“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
One of the best things about cinema is when it hits you at a perfect time in your life. Back in high school, While I still like all of my favorite movies from high school, I’ve outgrown them – gotten what I need from them. Once the teenage angst has passed, you start to think about what Fight Club has to say, and it feels hollow: succeeding in more of a cinematic and narrative sense than through its themes. Today, I sat down and watched The Graduate, and I think it’s a film that works in a similar way, pandering beautifully to that sweet spot of your life around early adulthood. It’s an astounding film about longing and transitions, and I know it will stick with me through this time in my life.
Dustin Hoffman stars as Benjamin Braddock, a 20 year old college graduate, bored and void of purpose. He’s seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older, married family friend who pursues Benjamin for sexual gain and perhaps some personal fulfillment of her own. As the summer progresses, Benjamin gives up the expectations his family has set for his life, and he spends most of his time lofting around the pool and sleeping around with Mrs. Robinson, eventually forced by his parents to take Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) out on a date. In the most fascinating section of the film, Benjamin must decide between appeasing Mrs. Robinson’s wishes or chasing after Elaine, with whom he suddenly feels a genuine connection. It explores the idea of purpose, and it has one of the most nuanced, powerful endings I’ve ever seen in a film.
Before The Graduate came along, never had a film captured such a feeling, and few since then have been able to manage it. This is a film that throws aside a more conventional, predictable Hollywood structure for a more complex message. Instead of Benjamin sleeping around with Mrs. Robinson, then comedically getting caught in a love triangle, sorting it all out in the end, we get a narrative with substance. While it has been parodied ad nauseam in recent years, the recurring Simon and Garfunkel music and the focus on Benjamin’s isolation capture a powerful sort of boredom that comes along with finally breaking away from your parents’ wishes, hoping that something worth chasing comes along. You could say that this takes the form of Elaine, fulfilling Benjamin’s search for meaning and permeating his desires, but the film’s ending points out poignantly that nothing is ever so easy. The Graduate is muddled in this way, lacking in obvious answers, and it’s all the better for it.
In this movie more than any, director Mike Nichols solidifies his reputation for pulling the utmost strength out of his cast, leading the film to success by demonstrating the carefully guided talent of his performers. Dustin Hoffman (in his first major role) leads the fray with an uncertain, alarming, hilarious performance that highlights his mastery of subtle acting. Most of the film’s biggest laughs come from Benjamin’s honest confusion with his situation, and the way he stumble forward like a clown.
Many critics, though, have called Anne Bancroft the film’s centerpiece, labeling her the strongest performance for her powerful portrayal of Mrs. Robinson which dominates any scene she’s in. While I still found Hoffman to be the more fascinating character (maybe because of my age), Bancroft has an undeniable presence. The contrast between her and Hoffman’s characters and acting styles is invaluable for keeping the film as engaging as it is.
While I expected something a bit more conventional, something romantic and silly, I was left with one of the biggest surprises I’ve seen on screen lately. The Graduate may very well be among the top American films, and just one viewing has placed it on such a high pedestal in my mind. I’d love to analyze the film even further in the future: its innovative cinematography, its use of sound, the plot structure – it builds into a tremendous emotional punch that hit me at the perfect time in my life, as a great piece of art often does. I can’t recommend The Graduate enough, and I hope that I can continue to achieve such strong personal responses as I make my way through the history of cinema.
Films Left to Watch: 915