Big Screen Streaming: The Graduate
–Roger Market Takes a Look Back at Film Classics-
The Graduate, released in 1967, contains one of the most famous lines in cinema history. However, the line is frequently misquoted as a single question: “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?” Despite this sex-infused provenance, viewers know that the film is not simply about sex or adultery—or even Mrs. Robinson. The Graduate, as the title suggests, is about a recent college graduate who is trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his life. It’s funny. It’s dark. And, yes, a young man sleeps with an older woman a few times. Then he falls in love with her daughter.
Beyond sex, beyond comedy, the most prominent theme in The Graduate is aimlessness. The film opens with a montage of Ben Braddock getting off a plane. Fresh from college, he’s heading home. This opening sequence is austere and carefully crafted, featuring the first of several songs by Simon and Garfunkel. Blank facial expressions and the ingenious use of an airport’s moving walkway create discomforting imagery: a dazed Ben stands motionless on the moving sidewalk, facing left, while everyone else goes in the opposite direction, walking on the floor instead of the moving walkway. The effect is that Ben appears to be going the wrong way, against the grain of society, as if he’s lost. While other elements, including adultery, come into play soon after the opening, this theme of aimlessness never really goes away. Before Ben can relax at home, he must endure the party his parents have organized in his honor. Hating to answer questions about what he’s going to do now that’s he’s a college graduate, he makes every attempt to avoid interaction.
A young Dustin Hoffman gives a brilliant and star-making performance as Ben. Hoffman appears perfectly in tune with his character. Ben’s dialogue, as written, is consistently short and not inherently funny, but Hoffman delivers it with such a deadpan tone that viewers can’t help but laugh. One great example of this occurs when Ben tells his parents, through a series of short lines that they practically have to drag out of him, that he’s going to marry Elaine Robinson (Mrs. Robinson’s daughter). This is the first big, life-altering decision Ben makes in the movie, and it seems the theme of aimlessness is climaxing. Through his staccato delivery of the news, a speech interrupted by his concerned parents’ many questions; he manages to express some important information, revealing he may not have the firmest grip on reality. Only an hour ago did he decide to propose, Elaine doesn’t know yet, and “to be perfectly honest, she doesn’t like me,” Ben says.
While Ben does seem to be flying by the seat of his pants here, acting without a clear plan, against staggering odds, this is also where he begins to grow. For the first time since Ben arrived home as a college graduate, he sees something he wants and experiences self-determination. There’s a future after all. Thus begins the third and final act of the film, in which Ben must either convince Elaine to love him or go back home, tail between legs, directionless once again.
Hoffman’s delightful performance in The Graduate is buoyed by equally nuanced work from his two leading ladies, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross as Elaine. The three are rarely on screen together, but this separation is part of the magic that makes the movie work so well. The distinct tensions between Ben and Mrs. Robinson and between Ben and Elaine drive much of the second act, eventually merging as the film reaches its somewhat polarizing conclusion.
The Graduate grossed $105 million at the box office during its original run—a hefty profit considering production cost only $3 million. The film may have been criticized heavily in 1967, but today, it’s a classic and a model of thoughtful filmmaking. The Graduate is available to subscribers of Amazon Prime. As of February 23, 2016, it’s also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray.
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