The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman in his breakthrough role), a down on his luck graduate whose life goes from bad to worse after being seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an old friend of his parents. Matters are further complicated when he actually falls in love with Robinson’s daughter, Elaine. At the beginning of the film I found myself siding more with Ben. He’s just confused and doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s unsure of where to go after college. His days are spent wading in the pool drinking beer and his nights at the hotel with Mrs. Robinson. Ben actually means something to her since she’s stuck in a loveless marriage, while to Ben it’s just a way to kill nights over the summer. Naturally, when Ben leaves her for Elaine, she is hurt.
I think it could be easy to villainize both of them, but I don’t think either of them is the big bad. Ben is bored and doesn’t know what to do with life, and Mrs. Robinson is the same in a way. She too, didn’t go to grad school after studying Art in college. Ben falls for Elaine because she spoke to the part of him that wants to do something with his life. When she finds out about their relationship, Ben can’t really defend himself. Both Ben and Mrs. Robinson are flawed, and washed up. I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. I don’t know if I liked Ben getting his way, I kind of wanted him to learn a lesson. That’s one of the great things about this movie. Few other comedies have this much depth in characters.
The film is the second directed by Mike Nichols and it’s brilliant work. There are too many great shots in the film to count. There are recurrent themes such as underwater scenes to represent Ben being unclear of his future and glass to show detachment and separation. We also get interesting cuts and transitions into the scenes. For example, the scene where Ben turns out the lights in the hotel and the song that starts the next scene begins and transitions. The movie as a whole has a very distinct and memorable look about it.
The music is another integral part of the film. Simon and Garfunkel did the songs and it was the first time a director used popular music in this way in a film. The songs are used in scenes to set the tone. Simon and Garfunkel’s songs are of course great and have stood the test of time. The additional score by Dave Gruisin is also good.
The film has a great cast of course. The Graduate made Dustin Hoffman a star and showcased him playing a sort of put upon everyman. As Woody Allen notes Hoffman was one of the few big american actors who played this kind of everyman. Anne Banncroft gets top billed as Mrs. Robinson, and with reason. She acts with a seductive charm and has good and believable chemistry with Ben.
The Graduate is an essential film of the sixties. It’s a well made and thought out comedy. The main actors do a stellar job. Mike Nichols directs with a unique picturesque style. Each shot is a work of art. The use of popular music is also notable, and has inspired many directors since, including Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson. It’s a great and thought-provoking comedy.