The Graduate, One Of The All Time Best American Movies
In this classic film from 1967, a young man finds himself at an unsettling juncture amidst a landscape of shallow human encounters, hostility and the materialistic suburbs. The director, John Schlessinger's hero is drifting toward crisis, often upon a rubber raft in a swimming pool, as the shaky graduate’s world has shifted from blissful academia to the anxt-ridden world of adulthood. In something of a Holden Caulfield story, Benjamin Braddock is in a crisis of alienation. Dustin Hoffman, as the still innocent Benjamin, is exquisitely bewildered, shell-shocked and funny.
Benjamin has just graduated from college and is worried about his future, but when his father asks him what is wrong and what does he want to do, Benjamin laconically and cryptically answers; “I don’t know”. “I want it to be… different.” William Daniels, Benjamin’s father, who also co-stared in the movie of the same era, “Two For The Road” with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, played an equally loving but rather irritating dad to his little daughter, Ruthy. In The Graduate, he is the quintessential doting father: proud, generous, officious; yet, unable to reach all the way through to his son.
Benjamin’s graduation, which coincides with his birthday, is celebrated in the family-backyard by the pool. His father has given him, as a birthday present, a full-body, deep-sea diving outfit complete with flippers, mask, headgear and a spear. The father has, in a symbolic sense, given his son the full-body armor needed for the hostile world, which Benjamin is about to enter. The pool is cinematically used as a format for the vast world, as well as for birth. Daniels, at his theatrical best, must coax his son from inside the house - out to the backyard, where a party of suburban celebrants are waiting. Finally, Benjamin is prodded outside, in his body armor, and cajoled into the pool. We see everything from Benjamin’s perspective – from inside the diving mask – we can not hear his parents’ voices; only Benjamin’s hollow breathing inside the mask - then, the sudden underwater blue depths and bubbles. It is vastly empty and uninteresting, and when Benjamin tries to ascend the steps up out of the pool, his parents, laughing maniacally, slap down on the window of the mask to push their son back down into the underwater world.
Most people, when they recall scenes from The Graduate, think of Ann Bancroft’s iconic knee, bent seductively, and Hoffman peering from the other side of the room, his head tilted to one side. But I will always think of Hoffman all styled out in this heavy, unwieldy, old fashioned diving gear and head-piece reminiscent of chain-mail, which he did not want but which was forced upon him, standing at the bottom of the pool, leaning or listing in the water – hiding from the world but also immersed in it. Hoffman, who is so brilliant at conveying a feeling or image merely through his eyes or body-language, in this scene appears at first to be “ready” for the world, but then as the camera pans away, it is evident that he is barely hanging on. Here, Hoffman captured the generation’s feelings of alienation, their disenchantment with the older generation and the overpowering shift toward non-conformity.
In a weird twist of this generational divide, Benjamin finds himself seduced into having an affair with his father’s business partner’s wife: the cool, unconcerned, seductive Mrs. Robinson. Anne Bancroft, who was actually just six years older than Hoffman, embraces the role of the somewhat bitter, older adulteress with hauteur grace, as when she casually announces to the stunned Benjamin that she is indeed a “neurotic” as well as an “alcoholic”. She utters the word “neurotic” as if in a foreign tongue, with strange seduction. These were new terms that were highly mysterious and taboo.
The movie addresses mother and son relationships with the edgy, subversive boldness of a Fellini film. As when Benjamin’s own mother, who happens to be dressed in a black negligée, wants to know where he goes at night between the hours of midnight and six A.M.. Benjamin is so nervous about being questioned by his mother, as he is shaving in the bathroom, that he cuts himself with a razorblade - the bright, red blood mixing with the white shaving cream on his thumb. In one of many jarring segues, the director, Mike Nichols, merges the mother relationship with the sexual into a corrugated schematic, using voice and black, camera fades. Benjamin’s mother is suddenly portrayed as a jealous woman; she walks away, and now we are back in the hotel room – Benjamin in bed with Mrs. Robinson. So that the various aspects of Benjamin’s life are so intertwined that all of these aspects become familial.
More of Nichols’ original, cinematic touch bursts through when the director illustrates the act of human creation and birth, again - in the pool, when Benjamin is drifting, as he often does while contemplating life, on a raft in the middle of the water. Both of his parents are suddenly in the pool with him; indeed, they jostle him on his raft and shout, exuberantly into his ear, as they attempt to convince Benjamin to ask Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, out on a date. Benjamin finally falls off of the rubber raft and into the pool, where the underwater camera shows the legs and lower half of his parents treading together in the background, his mother’s knees riding up as if giving birth, and Benjamin’s terrified face in the foreground. Again, the parents have shoved him or tossed him into the vapid, underwater world wherein the boy, or young man, feels terrified. Hoffman portrays the inner fear and torment of this youth well and with dark humor - to the extent of even whimpering a little, just to himself, in times of stress.
The film does not stop at challenging our moral standing on adultery or our thoughts about the relationship between a mother and son, but also goes on to elucidate the emotional consequences that will lurk beneath the surface of a mother’s misplaced regrets and the lost dreams that she attempts to live-out vicariously through her daughter. Here, Bancroft depicts a good-witch/bad-witch duplicity; and I think it is no mere coincidence that the two matronly women acting as hostesses for a marriage party in the “Taft Hotel”, of the illicit affair, previously played witches from the TV series, “Bewitched”. Perhaps it is Anne Bancroft’s dulcet panache which earns our sympathy; for, her un-motherly, glamorous presence is an anticipated, if uneasy, pleasure throughout the film. Moreover, there is irony in Mrs. Robinson’s role as the unwitting catalyst that propelled desire and romance between Benjamin and Elaine. Still, Mrs. Robinson does handle these issues badly. She does not pick a lover from another town, for example, not from outside her suburban realm, but she picks a boy with whom her daughter went to high school - just as her daughter reaches maturity and nears her own graduation from Berkeley. Thus, the mother violates her daughter and betrays her trust in an attempt to regain her youth and indeed her life.
Our hero, Benjamin, unlike Holden Caulfield sacrifices his innocence. He, literally, gives up his virginity to Mrs. Robinson and then moves toward the familiar in Elaine. Surprisingly, to him, he finds that Elaine is “the only person he feels really comfortable around”: they can talk. Elaine, played by Katharine Ross, (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), sheds some of her own innocence in a different way: by taking on this complex young man and the realities he brings to light. In her struggle for truth, she lets out an awesome, glass-breaking scream in two separate, emotionally intense scenes, both of which take place in bedrooms amid argumentation with Benjamin. And she finally does not wither under her mother’s pressure, but stands up to her, enduring a slap in the face, and breaks the proverbial cord that would otherwise keep her tied to her mother. Through that coveted prize, love, Elaine establishes her identity and lessens the chances of making the same mistakes that her mother did.
In his crisis, Benjamin faces a world that not only misunderstands him but also wants to fight him down. At first subtly, as in the hilarious hotel scenes where the leering Buck Henry, (who also co-wrote the script for this movie), as the desk clerk skillfully combats the still innocent Benjamin with feigned ignorance as a way of forcing Benjamin into a position of looking, and feeling, ridiculous. It is comedic genius that has undoubtedly influenced many directors. “What’s Up Doc?”, comes to mind with its incredibly funny hotel scenes, which take place in San Francisco. Also, in these “Taft Hotel” scenes, an indistinguishable Mike Farrell makes an early cameo as a bell-hop.
Benjamin’s next jouster comes in the form of his temporary landlord at Berkeley. Benjamin has driven all the way from Los Angeles, through the sweeping pines and imperial ocean-views of Big Sur, in order to win the lovely Elaine. There are anodyne, patrician scenes roving the Berkeley campus, or the USC campus, as both were used. Hence, the landlord wants to know if Benjamin is a student. Benjamin answers, with his artless naivete, “no”, to which the landlord asks, gruffly; “Well, what are you then?”, and all but accuses Benjamin of being “an agitator”. The hostility only hightens, and Elaine’s infamous scream does not help matters but brings the landlord to the door telling Benjamin that he wants him out. When Benjamin asks, “why?”, the landlord answers simply, with gritting teethe, “because, I don’t like you.” Other boys who live in the dorm appear at Benjamin’s door, and we get a surprising glimpse of a very young Richard Dreyfuss eagerly offering, “Shall I get the cops?” and “I’ll get the cops,” chubby cheeks and all!
The music of Simon & Garfunkel have made this movie a nostalgia film, with songs such as, “The Sounds Of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair”, conjuring dolorous choral hymns, that are now synonymous with a generation which founded - through good timing and a certain flair - a legendary break with “the establishment”. The soundtrack to The Graduate surpassed even The Beatles for a while, and the spirit of the duo have lasted through the generations, their influence outliving other talented, well-known bands of the era; such as, The Birds, or Seals & Crofts. Conversely, the soundtrack greatly influenced the popularity of the movie. And the film itself was chosen by the National Film Registry, in 1996, for preservation as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In the end, Benjamin has won his love, but rather than ending with a romantic kiss, like past generations of love stories, the camera focuses on our hero, as it did in the beginning of the movie when he was seated in the plane with a look of anxiety. Now he is seated silently next to Elaine at the back of a bus, and it is hard to interpret what exactly is going on in his mind: he is at first gleeful, then contemplative, but not exactly anxious, and then the haunting refrain of Simon & Garfunkel, “Hello darkness my old friend…”, glides in to finish the story. And like Holden Caulfield, who realized some of the answers to life but ultimately had to accept that saving the whole world would remain illusive, Benjamin has not escaped his old friend, “darkness”; he still has his future to worry about, and not just for himself but for two people now. Yet, the new light in his eyes and his love sitting beside him say that maybe he will, at least, not be alone as he figures out what to do with his life.