Review: The Graduate

Let's begin at the end. Benjamin and Elaine sitting on the bus. No climactic hug or kiss. No warmth or knowing look at each other. Just blank stares and the slow draining of adrenaline from their vacant, youthful faces.

Years later, when asked what happened next, director Mike Nichols replied: “They probably ended up just like their parents.”

Hello darkness, my old friend... here comes The Graduate again. By our reckoning this must be what – the fourth or fifth version on disc? There was the original release (dodgy picture, and sound), a ‘Special Edition’ that wasn’t remastered, a ‘Decades Collection’ edition that came with a soundtrack CD and then the 40th Anniversary Collectors’s Edition where Mike Nichol’s seminal sixties satire finally got the treatment it deserved with extras and commentaries aplenty.

Now there’s this. A slightly less expansive (and expensive) release with a smattering of the previously available extras, if not the ace commentaries. Which version you seek out probably depends on your budget, but regardless, the film itself still stands the test of time.

 

Like 1967's other big hit, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate quickly found favour with America's college population. As the Vietnam War escalated and dissatisfaction grew, young Americans tapped into the idea of Benjamin Braddock, an innocent who is seduced and betrayed by an older generation in love with 'plastics' and unwilling to admit their own mistakes.

But, as Nichols recognised, the majority of those disenfranchised young teenagers packing the nation's cinemas would not be holding rallies and protests forever. Eventually, the placards would be lowered, the light of indignation dimmed and new concerns would permeate their days.

 

Jobs and cars, homes and families. Debts and regrets. In effect, they too would become their parents. This is the heart of The Graduate – not a rebel yell but a world weary sigh.

To this end, Dustin Hoffman lugubrious features perfectly suit Benjamin Braddock, the titular character 'worried about his future'. It proved to be Hoffman's breakthrough role and although it seems hard now to imagine anyone else playing Ben, initial plans had focused on more traditional leading men. Warren Beatty was first lined up for the part before Robert Redford screen tested, while even Jack Nicholson was considered. The producers started to move away from the obvious when they cast Charles Grodin but disagreements over his salary saw him walk. (His turn as Lenny Cantrow in The Heartbreak Kid, made five years later, gives you a sense of how things might have turned out.)

Even the role of Mrs Robinson went through revision. Famously, Doris Day turned it down (without having seen the script - her husband Martin Melcher was too 'disgusted' by it to pass it on to her). Judy Garland was also considered while Nichols wanted the character to be French and had Jeanne Moreau in mind.

The producers were aghast. They insisted on an American actress and also tried to veto Nichol's other demand - a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. Eventually a compromise was reached. Moreau was out, the songs could stay.

For a while, some saw Paul Simon's haunting tunes as 'dating' the movie, and locking it to the times. But as the decades have passed and pop culture has cannabilsed itself, the issue seems to have faded. And rarely have songs so suited a mood as they do in The Graduate. From the opening credits' melancholic use of The Sound Of Silence to the stuttering stop-start of Mrs Robinson's middle eight as Benjamin races to the church in a failing car, the marriage of music and visuals provides a happier union than anything the Robinsons can muster.

Likewise, the modish visuals could have grown tired but Nichols, who won a Best Director Oscar for his efforts, again prevails. He never misses an opportunity to let what's in the frame emphasise the underlying themes.

 

The film opens with Benjamin isolated on a crowded plane, then static on an airport walkway and finally staring through the glass of his aquarium tank. In all three shots he is alone and floundering. (At the bottom of the aquarium tank is a 'drowned' model diver - foreshadowing the scuba gear scene later).

 

When he comes downstairs for the party in his honour (tellingly, populated by his parents' friends rather than his own) he passes a framed picture of an unhappy clown. The role he is about to take at the party.

Throughout, he is regularly seen behind glass or under water and bleak composition follows bleak composition (Mrs Robinson's nudity reflected in her daughter's portrait, Elaine's face coming into focus as it dawns on her that her mother and Ben have had a relationship, the jump cuts from sexual coupling to pool lounging).

But despite the insistent melancholia, the film still manages to draw laughs. Hoffman, of course, excels as the nervous Benjamin, while all the adult characters (who unlike Benjamin and Elaine are never referred to by their first name, to emphasise the generation gap) are absurd and comic.

 

Apart from the towering Mrs Robinson, who is, in her own words, neurotic, alcoholic and available. Naturally, Anne Bancroft's portayal of callous sexuality instigated a million teenage fantasies. In older viewers it may spark a sadder response: empathy.

By the movie's Mona Lisa ending, we are back where we started. Benjamin is still alone. Only now, Elaine is alone next to him. And both have reason to worry about their future.

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.