The Graduate often appears near the top of many ‘all-time’ lists, especially among US cinephiles. On the other hand, it also attracts the odd backlash from those who claim it’s tonally incoherent and over-rated as a portrait of disillusioned rebellious American Youth.
What I Reckon is that while I can easily understand it not flawless, I think it’s a brilliant film that has relevance today for anyone who has done what they’re told, but somehow just wants to get off that merry-go-round…
Please note this review contains spoilers throughout…
This Mike Nichols film from 1967 is usually billed as a comedy, but from the opening shots we’re immediately aware this is not a run-of-the-mill example of the genre. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) travels silently, stony-faced, through an airport, accompanied by Art Garfunkel’s angelic, haunting voice singing “Hello darkness my old friend…” For much of the title sequence, Benjamin is cropped out of the frame. He returns home with barely a word spoken. Slapstick this is not.
The first half of the film is all about alienation and a complete breakdown of communication within the apparent American Dream. Ben is frequently sullen and silent, either hiding from or cut off from the world: in a diving suit, underwater in the gorgeously blue swimming pool, behind dark glasses, even when he and Elaine retreat beneath the roof of his car, withdrawing from the noise of the outside world. Indeed, even when Benjamin pursues Elaine to Berkeley, we see him sat still while everyone else rushes around him, or later being shut out of her classroom in the silent, empty hallway.
Conversations are often clipped to point of monosyllables. A friend of Ben’s parents accosts him almost conspiratorially with “I’m going to say one word to you, just one word… Plastics.” Nothing the elder generation says to him even begins to connect. But similarly he cannot seem to engage Mrs Robinson, despite his embarrassingly awkward best efforts: “We’re going to do this. We’re going to have a conversation.” On perhaps the worst first date ever, Elaine has to shout above the roar of Ben’s car engine, and we can barely hear his one-word replies.
In addition to the fractured dialogue, the way frames are constructed heightens the feelings of dislocation – both of the characters from each other, and indeed from the audience. During their ill-feted affair, Ben and Mrs Robinson are rarely seen clearly together. One or both of them is cut off the edge of the shot, in silhouette, or sat with their back to the camera. Even when we can see them both, there’s not a great deal of eye contact. The bedrooms are white and clean to the point of being cold, clinical and distant, not at all intimate or personal. Within all of this, the humour of the alleged comedy is often painful, and almost always arises through miscommunication or misunderstanding. This is a dark, disjointed view of the world.
Anne Bancroft is tremendous as Mrs Robinson. If Jesus does love her more than she can know, He truly is a saviour of souls. Mrs Robinson is a desperate predator, clinging onto her historic pre-eminence in a changing world. We often see her in animal print coats, robes or slips, a hint at the exotic or dangerous in Benjamin’s preppy world. She lures him into her lair, and never lets him escape. Fearing the worst when Elaine returns, she forbids him from seeing her, because she know her daughter’s youth and innocent beauty will steal Benjamin (her new plaything) away. Her eyes are dark, clouded and empty. In one agonising moment she removes her stocking, coldly vacant. It’s devastating.
In the truly wonderful scene when Ben finally confesses his affair to Elaine, we see Mrs Robinson between them, outside the door, mascara streaked across her face, dejected, resigned, beaten. She silently leaves the frame but the camera stays focused on her, on her absence, for an achingly long couple of seconds before returning to Elaine. That’s the moment the film shifts from the split between the generations to a struggle within the younger characters to discover their own purpose and place in the world.
From the very first to the very last frame, music plays an important part. Like the weather & landscape in Thomas Hardy novels, Simon & Garfunkel’s songs are a character in themselves, the lyrics often expressing the unspoken feelings of Benjamin’s personality. “The Sound of Silence” perfectly reflects and builds on the theme of alienation and isolation all through the first half. Benjamin is reacting against the world of his parents, but he has little or no direction: he certainly doesn’t know what he actually wants; just that he wants things to be “different”. When the focus switches from his home to Berkeley, “Scarborough Fayre” becomes a lilting love song: Ben has found his purpose, a quest to recapture and regain Elaine’s affection.
But Benjamin Braddock, for all his gawky angst, can be a pretty unlikable character. If he weren’t so incompetent, he could almost be described as a sociopath. He’s nihilistic, he rejects his parents, he’s very creepy towards Elaine in Berkeley when he practically stalks her for weeks, and he does take her on that terrible first date: although he does crack at the last minute, so perhaps he’s not a monster! We can only assume that Elaine sees something of herself in Ben, or simply recognises his struggle to express himself. But for the most part she seems pretty well-adjusted and more at ease with herself.
And then there’s the famous final sequence which has even been copied by The Simpsons, where Ben actually achieves something. Seemingly victorious in his quest for Elaine, the younger generation escape from the clutches of the old. Mrs Robinson (in a leopard-print suit) hisses at Elaine “It’s too late” before her daughter snaps back “Not for me”, fleeing from the Church and her preppy catalogue fiancé Carl. Yet as our hero and heroine leap onto a bus, directionless and alone, “The Sound of Silence” returns. Staring straight ahead, not even touching, they may be in it together, but this must be one of the least triumphant happy endings ever.