Reel Classic: The Graduate

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Written by Lily Davis.

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Meet the graduate; Benjamin Braddock. He’s 21 years old, fresh out of college and about to move back in with his parents to their middle class suburban nightmare. Ben, played by a young Dustin Hoffman, simply doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do now. Smothered by pressure from his parents and their friends he drifts aimlessly, mostly in their private pool, until becoming entangled in a sticky affair with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Even an affair can’t prove a distraction from the boredom. However things change when Benjamin falls for Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine.

The Graduate was released in 1967, only a year after Mike Nichols’ directorial debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There are observable similarities between these two films. Namely how Nichols again depicts a highly unpleasant middle class America. In The Graduate this is constructed through an exploration of the generation gap, which was of key social relevance at the time. The ideological differences between youth of that generation and their parents were expanding. This is embodied in Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben, who is disenchanted with the lifestyle set out by his parents. Nichols positions his audience to empathise with Benjamin’s sense of disillusionment. The gawking faces of the Braddocks and of their fake friends leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. There is a distance between these two generations that is not breached within the film. Rather their lack of understanding is explored but ultimately left unresolved.

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Mr. Braddock: What’s the matter? The guests are all downstairs, Ben, waiting to see you.
Benjamin: Look, Dad, could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?
Mr. Braddock: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born. What is it, Ben?
Benjamin: I’m just…
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Benjamin: Well…
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don’t know… I want it to be…
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: … Different.

Mike Nichols artfully constructs this film, with influences from the French New Wave. This is reflected in the jilted angles and interesting use of framing throughout the film. The style of narrative is also reminiscent of this movement. The film at times has a dazed atmosphere, as Benjamin floats without purpose in the crystal waters of his pool, accompanied by the soothing tones of Simon and Garfunkel. The Graduate has an enchanting pace and feel, with moments of great comedic value.

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A large part of the films strength rides on its performances. They are simply outstanding. This was recognised in the Academy Awards of 1968, where the three leads were each nominated for their respective roles. Hoffman and Bancroft especially shine. They portray their characters with insight and mastery. The bumbling graduate, inexperienced but unsure of exactly what it is he wants to experience, next to the seductive older woman, embittered by what life has dealt her. The dynamic between them is seamless, and in many instances humorous. There’s something amusing about the pairing of these two, although ultimately their relationship proves ruinous.

Before finishing it seems fitting to revisit the closing sequence that has rendered The Graduate iconic and unforgettable. As the two lovers sit smiling sporadically on the back seat of a runaway bus, we realise that ultimately the message of the film is that love offers us redemption. While we may not have reached a tangible resolution, we get the sense that Benjamin’s love for Elaine has offered him a second chance and maybe even the sense of purpose he couldn’t find. These elements all combine to cement Nichols’ film as a classic. It’s a classic that has many a time left me in tears as the credits roll, not because it’s overly heart wrenching, but because I think it’s just so damn good.

“Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” Well, this film has sure got me.

– L.D.

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