Graduate, The (1967): Mike Nichols (Overestimated) Youth Film, Starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

Set in an affluent, upper-middle class suburb of Los Angeles, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate deals explicitly with the generation gap, and in the process helped to widen that gap considerably.
At a time–the movie was released during the Vietnam War–when so many traditionally accepted American values were challenged by youth, The Graduate added fuel to the fire of the youthful rebellion and helped give a voice to those who felt they were suffering from the strife.

“The Graduate” is not concerned with the counterculture movement.  There is just one scene in which Benjamin’s landlord at Berkeley University asks him, “You’re not one of those agitators, those outside agitators”? But the film presents a discontentedness that spoke for American youth, both mainstream and radical.

As a movie, “The Graduate” was also an idealistic and ultimately romanti growing-up story that caused many of the 1960s generation to reexamine their future and alter the course of their lives.

At the center of the film is Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, who is like J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye”: a perplexed, rather confused youngster, trying to find his own way.

In one scene, Benjamin tells his girlfriend Elaine (Katharine Ross), “My whole life is just a waste. It’s just nothing.” Benjamin’s disillusionment is revealed at his birthday party, where he becomes the “feature presentation” for his parents’ friends in a humiliating diving costume. As Dustin Hoffman put it, the character is “a walking surfboard.” Benjamin was the first movie anti-hero for 1960s American youth, released before “Bonnie and Clyde,” also in 1967, or Wyatt and Billy of “Easy Rider,” in 1969.

Ben is a moralist anti-hero, seeking meaning in his life in place of his parents’ shallow, materialistic life. Turning him into insecure, still virginal, in the end, the film rewards his never-abandoned seeking spirit with a regained and confirmed idealism.

“The Graduate” was stylistically and thematically a significant change of pace for Hollywood. Just as Benjamin questioned the values of his parents, “The Graduate,” with its French New Wave jump cuts and extreme close-ups, and theme of sexual frankness, questioned the values of traditional Hollywood films, which had existed since the 1940s.

The film’s first attack is on the “adult race,” which takes a formidable beating from its progeny. Adults are portrayed as crass, vulgar, and insensitive in The Graduate. The upper-middle class milieu is stereotyped as wholly corrupt, beyond redemption, and devoid of true love. “The Graduate” portrays marriage as a prison for these adults: Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and her husband are certainly stuck with each other.

The message of “The Graduate” was, “No matter what, do not become One of Them.” The film never compromises itself in its war on adults; there is never any reconciliation with adult society. In fact, as the film progresses, the young become younger and more attractive, and the old become only older and more frightful.

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.

At the end of the tale, when Elaine runs off with Benjamin, her mother Mrs. Robinson tells her it’s “too late.” Her daughter replies “Not for me,” and gets a slap from mom. There are Freudian implications to this scene: Mrs. Robinson’s repressed jealousy of her daughter’s beauty, youth, and sexuality. All the adults are like the living dead, perplexed by and jealous of youth, who are innocent and pure. It’s 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.

The scene where Benjamin ruins the wedding ceremony represents the most compelling and unforgettable moment in the film, where the themes of decrepit adult world and new sexual world came together. Suddenly, marriage was not holy in America anymore, even the “I do’s” had been violated. As Benjamin and Elaine rush out of the church, Benjamin uses a cross as a weapon against the adults, and then traps them in the church by barring the doors with the cross.

The frankness of the film’s language was one of the “The Graduate” strong points, and as such, inspired a new inhibition in popular discourse about sexuality. When Mrs. Robinson first seduces 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.”

But the film also highlights and makes fun of the adults’ “uncool” languageand, likewise, unauthentic young people, such as Elaine’s fianc and in a brief scene, his fraternity buddies. Benjamin’s father’s friend tells him hilariously, “There’s a great future in plastics.” This becomes one of the film’s major symbols: Plastic products stand for the adult world. They are a code for phoniness, sterility, and a “plasticene” life.

In another scene, Benjamin balks when Elaine says her “square” fianc told her they’d “make a pretty good team.” This kind of business-like language is marked in the film as being fake, which must have had an effect on American viewers, teaching them what was cool to say and what was not.

The melancholy music of youth culture heroes Simon and Garfunkel, cannot be overlooked in regards to the film’s success and impact on 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.

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.

The Graduate was nominated for seven Oscar Awards, but won only one, Best Director, which is a reflection of its originally tenuous relationship with dominant American culture.

However, the movie legitimized the youth counterculture and the generation gap, through non-conformist Benjamin Braddock, played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman.