Sunday, December 14, 2008
The Graduate (1967) *****
To really get what a classic “The Graduate” is, it helps to consider that it perfectly captured the shifting societal mood of its time, but is still imminently watchable today. Prior to the late ‘60’s, movies almost always portrayed a positive outlook on America and our way of life. A few films, like “Rebel Without a Cause,” bucked that trend, but in general, Hollywood told America what it wanted to hear about itself. In westerns, the guys in white came out on top; in love stories, the guy got the girl; and in war movies (not to mention the wars themselves), America always triumphed. In the ‘60’s, people were questioning the American dream, and Hollywood started to really dip its toes into those turbulent waters with movies like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “The Graduate.” Movies like these paved the way for what is today an almost dogmatically pessimistic view of American life among artistic films.
The standard description of “The Graduate” is that it is about a younger man, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who has an affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). That misses the point of the movie, though. There is an affair, of course, and as far as that goes, it is fairer to say that it is about an older woman who seduces a younger man. The affair is initiated by Mrs. Robinson as a way to restore her sexual confidence and escape her boring, affluent life and inattentive husband. Being with a younger man, of course, helps her deal with her fear of aging and her disillusionment. The affair is also meant to help her combat her fear that her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) now possesses the youth and beauty that Mrs. Robinson once had, which is why she reacts so jealously when Benjamin takes notice of Elaine’s photograph.
But “The Graduate” is mainly about Benjamin, and for him, the affair is almost incidental. He IS trapped into the “sick” affair, but in the end it is really a more or less convenient way for him to deal with his horniness while he floats aimlessly through post-college life, waiting to be struck by the desire to make something of himself. He has successfully jumped through all the hoops his parents and society have set up for him, and faced with yet another hoop, graduate school, he suddenly finds himself completely without motivation. He looks ahead to a life of suburban homes, cocktail parties, and cheating wives, and he balks.
The affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson is, of course, a major portion of the film, but when you take a step back and look at how Ben’s life is unfolding, the affair is not really a seminal event. The movie starts with a party celebrating Ben’s college graduation, and it is apparent that his academic career has been a success. Interestingly, the party is populated entirely by friends of his parents, so the tone is set early on that Ben hasn’t yet established his own identity. Ben’s attitude toward the party can be interpreted as shyness around all those older folks, but we eventually see that Ben is feeling deeply lost. We are left to guess at when and how he turned this corner, but he seems to have succumbed to the feeling that he has spent 20 years pursuing his parents’ dreams for him. He now finds himself very empty, without anything of his own to pursue.
Elaine gives Ben something to pursue. He is initially cold to her, at the insistence of her jealous mother, but he inevitably warms to the joy of being with someone his own age. Once he gets past her shyness, Ben falls for Elaine, and it is this, not the affair, that is the seminal event in the film. Falling in love awakens Ben to himself, gives him a sense of purpose, and makes him a man.
“The Graduate” is not an entirely perfect movie. Some of the directorial choices, like the rapid flashes of nudity in one scene, look a little dated now. I also think that Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson as a tad overly harsh, which is ironic, because the role was supposedly very difficult for the normally sweet-natured Bancroft. The occasional flaw really isn’t worth quibbling over, though. In its witty, artful way, “The Graduate” is truly one of the great films.
5 stars out of 5