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No college alum should have to suffer after graduation like Benjamin Braddock does in 1967’s “The Graduate.” When I graduate in a few weeks, I sure hope I don’t.
Benjamin, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is adrift after graduating from some unnamed east coast university, and it’s his struggle to find his way in life again which forms the core of the movie. It’s a struggle that’s often very funny to watch, but it also has a serious point to make about the pressures in life and how society forces those pressures upon us. The balancing act involved here is delicate, but “The Graduate” pulls it off with style, verve and a lot of laughs.
Following his return home and several heaping loads of smothering praise, Benjamin finds himself rudderless, literally drifting in his backyard pool for hours on end. His upper crust family wants him to immediately jump into graduate school — Benjamin isn’t quite so sure. Further complicating matters is Benjamin’s neighbor, the alluring Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who happens to be the wife of his father’s business partner. Mrs. Robinson takes a strong liking to Benjamin and ends up initiating an affair with him, and then her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) enters the picture. How’s an aimless, nervous college student supposed to handle all this?
What separates “The Graduate” from the likes of other romantic comedies or teenage dramas is how deftly the shifts in tone are handled and work together. Working from a screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, the films handles the shifts from serious drama to lighthearted laughter with ease and grace. No scene is wasted, and the characters are all well-drawn and well-played.
Even if Dustin Hoffman gets first billing, Anne Bancroft is unquestionably the star of “The Graduate.” Mrs. Robinson is one of the most memorable characters in film history, the quintessential cougar. Yet, she is a surprisingly nuanced character: fierce yet vulnerable, with a sharp wit to match her striking beauty. When Benjamin famously utters, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” the amused smile on Bancroft’s face complements a predatory stare, a hunter toying with her prey.
Having said that, Hoffman is very good as Benjamin. All Benjamin wants to do at the film’s opening is have some time to himself in order to think about his life, but he keeps ending up in awkward situations. When Benjamin has his first rendezvous with Mrs. Robinson, he’s so nervous that the hotel clerk asks him if he’s there for an affair. The look of horror that crosses Hoffman’s face is priceless not only because it’s funny, but because we also feel for this poor kid who’s in way over his head.
The relationship between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson is handled very adeptly and without any hint of exploitation. That’s not to say there isn’t any awkwardness, because Benjamin is unquestionably awkward in the initial stages of the affair. But it’s not just about the sex; Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are both bored with the idyllic suburban life they’ve been forced into and can find some common ground with one another.
The relationship is depicted with class and professionalism by all of the performers and director Mike Nichols, in particular by keeping Mrs. Robinson classy as well as sexy. Depicting this type of relationship in a mainstream Hollywood film was groundbreaking in the 1960s when the film was released and is refreshing to see today because it’s so well done.
Last but not least, “The Graduate” also has a little to say about the oppressive expectations we as a society force on ourselves. If there is a villain to be had in the film it’s Benjamin’s father, played by William Daniels (if you remember “Boy Meets World,” he played Principal Feeny). Mr. Braddock shows no concern for Benjamin and is hell-bent on getting Benjamin into graduate school, though he never really explains why. The same is generally true of all of the adults in the film, as they consistently scheme to guide Benjamin and Elaine to their preordained destinations. By setting up this conflict and making Benjamin the hero (of sorts), the film makes a subtle yet powerful statement on the suffocating nature of traditional values.
Yet Benjamin doesn’t cave in to the pressure to succumb to what’s come before, and neither does “The Graduate.” If there is one lacking element of the film, it’s that the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack gets a little repetitive, but it’s such a minor flaw that it can be easily overlooked.
The film’s take on relationships and its counterculture message remain fresh because the whole package is so well executed, from Nichols, Bancroft and Hoffman on down. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Rob Ryan at Rryan@colorado.edu.