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Why Every Twenty-Something Should Watch The Graduate

Updated on January 14, 2015

Even those who haven't seen the movie will recognize this iconic shot

Older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) puts on her stockings after a fight with her lover, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman.)
Older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) puts on her stockings after a fight with her lover, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman.) | Source

The Graduate has everything a movie lover could want

Not only is this 1967 film, directed by Mike Nichols, regarded as a classic, but it has every reason to be regarded as such. It's the perfect blend of funny and sad, and it's peppered with delightful performances from all sides. It's visually appealing, and the writing and dialogue is strong. The soundtrack is impeccable, because there's no one on the face of the planet who can possibly dislike Simon & Garfunkle. It's just about perfect, or perhaps I just feel that way because I empathize with the main character.

Benjamin Braddock, portrayed by a very sexy 29-year-old Dustin Hoffman, comes home after graduating from college without any idea of what to do with his future. His parents alternately throw parties for him and then harass him with questions about what he's going to do with his life. His only form of excitement comes in the form of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older woman who seduces him.

Benjamin, despite warnings from the jealous Mrs. Robinson, is pressured into taking the daughter, Elaine Robinson, out on a date. While he first acts cold and rude to her, the two grow quite fond of each other. That is, until the truth about the affair comes out, and Benjamin embarks on a journey to win Elaine back.

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It's normal to feel a little disillusioned with life

Although it's common to think of teenagers as the most angst-filled demographic, I'd argue that it's the twenty-somethings who are the truly disenchanted ones. That's not to say that it's particularly unjustified. Sure, I have more opportunities than I would have had fifty years ago, especially as a woman. I have more career and family options. With the resources I have, I'm able to learn more than the generations before me ever could have dreamed of. I have a college education. I'm single and alone, but I'm able to afford and take care of a cat. That being said, it's possible I'll never own a house, and I certainly won't be able to retire at a reasonable age. Most of my friends are struggling with college loan debt. Parts of being a young person really, truly suck right now.

The Graduate makes me want to embrace my angst, to enjoy the sort of bittersweet relationship I have with life. Benjamin is weighed down with expectations that he either can't or doesn't want to fulfill. For instance, he is put on display by his parents on his birthday in the painfully awkward scene where they dress him in a scuba suit and push him into the pool. He tries to get out of the pool, but his father keeps pushing him back down. He sinks to the bottom and just stands there in the silence.

This scene is heartbreaking as well. Not only can Benjamin not hear what his parents are saying to him, but he cannot communicate with them either as they push him back into the pool. All he can hear is his own breathing in the scuba mask. There is no music, so we are tuned in to just how isolated and hopeless Benjamin feels. The visuals are much sharper without the music, as well, as there is nothing to distract us from them. The camera pulls back, and we see Benjamin standing still on the bottom of the pool, waiting for a time that others deem is appropriate to resurface.

Having money doesn't always make you happy

People like to quote the intensely annoying platitude, "Well, money can't buy you happiness!" I've noticed that the people who say this usually have more than enough money and are saying it to people who have significantly less money. However, there is some truth in it. I mean, as an adult, I've never been even remotely wealthy (I have an English degree, for God's sake), but I have had some jobs that paid more than others. But I wasn't always content in those situations. In fact, money, high society, and whatever else can push you farther and farther away from what you really want, which is evidenced clearly in the film.

Benjamin comes from a wealthy and prominent family. He lives in a fancy house with a pool, and he has a proper education. His parents throw lavish parties often. However, this isn't what he wants. But, of course, he doesn't really know exactly what he wants. Upon his return, his mother and father throw a welcome home party for him where he endures some painful small talk with his yuppie neighbors before attempting to escape into his room.

Despite all the people around him, Benjamin feels alone and isolated, which I think can be a familiar feeling for a twenty-something who just left college and is trying to find a new journey in life. At the party, the guests offer Benjamin advice without him asking for it and then don't seem to listen when he replies which is indicative of his inability to connect with other people, particularly those who, he feels, expect something from him.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft have an undeniable chemistry

At Mrs. Robinson's insistence, Benjamin unzips her dress after he takes her back to her place from his welcome home party.
At Mrs. Robinson's insistence, Benjamin unzips her dress after he takes her back to her place from his welcome home party. | Source

It's tragically funny

Now, I don't want to give you the idea that it's a complete downer. It's certainly a sad film, but most films are when you really sit down and think about them. There aren't many comedic moments in the film, but the ones that are there are spot on. Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the sexually inexperienced and downright frightened Benjamin produces some big laughs. This is especially the case when Bancroft and Hoffman are on screen together, as they play off of each other beautifully. Bancroft has such a commanding, confident presence that Hoffman's character comes off as silly by comparison.

My favorite joke in the film is one that is small, but it occurs twice. Each time that Mr. Robinson asks Benjamin if he drinks Scotch, Benjamin replies, "Bourbon," only to have Mr. Robinson fill his glass up with Scotch anyway. It's funny, but in a horribly sad way. Although everyone is so keen on giving Benjamin advice or just talking at him in general, few people are interested in listening to Benjamin in reciprocation.

Dustin Hoffman discusses his character in The Graduate

The characters act out our fantasies

Although Benjamin doesn't have much direction in his life as far as a career, he's extraordinarily gutsy in his few romantic relationships. I'm sure everyone's been attracted to someone who was completely off-limits at least at some point in his or her life. But, after a little persuasion and thought, he goes for it with Mrs. Robinson despite the almost certain consequences. a situation which provides the audience with a sort of artificial sexual outlet.

This sense of catharsis comes again at the end when Benjamin disrupts Elaine's wedding and successfully runs away with her. Although their fate as a couple is uncertain or perhaps even destined to fail, the audience feels a sense of relief. The tension has been released, even if it might not end up the way that our characters had envisioned it. There's a sort of quiet beauty in trying but failing, and that comes through clearly in the film.

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The ending shot of the couple when the adrenaline starts to wear off

Elaine (Katharine Ross) and Benjamin sit in silence after their successful escape from the church and from the expectations of their respective families.
Elaine (Katharine Ross) and Benjamin sit in silence after their successful escape from the church and from the expectations of their respective families. | Source

Water is an obvious motif throughout the film

Benjamin hides from the party guest in his room next to his aquarium.
Benjamin hides from the party guest in his room next to his aquarium. | Source

The visual details are subtle and elegant

Despite it's age, The Graduate is still very pretty to look at. The camerawork is smooth and unobtrusive, and some of the shots turned out breathtaking. The beginning of the film, for instance, is an example of how subtle and crisp the shots are. The camera follows Benjamin as he travels down an automatic walkway in an airport, looking straight ahead as the credits appear in the blank space in front of his face. It's simple and bleak and perfect.

Even the little details such as the d├ęcor of the house seem to have some sort of poignancy to them. As Benjamin is reluctantly going down to meet the guests, the camera catches a glimpse of a gloomy clown painting in the background. One could read into this, saying it symbolizes Benjamin's feelings towards being put on display and expected to act in a certain way to appease society. The film is filled with these little visual tidbits that probably don't mean anything specific but add another dimension to the story.

Parting thoughts

As of now, 19 December 2014, The Graduate is still on Netflix. Whether you are a disillusioned twenty-something who has no direction in life or you are a bit more settled in your career and family endeavors, the film has so much to offer. Upon each viewing, I discover something new and have a slightly different experience it. Go watch the movie right now.

The Graduate, of course, gets a 10 out of 10.

A promo shot for the film

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft pose for a promo shot for the film.
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft pose for a promo shot for the film. | Source

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    • UndercoverAgent19 profile image
      Author

      Jen Corrigan 2 years ago

      Lynda, thank you for sharing your story and insight. As the saying goes, money can't buy you happiness but it can help you live in comfortable misery. I very much agree with you that life success and satisfaction has very little correlation with material wealth. I suppose that everyone must come to that conclusion at the right time in his or her life, and I anticipate that I will continue to change and grow in my outlook as I mature.

    • lyndapringle profile image

      Lynda Pringle 2 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I am now 50 years old. I saw The Graduate as a 17 year old high school student. I did not get it. It was so far beyond my ken because Benjamin had the life I wanted for myself. I was being raised by a single mother and we lived in a small apartment and did not have much money or business network buddies. I was going to be fortunate enough to be able to attend college but, what I got out of that movie, as a 17 year old is that I wanted to live in that big house, with the swimming pool and the nice parties. I wanted a superlative life in the suburbs with lots of parties.

      Well, I have most of that now. I am married to an attorney who provided well for me. We live in a lovely home in the suburbs (no pool though) with a fireplace. We drive nice cars and have had the fortune to see much of Europe and the United States. The more advantageous life of Benjamim came true for me.

      However, material things do not a complete life make. Despite my nice life, I still had Benjamin like moments of angst in my 20-40s. In my 20s, I worried about not succeeding in any career despite my college degrees, not being able to pay off my debts. As many 20 year olds are, I was worried about social success. As I experienced the good life with my husband in my 30s and 40s, I still suffered from Benjamin angst. I still had not achieved success in any career I had chosen. I had undergone personal crisis that could have derailed most people, crisis that I had never anticipated would occur. I resigned from a traumatic job in 2010 and have had problems finding employment since then. I experienced some despair when I found a temporary job, only to fail the qualifiers to continue with the job.

      However, the older you get, failures will be just as part of your life as successes. I have had a lot of success such as my two college degees and a good marriage and achieving my dreams to travel but there will always be that Benjamin angst for things that might have been.

      This is the human condition. I have experienced it and you will too at various stages in your life. It is isn't until now that I understand the message of The Graduate. Material wealth has nothing to do with success. What constitutes success is being true to your dreams, to your personality, to maintain convictions and morals, to do your best to work at what you love. A big home is meaningless if you just drift along in life as Benjamin did throughout much of that film, doing what his dad wanted, engaging in an affair simply because it was convenient. His life success did not start until he decided to be true to his desires and personality and go after the woman he loved.