A Look Back at the Film that Captured a Generation (and those to come)
The apprehension, impulsiveness and retrospective regrets of youth have perhaps never been so painfully and elegantly articulated on screen as in the 1967 film, The Graduate. This December marks the 50th anniversary of its release.
Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross, this movie has made an appearance on the televisions of every generation since its first screening. Celebrated for its insightful take on the coming-of-age theme, its iconic Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack and a crushingly ambiguous ending, the film is a timeless tribute to the disheartening ascension into adulthood.
The film begins with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the honored Frank Helpingham Award scholar and recent Williams College graduate, returning to his sun-bleached California home and desperately aloof parents, with the uninspiring and anxiety-ridden task of forging the future ahead of him. At his homecoming celebration, Ben reunites with a figure from his childhood, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a family-friend of his parent’s age, who seeks a revival of her short-lived youth to break the monotony of her bleak, domestic life. It is with her that he takes his father’s advice in engaging in a summer fling, which more accurately resembles a scandalous affair conducted out of the local Taft Hotel. Over the course of this brief liaison, Ben learns about the uncharted territory of sex, and more importantly, of the crucial nature of this pivotal time in his life. He comes to understand that the force behind Mrs. Robinson’s apparent alcoholism and bitter nostalgia stems from her young and accidental pregnancy with Elaine (Katharine Ross). Conned into a date with Elaine by his parents, Ben’s relationship with Mrs. Robinson is soured by resentment, and he eventually forms a relationship with her stunning and witty daughter. This relationship with Elaine is quickly terminated upon her discovery of the unthinkable fling between Ben and her mother. He is then forced to navigate the wormhole into which he has drove himself, while also swimming in his crippling postgraduate anxiety. Ben, as with several other characters, finds himself in the all-too-familiar cycle of seeking fulfillment through reckless impulse.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards and chosen for Best Director in 1967, The Graduate’s brilliance was heralded from the start. “‘The Graduate’ gives some substance to the contention that American films are coming of age—of our age. . . . [It is] a milestone in American film history,”Stanley Kauffmann said in the New Republic (1). In addition to the film’s cultural significance, its soundtrack is widely celebrated. Curated by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the score perfectly complements the essence of the movie. “The Sound of Silence”—the sung soliloquy of The Graduate‘s protagonist—formed the explicit link between music, alienation and revolution in the film”, Michelle Erica Green wrote in The Little Review (2) and “Mrs. Robinson”, the movie’s theme song, rose to the top of Billboard charts after the film’s release (3).
Each college student, regardless of the decade, is confronted with the same pressures and dilemmas Benjamin Braddock faces, and the case could be made that we all relate to his anxieties on a certain level at some point in our lives. “His rootlessness and uncertainty about who he is and what he wants in life — and just as importantly, his willingness to own and assert that uncertainty — seem to anticipate each new generation’s crises of identity, career and purpose”, Justin Chang, LA Times film critic, wrote (4). It is for this reason that the line “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me”, is instantaneously identifiable, and the numbing image of an uncertain Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in the back of a bus cuts so deeply. Resonating with generations 50 years after its release, The Graduate has stood the test of time.
(1) Brackman, Jacob R. “Why Do We Love “The Graduate”.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 15 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1968/07/27/the-graduate.
(2) Green, Michelle Erica. “Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds and Silences.” The Little Review, www.littlereview.com/getcritical/reviews/graduate.htm.
(3) Brackman, Jacob R. “Why Do We Love “The Graduate”.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 15 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1968/07/27/the-graduate.
(4) Chang, Justin. “50 Years After ‘The Graduate,’ Restless Benjamin Braddock Still Speaks To Young Men- And Women.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 20 Apr. 2017, www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-the-graduate-justin-chang-20170420-story.html.
Images: “The Graduate” film stills