The Graduate tells the story of the seduction of one recently graduated Benjamin Braddock by his neighbor, the proto-cougar Mrs. Robinson. Now, upon its 45th anniversary and well-timed re-release to coincide with graduations nationwide, it’s poised to be re-examined—analyzed not as a story of an affair but the story of the life of its main character.
The film begins with 20 ‘soon-to-be-21’-year-old, athlete and scholar Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returning home from college upon graduation. Despite an utterly ridiculous list of college accomplishments—captain of the cross country team, head of debating club, editor-in-chief of the college paper—he is without spirit, instantly coming off as a mumbling mush-of-a-man. And he is a little worried about his future. The poster makes it seem like the affair has got him worried, but the film imbues a different sense in the viewer: that he is worried because his future is not his.
The first moment when Benjamin elucidates this anxiety might be the most telling. It occurs during a talk with his father about why Ben doesn’t want to attend the graduation party thrown for him downstairs.
Ben: I’m just…
Ben: (sighs) Well…
Dad: About what?
Ben: I guess about my future.
Dad: What about it?
Ben: I just don’t know. I want it to be…
Dad: To be what?
Mike Nichols, who won an Academy Award for Best Director for this piece, masterfully frames the entire film to establish one theme: Ben is not in control of his life. He is not a hero and hardly the focus of his own story. The dialogue is enough to establish his feebleness in the face of life, but the way his father dominates the frame more than emphasizes the point. And throughout the film, large faces monopolize the screen. It looks wonderful, yes, but it also serves the purpose of showing how overwhelmed Benjamin is by those around him.
Even in the first scene as Ben returns home from the airport, his trip on the moving walkway (while credits of other’s names roll) creates the sense that he is on auto-pilot. The entire time he is looking around, commanded by the voices in the background, and being continuously pushed forward without any clear aim. He not only appears aimless but also looks bored. He’s in a state of lingering, yet he is dragged forward while all the real action is happening just outside the frame. Nichols alludes to the humiliating nature of this by lingering, right after Ben’s talk with his father, on a sad clown painting. Nichols, here, makes it clear he has no problem with overt symbolism, so that throughout The Graduate, anything out of place (see: the overexposed and sun-flared shot during a pool scene) is almost over-ripe with meaning.
Hoffman’s on-point patheticism place Ben within the Pierrot tradition of characters—naïve, foolish, and ultimately left heartbroken and suffering. And as he tries to make it back to his room after being pulled downstairs, he is continuously guided across the party, pulled aside, inside, outside, and away from the peace of mind he seeks. One adult after another grabs Benjamin and offer him advice (“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Plastics.”)
Ben’s powerlessness to determine what will happen to him becomes the dominant theme of the first quarter of the film. One of The Graduate’s funniest motifs is the scenario of Benjamin asking for bourbon and being handed a scotch, which could just as well serve as synecdoche for his dilemma: he’s worried that in the future he will be handed a scotch despite asking for bourbon time and time again. This, rather than sexual encounters is what he refers to when he describes his anxiety as being “sort of disturbed about things.” The other essential moment is the unveiling of Benjamin’s birthday gift to friends and family (read: society) in his back yard. The gift is a scuba suit.
He considers the entire episode ridiculous, but the applause and urgings of society prod him to actions he’d rather not take. Ben’s father, in fact, thrust him into this situation and insisted upon this societal show, a pretense (the harpoon could not have been necessary) Ben has no interest in. The obscured camera shots from the scuba mask here operates alike to the way Ben’s father’s enormous head did: they restrict his ability to move freely and serve the same purpose of horse blinders. Soon, however, after walking out and putting on a brief scuba display, he tries to surface and is pushed back down under the water by his parents. Really. Trying to surface out of the water, his parents push him back down, and he seems to go along with it to please his parents and their friends, just as he did when emerging into the asphyxiating atmosphere of his graduation party.
Nichols then cuts to a shot paralleling the earlier full body shot of Ben in full scuba regalia. His parents have pushed him into a situation of suffocation, of all-encompassing water, which any normal person would need life support to survive.
The question remains of what form that life support will take for the recent graduate Ben. The next portion of the film captures Ben foundering under the weight of this question, and with the expectation of him to do something, he turns to sloth and a sexual affair. The two are actually beautifully montaged together, set against Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will” and “The Sound of Silence.”
It is easier to make more out of the presence of Simon & Garfunkel’s songs behind the scenes of the music, but their presence amounts primarily in the same few songs played over and over: “The Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “Ms. Robinson.” With the exception of “Ms. Robinson,” these are not new, and all three are not written officially for the film. Though all are quite lovely, their connection is primarily emotional, perhaps also addressing the generation gap. “April Come She Will,” however, with its lyrics about the passing months, seasons, captures the melancholy passage of time. Ben’s slothful sun bathing then characterizes the terribly glum affair he begins having with the aforementioned Mrs. Robinson, his middle-aged neighbor and mother of a childhood friend.
This relationship, ostensibly the centerpiece of the film, is something Benjamin seems more than forced into. Not only does this sexual relationship parallel his relationship with his parents, but Mrs. Robinson’s character serves as a contrast with Ben’s inability to assert himself in nearly any situation. When they’re sitting at a hotel bar and Ben intends to order her a drink, she asserts herself, gets the waiters attention, and orders the drink before Ben can. Benjamin is framed by his surroundings in a phone booth while he calls Mrs. Robinson to nervously relay their hotel room number. This call is followed by Ben’s long, ominous walk towards his room, floating in the manner of the moving walkway before. Even though it was his choice to enter into this affair, he still lacks any conviction or choice in the matter. Later he’ll describe the relationship as something that “just happened along with everything else.”
The relationship with Mrs. Robinson, proves to be the basis for the growth of Ben’s character. He keeps on meandering through life. He keeps on floating on his backyard pool, feeling heat from his family just as the sun. Mrs. Robinson provides the break from that. She’s assertive enough to risk her marriage having an affair with a neighbor half her age. In that sense, as a daring cougar, Mrs. Robinson serves as a model for the otherwise timid Benjamin Braddock. He even starts to pick up her smoking habit, emblematic of both her influence and his descent into languor.
The descent, though, certainly has a hold on him despite Mrs. Robinson’s example of how one takes a future into her own hands. Particularly horrifying is the shot of Ben drinking beer in front of a hotel television.
The moment that pushes him to begin taking charge of his life is also when we learn about how Mrs. Robinson lost control of hers. She became pregnant as a college art student, had to marry Mr. Robinson, and lost any passion for art. She hardly expresses her pain—Hoffman’s Ben is something of a dunce with emotions, too, so he doesn’t understand—but at this moment, to the audience, her eyes speak volumes. The regret that she did not get to live her life as she truly wanted to is in her face, a disappointment in both herself and circumstance.
This discussion both primes Ben to act, and leads to a fight where Mrs. Robinson scolds Ben for even considering asking her daughter, Elaine, out on a date.
That date does happen, though, and it is through it that Ben’s newly developed backbone comes into view. In the crossroads between going on a date his parents forced him in to and his neighbor/lover/date’s mother forbade from occurring, he determines to act through love and impulse against society’s plans. Though he begins by taking Elaine Robinson to a strip club, her heart break—she literally breaks out into tears—causes him to open up emotionally to her. “It’s like I’m playing a game,” he tells her, “but the rules make no sense to me.” His empathy towards Elaine proves to be the turning point in the evolution of Hoffman’s character in the film. Their connection leaves Mrs. Robinson upset, and it becomes clear that she secretly despises Ben as not good enough for her daughter. The film never goes into exact detail why that is, but I think she saw in him a person following her sad path willingly, a path she’d been trying to break out of. Noticing Ben’s transformation, and his budding relationship with Elaine, she then transitions to jealousy of his attempts to have the life that she could not.
Elaine Robinson serves as Ben’s parallel, which brings about the film’s memorable finale. Throughout The Graduate Elaine also has a stupendous lack of character compared to her mother; she too is spineless. She entertains two simultaneous proposals, and she seems to accept Ben’s based half-baked proposal (“Oh no it’s fully baked,” he confirms to his parents who were horrified at his assertions that he would marry her, despite the breach of social protocol) after going on approximately one date. Upon the revelation of Ben’s affair with his mother, Elaine’s parents force her into a marriage to another man, which she seems to accept with little resistance.
This culminates in a finale wherein both of these characters take back their fates. In a rush of cuts and montages over Simon & Garfunkel, Ben has to make a herculean effort to reach the wedding in time.
Nichols, famously, films Ben’s run towards the wedding with a telephoto lens. With a short focal length, the shot collapses the distance, and the effect leaves Dustin Hoffman looking like he is running almost in place, achieving nothing despite his concentrated effort. Elaine, too, must battle her demons coming in the form of successive angry, talking heads. Finally, she too asserts herself. In her final moment, Mrs. Robinson passionately reveals her own regrets, screaming at the fleeing Elaine, “It’s too late.” She responds: “Not for me!”
The essential problem of the entire endeavor is seen in the last seconds of the movie while Elaine and Ben sit on the bench in the back of the bus. Their exhilaration slowly, beautifully, transitions into terror. It is as though both recall the pitfalls of Mrs. Robinson’s earlier, impulsive empowerment that lead to pregnancy. Both of them are terrified of what their future holds not that they have taken responsibility for it. Just as before, the couple is being propelled forward—on moving walkway or bus, that is a constant—yet now they have only their own choices and each other.
In 1967, The Graduate’s frank depiction of an affair between a 21-year-old and his much older neighbor was scandalous. The affair’s attention is understandable. But The Graduate is timeless, and in that way it is a film less about Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s relationship than Ben’s relationship with the fundamental uncertainty of the future. It presents two options: If one allows his or her future to be decided by an outside force, he or she may achieve some sort of reliability, certainty, comfort. As a sun-bathing Benjamin tells his father, “It’s very comfortable just to drift here.” But it’s an unfulfilling path, and no matter one’s accomplishments Nichols believes being out of control is not living. The alternative is to take the risk and bear the uncertainty. Graduates, then, are faced with a choice between uncertainty and mind-numbing contentment. Of course there’s a third way; there always is. Those entering college get to experience a mixture of independence and expectation, which enable some to succeed. Those leaving university lives, however, must decide for themselves whether they are just comfortable drifting among societies expectations or if they want to face the uncertainty, the existentialist terror.
Either way, Mike Nichols has a message: worried about your future? Take it back into your own hands.