There are few films that are as equally light as they are dark. It is a style that has been replicated many times and some would say perhaps even mastered by directors like Wes Anderson, but in 1967 mainstream cinema had never seen a film like The Graduate.
The story revolves around Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who returns home to sunny California to his upper-middle-class parents after graduating from college. Ben’s achievements at college (which are literally read out to us) paint the picture of an ambitious, successful go-getter. What we see of Ben, however, is completely different. We see a shy, awkward young man that is drowning in a sea of confusion and uncertainty.
Enter Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a friend of Ben’s parents that exudes confidence and sexuality like no one else. She sees Ben’s strengths and weakness as an opportunity to manipulate, and, after some effort on her behalf, commences a secretive affair with him. To complicate issues that are already plaguing Ben, Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) also returns home from college. Ben’s parents, as well as Mr Robinson, encourage the two to go out. Mrs Robinson as you can imagine is against this potential pairing. Ben does his best to firstly avoid, and then repulse Elaine. Eventually, though, he is smitten by her. The two start seeing each other and their love blossoms. Mrs Robinson will do anything to break them up including admitting to their affair, so Ben decides to beat her to the punch.
The story of The Graduate is so familiar to us nowadays that we forget how truly messed up it all is. We have a wealthy bored housewife that is literally grooming a confused college graduate to have sex with. She’s hot and she is sexy, and she knows it. She has no interest in Ben other than sex, and she treats him poorly to boot. Ben is, at one point, carrying out an affair with both Mrs Robinson and Elaine. I know things have changed, and people may be more liberal these days, but personally, I have never met anyone that has had overlapping affairs with a mother and her daughter.
The original story is based on the novella of the same name by Charles Webb. There is little difference between the novel and the film, other than the way they are executed – this varies greatly. The novel features a great deal of dialogue. The film, on the other hand, focuses more on the look and the feel to tell the story. Much more is said in the film when the actors are not delivering their lines.
The Graduate is director Mike Nichols’ second film. His first was the brilliant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. His efforts on The Graduate were rewarded with an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a Directors Guild of America award. His work on this film is artistic yet unpretentious and easy to digest. There are a dozen scenes that warrant being dissected, frame by frame, to truly appreciate Nichols’ craft in pace and staging. One such scene is the buildup to Mrs Robinson propositioning Ben. Another is when Ben comes clean to Elaine about “the other older woman” before Mrs Robinson can beat him to it. These two scenes play like mini movie masterpieces within a major masterpiece. It is very clear that Nichols had a vision of how the film should look and feel. Academy Award winning cinematographer, Robert Surtees (known for Ben-Hur) said, “It took everything I had learned over 30 years to be able to do the job. I knew that Mike Nichols was a young director who went in for a lot of camera. We did more things in this picture than I had ever done in one film.”
The performances from the three central characters are all perfect. In his first starring role, Dustin Hoffman appears a little too old to be playing Ben, a confused uncertain college graduate, but Hoffman’s actions and mannerisms absolutely nail the character. I particularly love the improvisation when Ben is about to have sex for the first time with Mrs Robinson but does not know how to start, so after an uncomfortable amount of small talk he simply reaches out and squeezes her boob only to quickly release it and turn away. Priceless. The role of the first name- less Mrs Robinson was one that many actresses were coveting.
Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, and Joan Crawford all put their hand up. Initially Nichols wanted Jeanne Moreau, thinking that audience would believe it was more common and acceptable for a mature French woman to younger men in the matters of the bedroom. In the end the role went to Anne Bancroft. After a 5-year hiatus from cinema where she took her craft to the theatre, Anne Bancroft returned to film winning an Academy Award for The Miracle Worker. Bancroft then followed up with The Pumpkin Eater, in which her sexuality drew Nicholls’ attention and landed her the now immortal role of Mrs Robinson. Her portrayal of the bored, manipulative, and highly sexual Mrs Robinson is one of the greatest performances of all time. She oozes sexuality yet remains icy cold. Interestingly, both actors were portraying characters of different ages to their own, and the actual age difference between Hoffman and Bancroft was only 6 years. Katherine Ross who plays Elaine, is also the sensitive and damaged daughter of Mrs Robinson.
The now classic soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel perfectly complements the colour of the film while beautifully encapsulating the sounds of the mid to late 60’s. It is considered by many as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time.
The soundtrack is also responsible for expanding the duo’s audience, previously being perceived as folk singer-songwriters to pop star-songwriters.
The Graduate is one of those films that comes out once in a generation and undeniably holds a mirror to society. It depicts a time and a culture of Californian affluent middle-class families in the mid 60’s while telling a unique story. Visually it is incredibly impressive, stunningly acted with some fantastically memorable quotes, plus a soundtrack that you will be humming for many days afterwards.