Of all the satires ever made, The Graduate is the one that hits home the most. If you have given up on your true dreams, this is a film that hurts to watch. For though it is a funny film that makes fun of youthful illusions and plastic people, it also reminds us of what we truly want out of life. The truth is like a mirror. An ugly person says the truth is ugly and one who is otherwise says otherwise. So, often when you are reading a review of The Graduate what you are really reading is a review of the life of the reviewer. I've seen more bitter comments made about this movie than any other (and no one is bitter about a film that doesn't contain truth). Even director Nichols made one saying that Ben and Elaine's dream wouldn't last. But is there truth in that?
I have been able to find a delicious example of just what I'm talking about. In the review of Roger Ebert, frustrated screenwriter (whose film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was so bad as to be surreal), he practically slobbers all over himself in his attempt to discredit the movie. He denegrates all the characters in the film save for the one he can relate to: the cripple Mrs. Robinson. In his parting shot, Ebert wonders how long it took Benjamin to get into plastics. But for dear Roger this question has already been answered. (Note: this is his recent review, not his 1968 review)
I think it was the story of a not particularly bright, not
particularly remarkable but worthy kid drowning
among objects and things, committing moral suicide by
allowing himself to be used finally like an object or a
thing by Mrs. Robinson, because he doesn't have the
moral or intellectual resources to do what a large
percentage of other kids like him do - to rebel, to
march, to demonstrate, to turn on. Just drowning.
Then finding himself to some extant, finding part of
himself that he hadn't found, through connection
with a girl. Finding passion because of impossibility.
Impossibility always leads to passion and vice versa.
Going from passion to a kind of insanity. Saving
himself temporarily from being an object, through the
passion and insanity. Getting what he thinks he
wanted and beginning to subside back into the
same world in which he has to live, with not enough
changed. I think that's the story.
Benjamin Braddock is an upper-middle-class young man from Southern California who has just graduated from an Eastern college, and is not yet ready to face adult life, which he regards as a game with rules that do not make much sense. The film opens with a close-up of Benjamin's impassive face (Nichols uses these close-ups continually throughout the first part of the film); his blank expression mirrors his feeling of emptiness while Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" plays on the soundtrack, reinforcing the impression of Benjamin's alientation from his surroundings.
This alientation carries over into Benjamin's family life. His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) have arranged a welcome home party for him, inviting all their own friends rather than his. Their intentions are not malign; they simply want to show off a son of whom they are justifiably proud, but Benjamin wants no part of the occasion. He is worried about his future, and wants to be alone with his thoughts. With his parents insisting that he put in an appearance, however, Benjamin runs the guantlet of inane small talk, including one guest's now-famous remark that the future lies in "plastic."
Unable to tolerate any more, Benjamin retires from the party to his bedroom, where he is followed by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner. Although Benjamin would rather be alone, Mrs. Robinson insists that he take her home, and he reluctantly agrees to do so. Just as reluctantly, he complies with her request that he accompany her inside the house, have a drink, and remain with her until her husband returns. Mrs. Robinson's conversation grows increasingly intimate, which thoroughly flusters Benjamin, and she plays on his confusion. Alternatively seductive amd maternally imperious, she lures him up to her daughter's bedroom, where she begins to disrobe. Significantly, we see Mrs. Robinson's nudity reflected in the glass which covers her daughter's picture, foreshadowing the role that the two women will play in the film. Benjamin is terrified, but Mrs. Robinson remains calm, offering herself to him, now or at any later time. Benjamin rushes down the stairs, only to meet Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton), who, while Benjamin literally whimpers in terror, proceeds to administer a fatherly chat. His advice is that Benjamin should sow a few wild oats.
The scene shifts to the Braddock house on the occasion of Benjamin's twenty-first birthday. As usual, his parents have thrown a party for him, again inviting only their own friends, and Benjamin is called upon to perform for them - in this case, to model his new scuba gear. Completely dressed in it, he moves ponderously through the crowd to his pool, where he jumps in and sinks gratefully to the bottom in peace. Nichols reinforces the absurdity of the scene by shooting it entirely from Benjamin's perpective - through the goggles of his diving suit.
Time passes, and Mrs. Robinson's offer of seduction begins to look more attractive to Benjamin. At once eager and apologetic, he calls her, and she agrees to meet him in the bar of the Taft Hotel. Under her patient prodding, Benjamin agrees to get a room, thoroughly embarrassing himself in the process since he is certain that the desk clerk knows what he is about to do. In the room, Mrs. Robinson is calm and almost businesslike, which further aggravates Benjamin's case of nerves. He bangs his head against the wall in frustration, and decides to end the affair before it begins. Mrs. Robinson defeats this resolve by accusing him of being a virgin. Outraged, he defends his virility by consumating the liaison.
The summer passes with Benjamin spending most of his time diving into his parents' pool or into bed with Mrs. Robinson. Nichols shoots this sequence in a series of montages that begin and end with the now-familiar close-up of Benjamin's blank stare against a white background - alternately a pillow in the Taft Hotel and an inflatable rubber raft in his parents' pool. The effect is intentionally disorienting, and suggests that both pursuits are as empty of meaning as the expression on Benjamin's face, while the sound track underlines this impression with a reprise of "The Sounds of Silence."
Thus far in the film, Benjamin has never really talked to anyone. He has merely been spoken to; and he has responded in as perfunctory a way as possible. His intimacy with Mrs. Robinson has never gone beyond the physical, as evidenced by the fact that he never calls her by her first name, which indeed is never learned throughout the film. Now, however, he feels a need for communication, and his attemptss to initiate a conversation with the more carnally inclined Mrs. Robinson result in some of the film's funniest moments. Once the conversation starts, however, it focuses on the Robinsons' marriage and their daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). This sets the stage for the second, more serious part of the film.
Although Mrs. Robinson is adamantly opposed to Benjamin's dating Elaine, and although Benjamin is also unenthusiastic about the prospect of such an encounter, he finally gives in to the matchmaking pressure from his parents and Mr. Robinson, and agrees to take Elaine out one time. As the evening begins, Benjamin is deliberately offensive, driving recklessly and taking Elaine to a tawdry strip joint. Humiliated, Elaine runs away in tears, while Benjamin, realizing he is fond of the girl, pursues her, calms her down, and kisses her. In a conversation in which he shows genuine feeling for the first time in the film, he explains that he has been confused and worried about his future. Without naming Mrs. Robinson, he tells Elaine of an unsatisfactory relationship that he has been having with an older woman. She seems to sympathize, and they spend the rest of the evening happily, their affection for each other grows, and Elaine agrees to see Benjamin the next day.
When Benjamin arrives at the Robinsons' house the next day, however, a furious Mrs. Robinson meets him before he can get out of his car and threatens to reveal their affair if he continues to show any interest in Elaine. Benjamin rushes into the house and attempts to talk to Elaine, with Mrs. Robinson in hot pursuit. Elaine, seeing them together, realizes that her mother is the older woman with whom Benjamin is having an affair, and refuses to speak to him. Up to this point, the film's emphasis has been on humor; however, when Benjamin finds his true love, the film shifts gears perceptibly. Nichols abandons most of the broad satiric swipes at surburbia and the scene shifts from Los Angeles to Berkeley, where Elaine has gone back to school. In short, the film, though it never ceases to be funny, becomes more earnest in its later scenes.
Benjamin follows Elaine to Berkely, tracks her around campus, and finally confronts her with his presence, only to discover that she has a buttoned-down, pipe-smoking fiance named Carl Smith. Although Elaine is uneasy in Benjamin's presence, she is not sufficiently angry to order him away. Confused by her feelings for Benjamin, Elaine appears one day in his room and demands an explanation for his actions with her mother. He tells Elaine that he loves her. In their conversation it is divulged that Mrs. Robinson has told her daughter that Benjamin raped her; reluctantly, however, she believes him when he tells her the true story. As the days pass, although Elaine declines to commit herself to marriage with Benjamin she seems to be moving in that direction.
Matters soon come to a head in the Robinson family, however. Mr. Robinson is divorcing his wife, and Elaine, without Benjamin's knowledge, has left school to marry Carl Smith. When he finds out that she is gone, he embarks on a frantic Berkeley to Los Angeles to Berkely to Santa Barbara drive to find her. His car runs out of gas a few blocks from the church where the wedding is in progress. Running into the church, Benjamin finds the ceremony just completed. Torn between Benjamin on the one hand and her parents and new husband on the other, Elaine finally chooses Benjamin, and the couple fight their way through the crowd in the church, with Benjamin swinging a large cross, in a bit of heavy-handed symbolism, to clear the path and then to bar the door once they are outside. Benjamin and Elaine run to a conveniently departing bus, where they rush to the back amid puzzled looks from their fellow passengers. The pair is strangely silent at this climatic moment, and the film ends much as it began - with "The Sounds of Silence" on the sound track, and a close-up of Benjamin staring wordlessly ahead. This time, however, he is grinning broadly.
Much of the effectivenes of the film lies in the masterful work of the principal actors, all three of whom won Acadamy Award nominations for their work. Katherine Ross as Elaine brings dimension to a role that could have been played as just another "girl next door" stereotype. Anne Bancroft is outstanding as the predatory Mrs. Robinson, who, of the three major characters in the film, is the least sympathetic. Bancroft, however, conveys not only her character's bored cynicism and self-loathing, but her wit as well. Despite her calm expression, the twinkle in her eye when she first encounters Benjamin in the bar of the Taft Hotel indicates that she finds Benjamin's discomfiture as amusing as the audience does. The best acting in the film, however, is the work of Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin is the only character that is required to change during the course of the film. A very passive young man until he meets and falls in love with Elaine, he erupts into a frenzy of activity during the second half of the film. Whether he is squirming with embarrassment at one of his parents' parties or frantically swinging the cross at Elaine's wedding, Hoffman is utterly convincing. His performance is the cohesive element that bonds the two parts of the film and keeps it coherent; it captured the imagination of a generation, and propelled Hoffman to instant stardom in his first screen role.
For all its success, however, The Graduate is not a perfect film. Mike Nichols goes for some too-easy laughs at the expense of the plastic Los Angeles suburbanites; and, more importantly, he changes the tone of the film too abruptly when the scene shifts from Los Angeles to Berkeley. His mistakes are ones born of enthusiaism, however, and can be excused. Although The Graduate failed to win the Acadamy Award for Best Picture, Nichols did win the Award for Best Director.
The Graduate was a seminal film in that some of Nichol's innovations, such as the focus on
the new, older youth culture, and the use of pop/rock music on the sound track as commentary on
the action, were so successful that they have now become commonplace. The Graduate is
truly a landmark in American cinema.
by Robert Mitchell ©1980 Frank N. Magill
©1980 Frank N. Magill