I can’t say I ever appreciated The Graduate—not until last evening, and I’m trying to figure out what changed to “let me in” to understand the brilliance of this picture. I’m pretty sure it’s because now I view it through the lens of World War II, which is the way I look at everything going on around me anymore, and WWII, the Big One, provided context I’d been lacking.
For the two of you out there who haven’t seen it, not-quite-21-year-old Benjamin Braddock comes home from college contemplating his life; he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it and he’s already drifting. The night of his big coming-home party, one of his parents’ friends, the enigmatic, married Mrs. Robinson, makes a pass at Benjamin and soon they begin a torrid love affair. By the midpoint of the picture Benjamin has grown weary of the assignations and quite by accident falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, which proves problematic.
What hit me over the head last night was the depiction of the ruling generation of 1967, the year of release. They’re bizarre, vacuous people, all of them, rich and white and shallow to a man and woman. This surprises me given that Buck Henry was in his mid-30s when he wrote the screenplay for The Graduate, and Mike Nichols was about the same age when he directed it. They were a pair of pre-War babies telling a story from the perspective of the boomers now reaching maturity. Both hold the aging Greatest Generation up for ridicule and condemnation for what they’ve become: smug, self-satisfied, deeply unhappy elites who are drifting through life like Benjamin, but while he does it symbolically in a sun-drenched swimming pool, their drifting takes place down a river of booze.
There’s never a hint of the backstory of, say, Mr. Braddock hitting the beaches of Normandy or Mr. Robinson in the South Pacific. I think back to my own pilots in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, kids of 20 and 22—highly competent hotshots with their lives in front of them and possibilities as endless as the horizon … if only they can survive the war.
But the fathers we see 20 years after the end of WWII are not the hotshots extrapolated 20 years. They’re bloated, self-important, brooding, superficial has-beens. Maybe PTSD accounts for their addle-headed behavior. That’s not even hinted at; they’re just boors.
Dustin Hoffman was already nearly 30 when he played Benjamin Braddock, and the extraordinary opening credits show Hoffman riding a people mover before a white wall through LAX in a crazy-long dolly shot that symbolizes the blank slate of Benjamin’s character as he embarks on the storyline of The Graduate.
The shallow people awaiting him at home, the pre-war people as white as that wall in the airport, see him as a success-in-the-making at whatever he sets out to do. They’re in “the club” and he’s about to join it, and as we see him resent them and struggle to keep his distance, I wondered if young men in 1940 went through similar existential meltdowns. I just don’t know the answer to that, culturally speaking. There were still elites in 1940, the sons of old money, and I guess that at 20 they didn’t know if they wanted to turn into dad or escape to Tahiti to paint sunsets. But mostly they had just come through the Depression and knew they had to work damn hard just to survive. And that’s not Benjamin’s mindset by 1967.
The heart and soul of The Graduate is Mrs. Robinson, the sultry, cynical, unhappy 40-something who latches onto Benjamin so she can infuse her alcoholic life with physical sensation and ego gratification. When they meet for sex, she doesn’t want to talk. Benjamin is there for one purpose. And when he can’t take the endless sex for sex’s sake anymore and demands that they talk, wow, what a sequence for Anne Bancroft, then 35 and playing older. I’m shocked she didn’t win the Oscar for this performance (she was nominated), especially for the moment when Benjamin confesses to Elaine that he’s been sleeping with her mother. It’s an incredible cinematic jolt, and Bancroft plays it silently, her face taut and tortured.
The Graduate was born in an era when the Production Code still meant something and it slid through mostly with innuendo. But its depiction of adultery, rampant in American society then as now because of the mythos and failure or monogamy as the norm, is knowing, sophisticated, and European, and it titillated viewers in first run. The entire picture plays rather gently now, especially considering how ugly things were about to get in the turbulent 1960s. It also plays sexy thanks to Anne Bancroft, who would go through the remainder of her career resentful of the fact that she couldn’t help but stand in the shadow of this one dynamic, brilliantly drawn and acted character.
So of course The Graduate is the boomer generation firing a shot across the bow of its elders. I’m not breaking any ground when I tell you that. All I’m saying is that I finally get it (I can be a little slow sometimes). I finally appreciate all that this picture was trying to say, not just the naughty parts, which I always got and appreciated. I now savor the irony of this depiction of the coming of age of the first of the boomers, so young and so disenchanted and full of themselves back then, and look at the boomers 50 years later in retirement or close to it. Once the rebels and now the establishment. Once the ones hiding in their bedrooms to avoid adults and now the ones yelling out the window for the kids to get off their lawn.
And how about that last shot, when Benjamin and Elaine have fended off the vicious adults and escaped? They sit at the back of a bus silently, breathlessly, and in their faces we see not two triumphant heroes but two kids who suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next. They’ve beaten the adults, but to what end? That’s real life for you, as drawn by two people (director Nichols and writer Henry) in their mid-30s and just beginning to come to grips with the fact that adults don’t really have any answers. They just have an escalating number of questions, and a whole lot of “I don’t know.” In real life, adults, particularly young ones, rarely have any idea what to do next. Benjamin didn’t have a plan at the beginning of the movie, and he doesn’t have a plan at the end. He just has a girl, and I couldn’t help but wonder as credits rolled how long Benjamin and Elaine stayed together. I have a feeling it was far, far less than a lifetime. I give them three years of happiness, 15 of growing isolation, and then a fresh start for each with a new partner. Actually, I think there was a sequel: Kramer vs. Kramer. Then again, that’s a jaded baby boomer talking.