The enduring appeal of Mike Nichols’ coming-of-age drama ‘The Graduate’
“Any good movie is filled with secrets.” – Mike Nichols
Regularly cited as the definitive coming-of-age film, people who saw The Graduate when it first came out often revisit the film years later with a completely different takeaway. Quite notably, Roger Ebert hailed Mike Nichols’ work as the funniest American comedy of 1967 only to call the protagonist an “insufferable creep” 30 years later. According to Ebert as well as several others, the film did not withstand the test of time and was held back by the specifics of the period it was set in. Has The Graduate really aged poorly or has it retained enough of its “erstwhile” artistic force to charm newer viewers?
Adapted from Charles Webb’s 1963 novel by Buck Henry (who sadly passed away earlier this year) and Calder Willingham, The Graduate is an examination of the kind of existential angst that usually goes hand in hand with the disillusionment of our youth. The narrative is centred around the freshly-minted, overachieving 21-year-old college graduate, Benjamin Braddock, who cannot seem to figure out how to come to terms with the ambiguity of the future. Although the likes of Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were initially considered for the part, it eventually went to Dustin Hoffman which caused controversy because he was almost 30 at the time and was just six years younger to Anne Bancroft: the iconic Mrs. Robinson. Despite all the potential caveats, The Graduate worked in 1967, and it still works today. In what has come to be regarded as Hoffman’s breakout role, he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination and perfectly captured the nuanced emptiness of Benjamin. Bancroft won a Golden Globe for her outstanding performance as the voice of reckless hedonism operating throughout the film, urging the lost young man to find a sense of purpose in her welcoming, predatory arms.
Named by the ‘Society of Cinematographers’ as one of the 100 best photographed films of the 20th century, cinematographer Robert Surtees’ unique visual narrative of The Graduate is arguably one of the most fascinating aspects of this classic which contributes to its status as a work of art that is truly timeless. The incorporation of French New Wave editing sensibilities and other European influences was mostly a natural consequence of the fact that director Mike Nichols was not a product of the Hollywood studio system.
Coming from stand-up comedy and Broadway, Nichols deviated away from the conventional techniques and utilised the full potential of the visual medium. Ushering in the New Hollywood movement, The Graduate conducted a radical revision of how stories are told. French auteur Jean-Luc Godard famously said that “every edit is a lie” and that’s exactly what the film draws our attention towards, using exaggerated editing to mimic the frantic eye movements of Benjamin trying to sneak a peek of Mrs. Robinson’s exposed breasts. One of the more prominent themes of the film is how Benjamin transgresses the strict divisions of the generational gap by sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, and Nichols translates those transgressions to the visuals, famously arranging Mrs. Robinson’s seductively outstretched leg as a way to focus on Benjamin in a frame within a frame.
The film occasionally resorts to hand-held cinematography, long takes and POV shots to make us relate to Benjamin’s suffocation and claustrophobia, especially in the dinner-party scene where guests keep bothering him and the swimming pool sequence where he is pushed down into the pool by his parents which signifies Benjamin’s complete lack of agency. In order to rectify that, he reaches out to Mrs. Robinson, who promises to cure his malaise by giving herself to him. Even though he is clearly uncomfortable and awkward, she gets Benjamin into bed with her by insulting his immature sense of masculinity and taunting him about being a virgin. When Benjamin is forced to date her daughter Elaine (played by Katharine Ross), she lashes out at him and threatens to launch a crusade of mutual destruction. Many viewers have often wondered why she was so against Benjamin dating her daughter with many using this to be sympathetic towards Mrs. Robinson. To me, it seems as though this was the manifestation of an ageing femme fatale’s insecurities about being replaced by the younger generation. In a somewhat coerced bedroom conversation, we find out that Mrs. Robinson is stuck in a loveless marriage with her husband only because she got pregnant with Elaine when she was a student. She seeks refuge from her husband in the dark hotel room, but her only source of recreation is also usurped by Elaine, the cause of all of her unhappiness.
Ebert argued in his 1997 review that Mrs. Robinson is the only character in The Graduate who is worthy of sympathy, blaming his youth for relating to Benjamin when he first saw the film at the age of 25. However, I wouldn’t say any of the characters redeem themselves. Mrs. Robinson is a sad, vindictive woman who cannot bear to see anyone else happy, Benjamin devolves into an obsessive freak who follows Elaine to Berkeley and stalks her and Elaine indulges Benjamin as an act of rebellion against her mother. There is no resolution in The Graduate. The iconic ‘Sound of Silence’ montage sequence is the perfect example of this, depicting how Benjamin steps out of his parent’s control but does not manage to find fulfilment in Mrs. Robinson.
Nichols beautifully shows the monotony of his life by editing time and space with a flourish of ambiguity, blurring the difference between Benjamin’s house and the hotel room. We follow Benjamin as he moves from one objective to the next, thinking “this will surely put an end to this overwhelming ennui” but it never does. Beneath the surface, The Graduate’s subtext is entirely satirical. It criticises both the older generation’s neurotic need for control and the youth’s tendency to find subjectivity in futile defiance. Nichols balances these heavy themes with moments of silly humour, insisting that it is just as important to take a step back and laugh at the moronic innocence of youthful passion and the sententious hypocrisy of adulthood.
The subversive tragedy of The Graduate reaches its apotheosis at the end of the film. For the first time in his life, Benjamin runs towards something without being told by anyone else to do so. He follows any clues he can lay his hands on to stop Elaine from marrying another man. Although they manage to ward off the angry horde of wedding guests, the Robinsons and the intended husband by locking them in a church with a cross jamming the door in an iconoclastic fervour, there is still no resolution. Nichols lets the camera roll even after they get on a bus and make their escape, brilliantly documenting the uncertainty on their faces. This fundamental alienation never goes away. As for the claim that The Graduate’s time has passed and newer generations cannot relate to Benjamin’s struggles, it is this central ambiguity that makes the film relevant even after 53 years. Nichols does not pretend to know the answers, he only concerns himself with asking the right questions. Maybe I will agree with Ebert’s later evaluation and learn to look past Mrs. Robinson’s destructive insecurities when I am older and share the same fears but, for now, I nod along to Andrew Jackson Jihad’s 2007 song “People II: The Reckoning”:
“So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, People love you more, oh never mind. In fucking fact, Mrs. Robinson, The world won’t care whether you live or die. In fucking fact, Mrs. Robinson, They probably hate to see your stupid face. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, You live in an unforgiving place.”