Thursday 26 November 2015

Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)

A drama and romance about generational rifts, The Graduate is a sharp examination of youth bumping up against the rules of their parents.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has returned home to Los Angeles after finishing his college degree. A top student, Benjamin does not know what he wants to do in life, and his parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) are no help. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is the bored, alcoholic wife of the business partner of Benjamin's father, and she relentlessly pursues and seduces Benjamin. They start and sustain a prolonged affair behind the back of Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton). While the sex is great, Mrs. Robinson is not too interested in ever actually talking to Benjamin.

The Robinsons' daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) is a Berkeley student, and Benjamin's parents and Mr. Robinson believe she is a perfect fit for him. But Mrs. Robinson wants to keep Benjamin for herself, and warns him away from getting close to her daughter. Benjamin is initially happy to oblige, but when he reconnects with Elaine, a spark ignites. Benjamin finds his life getting exceedingly complicated as he gets caught between loving one woman while being held emotionally hostage by her mother.

Directed by Mike Nichols and set to the magical tunes of Simon and Garfunkel, The Graduate defines an era. The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (adapting the Charles Webb novel) perfectly captures the angst shrouding the journey from youth to adult, and made all the more hazardous in a time of societal turmoil. Members of the greatest generation are at their economic and sexual peak, and the baby boomers are tentatively seeking their way in a changing world and challenging rules they don't respect. The conflict is filled with transformational moments.

The genius of The Graduate is in capturing a generational shift through the simple story of Benjamin's search for a purpose. The narrative is always intimate, personal and singularly concentrated on one man. But the broader seismic shift of the next generation bedazzled by the fantasy of their elders while seeking to break free is the silent yet dominant backdrop to Benjamin's post-graduate summer. The first half of the film consists of none too subtle coercion and seduction, the men in his life throwing thoughtless career advice his way, sometimes literally reduced to one word ("Plastics!"), while his dad parades him in a scuba diving suit supposed to represent scientific achievement but only serving to heighten Ben's sense of isolation.

Mrs. Robinson is more persistent and more successful in her attempts to lure Benjamin into her bed. With Anne Bancroft enjoying the role of her life, Mrs. Robinson expertly snags Benjamin like a prized fish and reels him in with a combination of hints, seduction, flattery, and ultimately insults that demand his physical response. And once she lands her trophy, Mrs. Robinson will not let go. Benjamin represents her fountain of youth, a reason for her to believe she is still relevant, the older generation emotionally and physically dominating the upstarts, a strategy that works fine as long as the youth keep their mouth shut.

Once Benjamin demands they start talking he is not happy with what he hears, her possessiveness sowing doubts in his mind and triggering an encounter with Elaine that will finally start to define a purpose. Still under Mrs. Robinson's influence Benjamin is initially aloof and cruel with Elaine, but her calm frailty wins him over, and soon he learns what true love can offer his life. Untangling himself from Mrs. Robinson's clutches will not be easy, but it is never easy for any generation to emerge from the shadows, cast off the burden of its elders, and aim for new horizons.

Few films are as closely associated with their soundtracks as The Graduate. The songs include Mrs. Robinson, The Sound Of Silence and Scarborough Fair, with Paul Simon's fragile yet intense singing and the soulful melodies adding immeasurably to the film's impact. Nichols directs with audacity, using jump cuts, playing with focus and perspective and sprinkling touches of humour to portray the tentative first steps of a young man into adulthood. Benjamin's initial foray into the surreptitious world of booking upscale hotel rooms for sexual encounters, under the suspicious gaze of the stern desk clerk, is turned into a deliciously awkward misadventure.

In his first major screen role, Dustin Hoffman shows remarkable talent and uncommon maturity, holding the film together with a mixture of unease, drift, and finally intent. The film launched his stellar career and rewarded him with his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Bancroft (Best Actress) and Ross (Best Supporting Actress) were also nominated, as was the film, the script and the cinematography. Nichols won the Oscar for Best Director.

The Graduate crosses the stage with confidence, passion and humour, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.


  1. "..with Neil Simon's fragile yet intense singing and the soulful melodies adding immeasurably to the film's impact.". Neil?

    1. Thank you, Paul Simon's name has been corrected.


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