“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. Not in the Schindler’s List kind of way where you’re watching something sad and feeling empathy, although empathy is a big part of it. I’m speaking more to when a film hits you at a perfect point in your life. Back in high school, I would have told you that Fight Club and Donnie Darko were among my favorite films. While I still enjoy them both very much, I feel that these movies lose their punch after a certain point in your life. Once the teenage angst has passed, you start to think about what Fight Club really has to say, and it feels a lot more 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 think it will stick with me personally for quite a while.
Dustin Hoffman stars as Benjamin Braddock, a 20 year old college graduate, bored and void of purpose. He is soon seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older, married family friend who pursues Benjamin for sexual gain. 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 being 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’s a film about longing and purpose, and it has one of the most nuanced, powerfully simple 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 structure for a more complex sort of 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’re presented a narrative with far more 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 after comes your way. 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, lacking obvious solutions, and it’s all the better for this reason.
Perhaps in this film 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 and honest acting. Most of the film’s biggest laughs come from Benjamin’s honest confusion with his situation, and the way he continues to stumble onward. However, many would call Anne Bancroft the film’s centerpiece, labeling her the strongest performance for her powerful portrayal of Mrs. Robinson. While I still found Hoffman to be the more fascinating character (perhaps because he felt more relatable at this time in my life), Bancroft has an undeniably powerful 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 a high pedestal in my mind. I’d love to analyze the film’s layered elements 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