ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: The Graduate
WEEK 7- "G"
Nominees: Gattaca, The Graduate, The Grifters, The Gift, Gone Baby Gone
Winner: The Graduate
Background: Ranked the #7 of all-time on the original AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movies," The Graduate, Mike Nichols' second feature film following the 13 Oscar nominations heaped upon Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, is nothing short of a classic and iconic film. Released before the time of Woodstock, but right at the cusp of a generation change in America, the film was so different from the traditional post-1950s trends of its day in 1967. At the time, teens and young 20-somethings were still thought of as the angst-y types from James Dean's days, which couldn't be more different from the Benjamin Braddock character at the center of The Graduate.
For recent college grad, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), fear, anxiety, and disillusionment trump angst and yearning for affection. Looked down upon, literally and figuratively, by just about every adult around him, Ben is aimless and has no idea what he wants with his life. Adult approval is far down the list. A spark of change comes when he is "seduced" (more like pitied upon) by one of his parents friends, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Diving in unknowingly head first, Ben and she begin an awkward sexual affair of sneaking out to the local hotel at nights. Gaining the experience of sexual maturity and satisfaction at the price of a real relationship, this experience changes Ben, but not necessarily for the good. The proverbial wrench comes in the form of Ben's growing attraction to the Robinsons' daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross) which greatly angers Mrs. Robinson. Though the movie's story is well-known, I won't spoil the twists, turns, and character growth for new viewers and stop there.
Though much is made about the minimal six year age difference between Hoffman and Bancroft playing a May-December affair, The Graduate is greatly remembered as coming-of-age story to match the late 1960's. It was a point-of-view really never before represented on film at that time. Audiences took notice and The Graduate was the top grossing film in the country for 1967, besting the likes of The Jungle Book and The Dirty Dozen. Launching the career of Dustin Hoffman, radical realistic characters like his here began to replace heroic post-WWII John Wayne types. Its daring strides in both performance, tone, and filmmaking (alongside the equally daring Bonnie and Clyde that year), ushered in a new era of cinema that ended the 60's and continued into the 1970's.
Reaction: The Graduate is an experience to behold every time I watch it. I pick up more and more stylistic and performance notes with each new viewing. On that note, I definitely need to take in the two commentary tracks (one by Hoffman and Ross and one by Nichols and fellow filmmaker and fan Steven Soderbergh) at some point. Even though the film is firmly rooted and dated in its late 60's era, I can't help but constantly notice the dynamic filmmaking at work. The camera and editing moves differently than other movies of its day and the deliberate uses of light, shadow, angle, and focus amaze me to no end. Like everyone else, I love the pacing and tone provided by the Simon and Garfunkel music over a traditional orchestrated score and the mystique it adds to the movie's uniqueness and greatness.
The Graduate deserves every sentiment of praise for being the daring work it was in 1967. To me, it was robbed at the Oscars, losing to In the Heat of the Night for Best Picture, though Mike Nichols won for Best Director. Another area about the film where I continuously notice new layers and nuances with each sitting is the incredible performance of Dustin Hoffman. I would be rude if I didn't also sing the praises of Anne Bancroft. You can't take your eyes off of Anne and her character has plenty of layers of her own, but this is Hoffman's picture.
His realistic performances and shifts of fear, amazement, anxiety, love, obsession, aimlessness, energy, and hope throughout the film are nothing short of extraordinary. With no offense to fellow Best Actor nominees Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) and winner Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) that year (how's that for a year to vote on too, jeez!), I will go so far as to say that his Benjamin Braddock is one of the best single lead performances in the history of cinema. It's flawless and right there with anything classic from Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Olivier, Hanks, or Bogart.
Many, myself included, have dreamed what a sequel to The Graduate would be like after its dramatic climax. I even tabbed it as a "sequel we will never see" in an editorial earlier this year. I would love to see where that ending bus ride goes, but I'm fine with this movie being a singular chapter and time capsule. On the same note, it would be a sin to attempt any modern remake to this movie. Nothing new could compare.
LESSON #1: THE CLASSIC DISILLUSIONED COLLEGE GRADUATE-- Benjamin Braddock embodies so many college graduates of both then and now that have no idea where their life is heading after graduation. Even if they had a surefire major and career path in mind, it's a dramatic change between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. They are, in many ways, forced to grow up fast and make substantial and independent life choices like job and marriage. High parental and adult expectations don't help either. The apprehension and disinterest in those things is only natural, yet such daunting expectations cause Lesson #2.
LESSON #2: THE FEAR AND ANXIETY OF BECOMING AN ADULT-- Seguing from Lesson #1, having the post-collegiate pressure of blazing a successful and pertinent trail as an adult causes a great deal of fear and anxiety. Sure, college students have supposedly been preparing for this movie for four or more years, but actually taking those steps is much harder and carry a wealth of uncertainty, especially if you are unsure with want you want to do with your life.
LESSON #3: THE MISTAKES OF A FORBIDDEN AFFAIR-- The other elephant in the room for The Graduate is the colossal mistake of Benjamin's affair with Mrs. Robinson. Sexual attraction and curiosity are one thing (hey, all of our parents have that one hot MILF friend) and acting on those may grow Benjamin as a person, but wishfully hoping for something more to come out of an affair or willfully carrying on the destructive deception of that an extra-marital affair have huge consequences.