There was a great debate within me as to wither or not I should watch this film so early in my viewings. The Graduate is easily in my my top five films of all time. From the first moment we see Ben’s face as he stares blankly ahead on the plane to the end when we see him run the emotional gambit, I am hooked. The movie is (loosely) based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb and focuses on Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate coming home for the summer. The film follows him as he delves into an affair with a friend of the family, Mrs. Robinson, and the complications that arise when he falls for her daughter, Elaine.
Hot off his critical acclaim for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols was tapped as director. A very well known New York theater director, he brought a new kind of energy and garnered unique performances from his actors to the screen. The script was written by Buck Henry, thought it did go through many drafts before the book was even presented to him. Buck did a great service to the movie by removing some of the scenes that were present in the book, but didn’t quite translate well into flow of the film. For example, Ben goes to become a volunteer firefighter and hitchhikes through California (plot points both present in the book & early drafts of the script). The biggest diversion from the book that Nichols took was that of casting Dustin Hoffman as Ben. The book paints him as a “WASPy, Blond Californian” and in the beginning, that was exactly what Nichols was trying to cast. The more actors he saw, the more he felt like it wasn’t the right characterization. After seeing Dustin Hoffman on stage in New York, he flew him to California to screen test him. Within a few days, Nichols called him to tell him he was Benjamin Braddock.
What Dustin Hoffman brings to the movie is that perfect blend of awkward energy and apathy that I think everyone can relate to in one way or another. Of all the aspects that makes this film great, it’s Dustin Hoffman as Ben that always invokes emotion. The first time I saw the movie, I was sitting in a community college classroom in a rather deep depression. After a year of hard work, I had to face the facts: I was stuck in Jacksonville and there was nothing I could do about it. As the opening chords to “Sound of Silence” began to play, underscoring Ben’s ride on the moving sidewalk, I instantly felt connected to Ben. I knew what he was feeling, what he was thinking, and worse, what was keeping him up at night. Everyone has had these moments; where you feel like you’ve hit a crucial fork in the road and you don’t know (or don’t want to choose) which path to take. It’s this connection that makes you like Ben, even when he’s doing something as unsavory as engaging in an affair with a married woman. Mrs. Robinson, played by the late Anne Bancroft, is a cold, aggressive woman who “makes herself available” to Ben. We know little about her until the very pivotal “Art” scene. It is absolutely heartbreaking watching her talk about what brought her to this point. You get the feeling this is the first time she’s spoken about it with anyone since it happened. Even when she turns into a major antagonist for Ben, I always still hurt for her and what has become of her life.
Underscoring the action of the film is the music of Simon and Garfunkel. The duo’s bare, two guitar sound brings dimension to the film and, at points, seems to emphasis feeling when words aren’t enough. I even love the fact that the same few songs seem to be replayed throughout various part of the movie. It reminds me of the times I’ll have put a song on repeat, usually while I’m wallowing in some depression. It makes sense to me that Ben would find a song and want to play it over & over. “Scarborough Fair” (and it’s reprises) come at the point in the film where he is wandering through Berkley, watching Elaine from a distance. The dreamy sound of the vocals, mixed with the light guitar give the scenes a surreal feeling. You can’t help but feel that sort of sad desperation that follows Ben as he works up the nerve to approach Elaine.
The visual look of the film helps to emphasis where Ben is emotional and personally. When he first comes home, he is surrounded by a sterile, white environment; the blank slate that is currently his feelings of his future. A black and white pallet starts to gray as he becomes more involved with Mrs. Robinson and the summer wears on. Once he “breaks out” and chases Elaine, he is out in the real world and is around more natural colors. Of course, this is partly due to the fact location shooting took place, but even in the room he rents, the pallet has a more neutral tone. The sharp edges of his parents world becomes soft by Ben’s rejection of their idea of his future.
The Graduate has stayed fresh for the past 40+ years due to it’s always relevant subject matter. Every generation looks at their parents and rejects what they deem to be “the right path”. The film has continued to connect with its audiences because, despite what we might think, we are not the first to wander aimless; nor shall we be the last. We will make silly choices or find ourselves in bad situations (hopefully not as severe as Ben) as we struggle to become what we are meant to be. The final moments of the film are what always impact me the most and leave me thinking about my own life. After Ben “steals” Elaine away, they sit in the back of the bus with all eyes on them. Mike Nichols fixed the camera on them for a very extended period capturing their reactions as their actions start to truly sink in. The choice to hang onto the moment gives the audience a feeling of unease and the beginnings of regret. Nichols didn’t end the film on the rebellious high breaking into the church gave Ben. It leaves the audience unsure of the future of the two and second guessing if what he did was the right choice. The movie ends just as it began: with a lost young man, blankly staring into an unforeseeable future.