By Jeremy Carr.
Ben Braddock, Dustin Hoffman’s titular character from Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate, is first seen staring straight ahead aboard an airplane. He looks off in a trance-like gaze that will be repeated throughout the film. This type of far-away expression is the perfect physical pose— and an apt visual signifier—for Ben’s reflective apprehension, which occupies a fair amount of the movie’s early section. He is often shown as an observer, thinking and worrying, though his degree of passivity versus his degree of engagement is frequently left uncertain.
As The Graduate’s poster states, “Benjamin is a little worried about his future.” Just out of college, he has his doubts about what comes next. This sense of aimlessness and disenchantment is largely why the film still resonates nearly 50 years after its release. These are introspective concerns relevant and topical for the conflicted generations who first saw The Graduate as well as today’s millennial brand of indecisive undergrads. Unfortunately, where the film falters, where its timeliness fades and this relevance becomes antiquated, is most everything else that interrupts or follows these moments of reflection. Still, to Ben’s credit, and to the credit of writers Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (screenplay) and Charles Webb (source novel), who created an incisive story based around a thoughtful character like Ben, such self-examination, however fleeting, is laudable.
If Hoffman’s wayward son appears to be simply drifting along (and he says as much at one point), it is a stagnant reaction against personal pressure more than it is actual laziness. Upon his return home, the hassle of his celebratory welcome party, with a bombardment of guests and questions and inane comments, is for a time shot in a single take, in uncomfortably tight though effectively comical close ups. Ben’s world—and Nichols’ mise-en-scene—grows increasingly confined and intensely restricted. Guest upon guest essentially echoes the exhaustive refrain of, “What are you going to do now?” Everyone is after Ben to have a plan: a plan for graduate school, a plan for his future occupation (“plastics,” a family friend famously suggests), a plan for domestic stability, and so on. And they have to be thought out and reasonable plans, too. Nothing half-baked like his later presumptive engagement to Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).
As a conflicted character, Ben is marred by severe social ineptitude, ranging from unnecessary rudeness (to Anne Bancroft’s seminal Mrs. Robinson, even before she makes overt attempts to seduce him) to fretful awkwardness (around most of the adults in the room). He exists in a perpetual state of anxiety, one for which sexual release could be a reasonable remedy. But as audibly evidenced by his defeated whimpers, for a 21-year-old man, he is hopelessly inexperienced and psychologically unprepared. His abrupt, robotic groping of Mrs. Robinson’s breast is a clear indication of his simplicity and indelicacy.
With this in mind, then, until Elaine enters the picture and Ben begins to shift his romantic interests, The Graduate is essentially a nearly 40-minute gag of mismatched lovers and sexual discomfort. Mrs. Robinson is an emphatic seductress, feigning coyness to start but never fooling the audience or Ben, who does acknowledge she is the most attractive of his parents’ friends (and the wife of his father’s partner). And there is some comedy in Ben’s mother assuring others he has “gotten beyond the teeny boppers,” which dryly sets up the impending affair between he and the older Mrs. Robinson (really only a gap of six years between the two actors). Yet for all this illicit philandering and the film’s then casual daring in terms of approaching the affair with humor, the basic sexual mores of the movie are somewhat dated, not uncommon for an older movie, to be sure, but worth noting here given the film’s standing as counterculture benchmark. Even beyond the actual scandal of the affair, now seen as purely comical rather than remotely risqué, the shock of Mrs. Robinson’s pregnancy before marriage or Ben’s youthfully bumbling “inadequacies” when it comes to bedroom matters can’t help but be topically outmoded.
It is with this narrative dichotomy of meaningful contemplation and the now rather inoffensive immorality that The Graduate seems to fluctuate between two different plots, almost two different movies. At least until the film’s final act, where it becomes a third. As Ben tracks down Elaine at Berkeley, the film takes on the tone and pace of a hurried, race-against-the-clock romantic comedy, following his screwball pursuit and push for marriage. Then, in a subtle, surprising move that reintegrates the film’s initial poignancy, The Graduate restores and concludes with its most profound, and enduring, thematic point of interest. Just as Ben and Elaine apparently secure their previously thwarted romance, victoriously escaping on their own and hopping a bus like renegade lovers on the run, the second to last ambiguous shot of the movie shows the couple staring ahead in bewilderment, with more than a hint of trepidation. Back where he started the film, Ben is facing ahead but with no plan. Only this time, he has company.
Ben was a success in college, excelling in track and on the debate team (as his parents unabashedly tout any chance they get), but where is the substance in these achievements and their real world application? When Ben starts to act out, he is doing so only after suffering under the weighty dilemmas of what to do with his life post-collegiate triumph. As much as anything, he seems to be seeking solace and purpose, a reason. Perhaps that is why the film’s ostensible happy ending is not fully satisfying and even deceiving. He acted hastily and now faces the consequences of unanswered (or perhaps unasked) questions. Ben may have accomplished his goal of reuniting with Elaine, but where does that leave him in terms of what comes next in his life, specifically the next steps in a job or further education? And what about Elaine’s future? Can she ever go back to her family after the recently despairing actions that have taken place? Love can conquer all in theory, and that is essentially what the latter portion of The Graduate seems to propagate, but what happens to Ben’s existential concerns? This final act is a fine love story, and Ben’s desperation is endearing, but is that why The Graduate lasts?
By framing Ben through an aquarium (symbolically drowning) or through Mrs. Robinson’s legs for the famous line “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” (which is followed by the more important “Aren’t you?” emphasizing Ben’s naive skepticism), Nichols keeps The Graduate visually interesting most of the time. When he’s not adopting one of these self-consciously stylized single shots, he is restraining the vantage point to long takes that allow the performers, especially Hoffman, who works himself up into an increasing tizzy as the time permits, to revel in the quality of script. So while even though some of The Graduate’s emotional dynamism may have dissipated since its initial release, and today’s younger audience may not empathize with Ben’s pensive plight, there can be no denying the film still largely holds up on the basis of its multiple iconic moments and some of the most memorable passages and images in film history. These features might not give the film a resounding and resilient application, but at the very least, the movie remains often very funny, sophisticated, sharply written, and wisely directed. And like Ben’s contemplation, it still gives viewers something to think about.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinmea, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.
The Graduate was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.