It could be called a comedy, drama, or romance. But truth be told, “The Graduate” is a little of all of those things. More importantly, it’s a sharply written and beautifully crafted film that ushered in a new approach to filmmaking. It’s touted as a highly influential picture and has grabbed a top 10 spot on AFI’s Top 100 Movies list. While I certainly wouldn’t heap as much praise on the movie as many have, it’s still a really good film with its share of memorable moments.
Mike Nichols directed and won an Oscar for the film which is based on a novel by Charles Webb. Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a disconnected and isolated recent graduate from an east coast college. His parents put together a graduation party but that does nothing to dent his general apathy towards grad school and his uncertainty for the future. He’s such an interesting character who sometimes comes across as an irreverent jerk. But he’s also sad and sympathetic and a bit of a social pariah. He can be flippant and impudent but we find out early on that he has genuine problems understanding what he’s supposed to do during this new stage of his life..
Perhaps all of this is why Benjamin is such easy prey for Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a much older friend of the family who married for the wrong reasons and is thoroughly unhappy with her circumstances. She baits Benjamin into an illicit affair which over time adds even more complications to his already muddled life. Some critics have argued that Mrs. Robinson is the most appealing and alive character in the film. They point to her ability to see things as they are and to pursue her own happiness. But I had a much different reaction to Mrs. Robinson. She is shameless, dishonest, and self-absorbed. Most of her circumstances are of her own doing and instead of handling them responsibly, she goes the route of disgraceful self-indulgence with little to no moral conviction. Her maliciousness shows itself even more when Benjamin inadvertently falls in love with her daughter Elaine played by the lovely Katharine Ross.
Some have said that “The Graduate” hasn’t held up well over time. I disagree. I still see “The Graduate” as very much a late 1960′s film. But I truly believe it has maintained it’s solidity and uniqueness and hasn’t been hurt by the passing of time. It’s moments of humor are still funny, Benjamin is still an engaging character, and the brilliant final shot on the bus is still as mesmerizing as ever. Simon and Garfunkel’s perfectly placed songs still give several scenes an extra emotional punch and the direction from Mike Nichols is still satisfying.
My bigger problem with the film is with the relationship between Benjamin and Elaine. Even though she comes across as simple and passive, their relationship begins on a pretty strong note. But things start to unravel a bit and the relationship falls apart. But soon Benjamin heads to Berkley to find and propose to Elaine. Ross gives a great performance but her character is shortchanged by the material. It’s impossible to understand Elaine’s thinking and her decision making is rash and sometimes out of the blue. A tighter script would have sold the romance better in the second half by opening up the relationship and upping the stakes. I still love and understand the ending. But things get a little clunky before we get to that wonderful final scene.
I still believe “The Graduate” has earned the respect it’s been given. It may not be the most tight-knit script and some key character relationships are underwritten. But anchored by some stellar performances and a great soundtrack, it’s still a lot of fun. Like all really good movies, this has held up well over time for me. Would I put “The Graduate” in my personal Top 10 like AFI did? No, I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a really good movie.