#17 The Graduate (1967)

by Trey Hock on May 16, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I am thoroughly confused. I have encountered films on AFI’s list that were misunderstood at the time of their release, or were panned by their contemporaries only to be lauded by following generations. Just look at “The General,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for examples of films that were dismissed or overlooked by critics, but have stood the test of time.

The critical response to #17 “The Graduate” is just plain weird. In 1967 Pauline Kael panned it, Time Magazine called it derivative, and Roger Ebert, in his 1967 review, claimed that the film’s biggest flaw was “the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes.”

Only Bosley Crowther, the New York Time’s critical curmudgeon, saw the timelessness of “The Graduate” calling it “a film that is not only one of the best of the year, but also one of the best seriocomic social satires we’ve had from Hollywood since Preston Sturges was making them.” This is high praise from a critic who was so off base on “Bonnie and Clyde” that same year.

So critics are wrong from time to time. So what? Later on they’ll eat some crow and come around. Yeah that’s what usually happens, but not so with “The Graduate.”

In 1997 when the film was released on DVD, Ebert, who enjoyed the film in 1967, would admit to being off base on his assessment of the staying power of the film’s soundtrack, but he would also claim to have overvalued the film as a whole. Both Ebert and Robin Dougherty would claim that the main character in “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), is not a hero but a bore, and the film itself stands as an “anthem to conformity.”

That’s an assessment that comes with thirty some years of critical perspective.

So why aren’t these critics able to understand the continued power of “The Graduate” or why it is not a “time capsule” as Ebert would claim, but a timeless piece of cinema that cuts across generations? Well I just don’t think they understood what screenwriters Calder Willingham, and Buck Henry, or director Mike Nichols were trying to say.

First off Ben is not a hero, nor is he ever offered as one. He’s our main character, yes, but he’s a melancholy coward, who runs away from the system that badgers and abuses him, never does he engage it head on.

Just check out his graduation party. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

Ben starts the scene hiding in his room and ends it there. In his brief excursion into the throngs of partygoers, Ben is bounced around from one person to another, each offering half-hearted praise for achievements they know little about. The advice of “Plastics,” instead of being ironic, as Dougherty would claim, is just the type of vague absurd advice that would come from a middle-aged adult that had already tasted success.

The scrutiny and pressure mixed with listlessness and concern about a future that is no longer planned, this is how all graduates feel to some extent. Ben’s no hero, just a college graduate.

Ben’s weakness makes him vulnerable, and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), perhaps the most astute and intelligent character in “The Graduate,” takes full advantage.

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman are so good in this scene. Both are in total control of their characters, but Bancroft brings it all to another level. From the way she bulldozes Ben, forcing a drink upon him and switching on the stereo, to her confident and amused chuckle when Ben accuses her of seducing him, Bancroft’s portrayal of Mrs. Robinson is so fluid and remarkable that we can’t help but adore her.

How could anyone see the meek and underwhelming man-child Benjamin as a hero, as a rebel acting out against an oppressive culture? Ben ultimately only consummates his affair with Mrs. Robinson because she questions his manhood. A more self-assured character, a true rebel may have bedded Mrs. Robinson, but wouldn’t have done so because of a dare.

Ben’s parents continue to lather on the praise and pressure. At his birthday party, Ben becomes a showy spectacle for the amusement of his parent’s friends.

A more poignant visual metaphor for the sense of isolation that consumes those trapped somewhere between childhood and adulthood couldn’t come from Wes Anderson’s wet dream. Ben pleads with his father (William Daniels), who can’t decide whether Ben’s a boy or a man, but Ben finally gives in. Ben only finds relief through the isolation at the bottom of the pool.

Is it any wonder that this loneliness that Ben feels leads to his first evening at the Taft with Mrs. Robinson? The tryst with Mrs. Robinson is no different than the bottom of the pool.

The relationship begins and is illustrated beautifully through a savvy montage. This is some of the “arty camerawork” Ebert called a flaw. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)

“What was the point of all that hard work?”

“You got me.”

These two lines epitomize the lack of direction that comes with the loss of academic structure. Along with the visual of Ben drifting in the pool, staring at the sun, seeing nothing clearly, Nichols builds a wonderfully layered representation of the no longer young.

Ben’s affair roles on, and he becomes dissatisfied with the loneliness and lack of depth that comes with just physical interaction. Ben wants to have a conversation.

In this scene, Nichols provides us with a huge amount of story. Ben is consumed with the conversation, but Mrs. Robinson faces the viewer. Ben is not privy to her facial expressions, but we can see the pain and remorse that passes over her face. Here is a woman trying to escape from a lifeless marriage and perhaps recapture some of the vibrancy of her youth. Either way Mrs. Robinson is a tragic character that is complex and superbly portrayed by Bancroft.

Ben’s parents pressure him into asking out Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, though Mrs. Robinson has forbidden it. Ben attempts to distance himself from Elaine by taking her to a strip club, but when he sees that she is upset, he instead apologizes and takes her out for burgers at a local drive-in.

Elaine seems like a more normal option, and a way out of the stifling relationship Ben has with Mrs. Robinson, but when Ben and Elaine make plans for the next day, Mrs. Robinson will have none of it. (Sound starts at 17 seconds.)

If you want to know how to tell a story visually all you need to do is watch this scene over and over. From the slow rack focus that illustrates Elaine’s growing comprehension of the situation to the zoom out on Mrs. Robinson, which leaves her broken and powerless. Nichols’ direction and control of his frame are truly remarkable.

Elaine goes back to Berkeley, and Ben chases after her. This part of the film meanders just slightly, but I often feel that the rest of the film is so tightly packed that it makes these Berkeley scenes seem less masterful. Ben and Elaine reconcile, but her parents, in an effort to keep Ben and Elaine apart, swoop in and force her to marry her college boyfriend.

Ben rushes around frantically trying to find out where the wedding is, and arrives just in time for the final kiss.

From the guitar strum on the cuts to the over the shoulder zoom into Elaine and her new husband, again it’s as if Wes Anderson stole Nichols’ book on directing. There is so much packed into this scene, the silent gnashing teeth, the snide comment from Mrs. Robinson, the gilded cross jammed into the door handles, all of this just layers the scene with meaning and pushes us to the film’s conclusion. Nichols doesn’t cut away while Elaine and Ben are laughing at the back of the bus. That would be the rom-com ending. Instead, He stays with them as the reality of what they’ve just done sinks in.

Ebert said that he cheered for the couple, when he first saw the film. He felt like Ben and Elaine’s final action stood for self-determination and the ability to do what you want to do. It seems he made the same mistake that Tom did in “500 Days of Summer.”

To say, as Ebert and Dougherty do, that “The Graduate” is about whiny self-important children, who don’t take the advice of their well-intentioned parents, is to critique this film from a psychologically old and out of touch position. One could only make this statement if they were so removed from the desperation and crippling anxiety of youth, that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be asked, “What are you going to do with your degree?” This is a horrifying time made worse when the answer is, “I don’t know.”

Mike Nichols captures this moment, and makes it more powerful because he doesn’t put it in the hands of a flower child or political activist, which would have dated the movie and made it the time capsule that Ebert claims it is. Instead Nichols focuses on a meek and awkward geek, because that’s what we all feel like.

Ben and Elaine are only able to act out and deal with the consequences that follow. The tragic beauty of “The Graduate” is in the fact that no battle is fought, no victory is won. The bus just drives away.

One of my personal favorites and a film I revisit often, I’m glad AFI’s list gave me an excuse to watch “The Graduate” again.

Next up, #16 “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #18 The General (1927)

1 Year, 100 Movies #19 On the Waterfront (1954)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed May 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm

I have always liked this movie, but, as Ebert observed, I like it a little less each time I see it. It’s subversive and it’s comedic, but is it really anything else? The story is entertaining and provoking, but it is so detached from reality that it eventually leaves me flat. I can’t give much of a damn about these characters because they’re all so vapid. Compared to other counter-culture films of the same era, Harold and Maude, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange – it just can’t hold up against those on an artistic level. So while I do like the film, I just can’t see how it ends up at #17. It did some groundbreaking things. But I don’t think the story merits a placement so high.

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2 Rosie May 17, 2011 at 6:55 am

When I graduated from college I watched pretty much on a loop and it never diminished in quality for me. My favourite little detail is when they’re in the hotel bar and he’s unable to catch the waiter’s attention, so Mrs. Robinson has to do it for him.

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3 Chris May 17, 2011 at 7:07 am

I would argue that the Graduate was not a counter-cultural film at all. Ben was not only detached from his parent’s generation, but his own as well. While little miss Robinson was attending Berkley, the heart of the countercultural movement, Ben was as much a tourist there as he was at his own birthday party.

To me, this film was steeped in honesty rather than romanticism, and subtlety rather than sensationalism, in both story and style. There’s the first rule of good writing and filmmaking: Show, don’t tell, and Nichols gives the clinic on that with the Graduate. Ben’s reveal in his scuba get up offered a more provocative thesis on alienation than all of Green Day’s records combined.

I do see this movie as a time capsule piece, as well as a coming of age story, as well as the beginning of the end for tired film making conventions that ruled the sixties. I echo Ebert’s sentiments regarding the absurd soundtrack (almost as bad as Harold and Maude’s). But I think the criticism this film took in 1967 came from voices that Trey correctly pointed out, came from a “psychologically old and out of touch position.”

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4 Trey Hock May 18, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Reed, we usually get along so well.

Rosie, that’s a great scene. This was another film that was difficult to choose clips from, since there are so many incredible moments.

Chris, I am in agreement with you, even though I think that S&G are solid choice for the film. Not in my personal playlist but appropriate within “The Graduate.”

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