Real/Reel Imapct: The Graduate

Set in an affluent, upper-middle class suburb of Los Angeles, the Mike Nichols-directed blockbuster The Graduate not only dealt with the generation gap, but also helped to widen that gap considerably.

“The Graduate” also marked Hollywood’s first breakthrough into the 18-25 market in many years. Rather singlehandedly, despite initially mixed reviews, “The Graduate” caused attendance to rise significantly for the first time since the 1945-1946 film season.

Anti-Hero Film Cycle

The success of “The Graduate” spawned a cycle of anti-hero films which continued for several years, including Alice’s Restaurant, The Panic in Needle Park, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, High, Head, Pretty Poison, Play is as it Lays, Alex in Wonderland, Little Faus and Big Halsy, Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, Move, The Strawberry Statement, WUSA, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Drive, He Said, Dusty and Sweets McGee, Glen and Randa, The Pursuit of Happiness, A Safe Place, Skezag, Taking Off, THX 1138, 200 Motels, Two-Lane Blacktop, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, The Christian Licorice Store, Cisco Pike, Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, Electra Glide in Blue, Payday, and Stardust.

At the same time that “The Graduate” gave the film industry a big push, it was stylistically and thematically a significant change of pace for Hollywood. Andrew Sarris writes that the movie came out at a time, when many filmmakers imagined that changing audiences implied a changing world, and this was one illusion fostered by ‘The Graduate.'”

Young and Old

Many older viewers were rightfully angered by the depiction of the adult characters, a factor that in retrospect only encouraged the generation gap to widen. Older viewers were especially offended by the pathetic Mrs. Robinson, whose first name is never even mentioned. She is a villainess once she becomes Benjamin’s lover, presented as a calculating, predatory, and unfeeling woman. When Benjamin tries to engage her in pre-sex dialogue, she dryly quips, “I don’t think we have much to say to each other.” And in one of the film’s sharpest lines, Benjamin tells Mrs. Robinson, “Do you think I’m proud that I spend my time with a broken-down alcoholic”

It is Mrs. Robinson who has to suffer the consequences of the affair, not Benjamin. She is the one who ultimately gets left out in the cold, losing her lover, her husband, and her daughter. One critic recently wrote of the film that, “seen in 1990, the revue-sketch brilliance of the writing and the skill of Hoffman and Bancroft are overwhelmed by the nasty priggishness of the sexual ideology.” The film smugly rewards the Younger Man and damns the Older Woman.

Shattering Sexuality and Monogamy

The movie, in a single stroke, shattered the Hollywood myth of universal monogamy with the outrageous sexual triangle presented of mother-daughter-young lover, or Mrs. Robinson-Elaine-Benjamin. The illicit affair between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s partner, leads to Benjamin’s falling in love with Mrs. Robinson’s beautiful daughter. At first, when Elaine finds out that Benjamin was sleeping with her mother, she doesn’t want to see him anymore. But at the end of the film, due to Benjamin’s persistence, romantic love is celebrated over calculated and self-serving sex as Benjamin disrupts Elaine’s marriage ceremony to a “square” medical student. For the first time in Hollywood history, a man could have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter, without going to jail.

The writer Daphne Merkin writes of how seeing the film in 1967, at age 13, changed her life: “What I was left with as I sat in the movie theater was an enlarged sense of the erotic, a glimpse of new vistas out there in the Country of Sex: passion could be tipped with contempt, desire shot through with fury; you could sexually need someone the way Mrs. Robinson needed Benjamin and at the same time consider such a person beneath serious consideration. But the most interesting of all was the triangulation of the sexual motif, a young man who slept with first mother, then daughter, and got to cast one off for the other – here were incestuous doings presented as the shiniest, most new-penny romances! All of this had not previously been seen in an American film.

The scene where Benjamin ruins the wedding ceremony was the most compelling and unforgettable moment in the film, where the themes of a decrepit adult world and a new sexual world came together. For Andrew Sarris writes, this was “one of the inspiringly absurdist images of the late sixties and early seventies.” In this one image, the generation gap and its result, the sexual revolution, are clearly expressed.

More than anything else, “The Graduate” affected American sexuality. The overall sexual detail and frankness of the film was revolutionary, and marked the collapse of censorship codes. While Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson may have been illicit, it was glorified by the film’s openness. For instance, Mrs. Robinson bluntly tells Benjamin, while making a pass at him, “I’m very neurotic. What do you think of me”

Together with Mrs. Robinson in their hotel bedroom, Benjamin honestly terms their affair “sick” and “perverted.” And when Benjamin tries to later explain his affair with Mrs. Robinson to her bereaved husband, he says it was “Just another thing that happened to me… Just like shaking hands.” The point is that all of this sexually neurotic behavior, sickness and perversion, and “shaking of hands” is celebrated by the film: it is a lot of fun. As Daphne Merkin quotes Luis Bunuel, “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt.” This was also the message of The Graduate.

The frankness of the film’s language was one of its strong points, and inspired a new inhibition in popular discourse about sexuality. When Mrs. Robinson first attempts to seduce the nervous Benjamin, she blurts out “Would you like me to seduce you Is that what you are trying to tell me, Benjamin” Later, Mrs. Robinson asks Benjamin, “Do you find me undesirable” His answer is an insult, although seemingly unintentional: “No. I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.”

Melancholy Music

Another kind of language, the melancholy music of youth culture heroes Simon and Garfunkel, cannot be overlooked in regards to the film’s success and affect on its audiences. The Simon and Garfunkel songs, which are interspersed throughout the film, especially “The Sound of Silence,” created not just a soundtrack for the film, but also a soundtrack for the lives of American youth at the time. Combined with the archetypal 1960s story of the film, the songs expertly created a zeitgeist of youthful isolation for those days. Simon and Garfunkel’s music was at that time termed “Dilemna Singing.”

In an early scene in the film, Benjamin tells his father that, “I want my future to be… different.” It is in this way that “The Graduate” spoke for young people of 1967. As Michael W. Foley wrote in a 1977 article entitled “Turning Thirty With `The Graduate'”: “Benjy’s unrest with the expectations of parental society, and his ultimate rebellion against its restrictions, however inchoate, were a mirror for a generation concerned about the war, poverty and pollution, experimenting with drugs and sex and new life styles and, whether straight or hip, thoroughly uneasy with the times.”