work?” “You got me.”) The novel shares much of its dialogue with the film in between a good deal of intentionally barren prose but paints a broader kind of morality, with more explicit class consciousness. It ends with Elaine grabbing Benjamin’s hand and the simple statement “The bus began to move.” For the characters’ real life counterparts, a life in the suburban complacency (or anguish) of their parents was not in the cards — the Webbs lived a simple, anti-materialist lifestyle and shirked traditional capitalist values, confounding observers for their entire life. They remained together, often on the edge of self-imposed poverty, for the rest of their lives. In reality, Benjamin’s yearning for something “different” came true.

Still, a very different current runs through the film; Webb apparently viewed it as Nichols and the producers surveying the love story in the same condescending manner as the adults in the film, but this seems like an example of the same sort of black and white thinking that’s often evident, for good or ill, in the book. Ben and Elaine in the film don’t come across as budding creatives or left-wing idealists; their connection could amount to something, but for now it’s tentative and superficial as almost any relationship is in the first hours of its existence. And while the film’s ending does not preclude the utopian, romantic eventuality lived out by Charles and Fred, it also doesn’t court it; many liberal viewers did correctly interpret the picture as a rejection of the bourgeois and of the postwar California aspirational class, but the specific nature of that rejection was less apparent. Webb’s finale is a question mark, a mystery, teeming with possibility; the film’s could be read the same way, or it could just as easily be a treatise against conformity, a missive from a future filled with mistakes. In either case, it is so much more than a mere ride into the sunset — it is a cry from the soul, a refusal to resolve any kind of roadmap of life for us, and an intimidating insistence that we attempt to do so ourselves. Earlier in the film, at the stage when Ben confesses to Elaine that he’s having an affair but not with whom, she asks if it’s all over now. “Yes,” he proclaims, and we can see that he means it; and that is the only note of finality The Graduate offers — everything else is the oblivion of the unknowable, in all its promise, terror and impossible absurdity.

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