Mr. Braddock: What is it, Ben?
Benjamin: I’m just...
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don’t know... I want it to be...
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: [looks at his father] ... Different.
To call this a common sentiment would be a gross understatement. Benjamin Braddock’s concerted inquietude in the face of his future could be that of any young person going through a period of transition. But as the central personality of 1967‘s classic The Graduate, he is more than just a singular lost 20-something year old. Ben’s aimless sense of alienation represents the hollow wanderings of a generation.
The Graduate is an artful, satiric sex comedy whose themes of exploited innocence and societal superficiality mirror the moral and sexual shifts of the late 1960’s. Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman) is a recent college graduate with a wealth of achievements under his belt but little aim in life who finds himself the object of an older woman’s— Mrs. Robinson’s — seduction. His anxiety becomes disaffected calm and then directed aimlessness when he falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine.
Directed by Mike Nichols, whose hit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor debuted only a year earlier, The Graduate is a visually rich film with a unique avant-garde brand of cinematography. Every sequence is meticulously crafted with a mind on presentation and perspective that often serves to further isolate the characters. In one scene, for instance, the camera takes on Ben’s perspective from inside a scuba diving suit as he unwillingly demonstrates his father’s expensive birthday gift to him for a crowd of older people whose excited talking is entirely muffled by the echoed breathing inside the suit. This sense of disconnect from an older generation whose loud opinions are represented by shallow adult characters captures a key feeling of the decade, as well as serves to drive Ben further into disaffection.
Sharp contrast between light and darkness, careful frame composition, and camera motion are central contributors to the film’s visual depth. Various scenes view characters superimposed under layers of water (both reflecting pool water and fish tanks), framed within objects like curtain hangers in the fore-shot, and zoomed in for a disembodied effect, to name a few interesting compositions. Motion shots that follow a character moving through a scene are common, and harken back to the film’s thematic focus on the journey, rather than the destination.
While its artistry is certainly notable, The Graduate is most memorable today for its satire, thematic representation of both the era from which it came and the age of transition it portrays, and of course, its characters. The film was Dustin Hoffman’s breakout role, and his acting in the part of Ben earned him an Academy Award nomination. Anne Bancroft’s character, the iconic Mrs. Robinson, is an overtly sexual and aggressive woman whose actions serve as the catalyst for Ben’s absentminded decisions. Her oozing sexuality and confidence in the unforgettable role provided the namesake for the famous Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson”, which appeared in an early form in the film. She is the archetypal temptress, Ben the questioning youth, Elaine the malleable innocent, and the rest of the adults just part of the meaningless “plastic” world. All of them are unforgettable.
The Graduate is at once a comedy and a tragedy, a study on people and a comment on the meaning of ambition, a popular landmark film and a biting satire that plays to audiences of a certain age and disposition. Mostly, it just presents an attitude in a simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking (albeit quirky) way. Whether or not it is likable is left to the opinion of the modern moviegoer; at the very least, it is worth a revisit.