At a glance The Graduate might appear to be a dime a dozen movie, a simple love story. Boy has an affair with older woman, boy meets older woman’s daughter, boy prefers daughter, and so has to wrestle his way out of his dilemma in the name of love. But the film is shrouded in social complexities and painful cynicism as it simultaneously positions the youth and the parents of the generation to savagely wage war, whilst conveying fluidity between the two; twenty years old or fifty, when it comes to life and relationships we are the two sides of the same imperfect coin.
After one of the loudest directorial debuts imaginable the previous year with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols won an Oscar for his work on The Graduate, a witty and deep down complicated social satire so subversive in style that it has become a poster child for the New Hollywood era.
Dustin Hoffman may most often be associated with the antihero, and as Benjamin Braddock he aims to resist every troupe of the wholly virtuous male protagonist. He perfectly captures the disillusionment and angst and self uncertainty of a 21 year old who for the first time is finding himself confronted with the materialistic mundanities of real life.
Straight off completing his degree Ben must endure a night of uncomfortable probing into his completely unconsidered future and be force fed attention by his neighbours and parents’ friends. However it is an older crowd that Ben finds himself surrounded by that never seems to have any real interest in him outside of what could potentially profit them and what is formal. Time and again throughout the film Ben goes unheard, by his father who embarrassingly makes him parade his new swimsuit, to his father’s business partner who only ever pours Ben a scotch despite his request for bourbon. Perhaps it is this, combined with his new found sense of purposelessness that drives Ben into the bed of seductress, and neglected wife of said business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Anne Bancroft plays the seductress and steals the film from under Dustin Hoffman’s nose as the seemingly powerful house wife who carries an air of vindictiveness about her and who Ben can only pretend to rebuff for mere days.
Their sex becomes their only defence against a total vacuous morass of insignificance as Nichols fulfils his gargantuan promise of staggering visual panache from his previous work. The months of the affair pass in fascinating seconds through creative editing by Sam O’Steen and the roving camerawork by Robert Surtees. Benjamin dives head first into his pool and lands in the bed of Mrs. Robinson, and walks through the back door of his house and into the Taft hotel, capturing a unique visual personality that characterises the whole film. We see much of what happens from Ben’s eyes, there’s a brilliant cross section of zooms in and out, of long takes and tracking shots, rapid edits, extreme close-ups and intriguing composition of half obscured images, all accompanied by the renowned folk soundtrack which fascinatingly straddles the tightrope of sombreness and colourful energy. You would be all too happy to watch grass grow under the supervision of Mike Nichols and his team as Benjamin transitions from hilariously awkward and stoic boy into a more assured young man with conceited tendencies.
However as Ben grows to wear more of the pants in the largely pants-less (and emotionless) relationship, Mrs. Robinson unveils a wealth of buried traumas that may echo Ben’s own life trajectory; a woman who under her veneer of sex appeal and surefootedness is irreparably damaged and life weary, all subtly captured by Bancroft, and in discussing her own lapsed youth suddenly grows fearful that Ben might begin dating her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross), a fear soon realised.
Ben falls for Elaine and must untangle himself from the amoral web he has hurled himself into if he is to secure her. But crucially the film does not become the traditional romance at this point. The script by Carl Willingham and Buck Henry is constantly wrong-footing as the film in fact morphs into its most cynical form.
With the perpetually swivelling personalities of the two central figures, the characters do struggle for unclouded definition, making it difficult to find a home for your sympathies as a viewer and also making it hard to achieve a complete emotional investment (at times the most appealing personality in the film is the one behind the camera). However its characters never struggle to be interesting. You can’t turn away, and as a source of intelligent entertainment The Graduate is always in its stride.
Just as Ben longs to be “…different”, so too does Mike Nichols with his film, and in the most complimentary way, he is.