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The Graduate (1967)

The Graduate

After almost fifty years of accolades and praise it’s hard to imagine some folks out there still haven’t seen The Graduate. If you have yet to enjoy this classic of American cinema, now’s the time. Even for those who have seen it before, the movie is an immersive experience that deserves a second (or third) viewing. Like with all films that become staples of pop culture, often the way it is portrayed and referenced is only representative of a fraction of the overall experience of the movie. Much of the focus has been on Mrs. Robinson’s brief affair with Benjamin, but this is not indicative of the tone and theme, oversimplifies the plot, and takes attention away from Mike Nichols’ expertly-crafted film.

Viewers are most likely already familiar with the basic story elements. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has arrived home after graduating college to a party thrown for him by his middle-class parents and all their friends. He is concerned about his future from the start, and seems to have no real goal or plan, despite the many words of advice from the older generation. The wife of a friend of the family, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), aggressively peruses Benjamin to begin an affair. After initially rejecting her on moral grounds, he eventually gives in. When Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine comes home for a visit from college, Benjamin’s parents pressure him into seeing her (against Mrs. Robinson’s wishes). He ends up falling for Elaine, and the elder Robinson threatens to tell her daughter the truth if Benjamin does not stop seeing her.

With all the hoopla over Mrs. Robinson people forget that it’s called The Graduate; the film is about the period in a young person’s life when they are leaving school and are at a loss for what to do. For kids who have grown up there whole life being told they have to go to college, the first twenty-one years of their existence has been planned out for them. The true center of the film is this overall sense of floating, not going forwards or backwards. Benjamin is stagnant, unsure and uncaring. His romantic interests only serve as a distraction for the real questions: What do I do now? How do I even begin to start making my own decisions? How do I break away from my parents?

Mrs. Robinson and Elaine are convenient; they create drama and conflict in a joyless life that has no action for a man with nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Love” for Elaine gives him a purpose. The affair Mrs. Robinson is a form of self-destruction, and their emotionless encounters are an outward manifestation of how he feels inside. The film’s form reflects this with beautiful shots of Benjamin in the pool, literally and metaphorically floating, juxtaposed with scenes of his sexual encounters. The lighting and props reiterate the motifs of blue and water throughout the film, and the lovely Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack create an ethereal, hypnotizing effect in these scenes. Close-ups of Hoffman’s perfectly blank face and empty stare, often distorted through glass, accentuate his passive dissatisfaction.

As with any great film, The Graduate has stood the test of time because it speaks to some part of the country’s cultural experience. At the time of its release it reflected disaffected youth and their feelings toward the older generation that had betrayed them. Modern audiences may or may not be able to relate to this generationally divisive time, but the feelings of dazedness, confusion, and disconnectedness upon graduation are just as potent and pertinent today as they were in ’67.

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