The following is an extended analysis of late Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. In it, I look at the plot, sound and themes that the film explores along with my personal reaction to it. All images featured on this post are property of their creators or original owners.
Given my limited experience with the past century of film that has graced the human existence, I find Mike Nichols’ The Graduate to be a milestone. Nowadays, movie theaters are saddled — or blessed — with tons of romantic comedies featuring slapstick routines and illicit partnerships that never fail to instill a warm sense of hope that one day, we too will find ourselves entrenched in a playfully risky romantic escapade. The Graduate, had it been produced and released in today’s chick-flick-friendly moviescape, might’ve been written off as another feel-good film fit for a couples’ stay-at-home Sunday. However, there are subtle choices in plot, cinematography and audio that allow The Graduate to exist in a realm all of its own.
The Graduate opens with the main character, Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman). Benjamin is a 20-year old recent college graduate whose achievements are the talk of the town at the party that his parents host for him in the evening at their home in Pasadena. At the party, Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft), one of Benjamin’s long-time neighbors, asks Benjamin for a ride home. Upon arriving at her house, Mrs. Robinson asks him inside and begins to seduce him (in the absence of her husband) by playing word games and offering him liquor. Benjamin awkwardly refuses until Mr. Robinson (played by William Daniels) comes home. Amidst awkward glances with Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Robinson suggests Benjamin call Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (played by Katharine Ross) and arrange a date one of these days, a prospect which Benjamin negates.
Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson’s sexual affair begins when Benjamin finally rents a room at upscale hotel that would become their regular meeting place. During one of their sessions, Benjamin insists that Mrs. Robinson talk instead of just having sex with him. She opens up about her loveless marriage with Mr. Robinson, held together solely by Mrs. Robinson’s unintended daughter, Elaine, whom she demands Benjamin to not take out on a date. Benjamin initially takes Elaine on a terrible date but later realizes that she’s actually good company. He tells her about his affair and she gets upset and escapes to a university in Berkeley, California. Benjamin follows and stalks her until a confrontation where he denies Elaine’s suggestion that he raped her mother while she was drunk. He convinces her that it was all her mother’s doing, which facilitates their relationship until Mr. Robinson forces her out of school, demands that Benjamin not see her anymore and gets her engaged to Carl, a classmate she’d formerly dated. Benjamin won’t have it — he returns to Pasadena and trespasses into the Robinson home to encounter Mrs. Robinson, who coldly states that the wedding can’t be stopped. Mrs. Robinson calls the cops and forces Benjamin to return to Berkeley, where he learns that the wedding is in Santa Barbara, California. He drives to the city and sprints into the church to realize he’s too late — Carl and Elaine are about to kiss. He vigorously bangs on the glass and calls out Elaine’s name, to which she yells “Ben!” and starts running towards him. The wedding attendees try to stop them from exiting the church together, but Benjamin rips a cross from the wall and keeps the guests at bay before leaving the church and blocking the door with the cross. They sprint into a bus full of people and sit all the way at the back, their faces initially eager and excited and later serious and concerned.
Initially, I thought the film was bleh. But upon closer analysis — particularly when drawing parallels to the predictable plot lines of modern romantic dramas — I found specific cinematographic and plot choices that make the film special.
Though it is a film that was produced in an interesting era (1969), The Graduate is not remarkable as a period piece. The technology that was absent in 1969 but present now would not have affected the story significantly.
One aspect of the film that’s commonly discussed is the soundtrack, which added to the popularity of folk-rock group Simon & Garfunkel. The two songs which play an important role in the film are “A Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson”. The former creates help create a sense of foreboding (“Hello darkness, my old friend”) and secrecy (“In restless dreams I walked alone”) that’s in line with the clandestine nature of Benjamin’s affair. As the film begins, Benjamin comes out of a dark subway station and through a set of events finds himself in a hidden extramarital affair. Towards the end of the film, he finds himself chasing a beautiful young girl with all the emotions behind romance and love — hence the comparatively upbeat “Mrs. Robinson” plays. And at the very end of the film, he seems to have found himself in either a dark or a bright place again. Whatever the case, he’s not sure how to go about it and indeed, the more laidback “A Sound of Silence” plays as the film returns to a lower “light” level.
The Graduate’s story is the highlight of the film. At the party, Benjamin is lauded as a high-achieving college graduate with endless opportunities ahead of him. However, if it weren’t for the obnoxious relatives and party attendees pestering him about his accomplishments, I would’ve never guessed. Taken at face value, Benjamin is shy, apathetic, awkward, and otherwise misguided. A truly high-achieving college graduate would more than likely seek out graduate school plans or at least employment in his field of study had he valued his time at school; Benjamin, however, lounges in the pool and lets himself be taken by a woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis. How worldly and educated could Benjamin be? Has he never been with a woman before? The lack of explanation that the movie affords the viewer for this blatant dissonance gives it a sense of mystery and invites a degree of inference that other films don’t necessarily provide.
The ending scene also makes use of this kind of mystery. The viewer is left to wonder what exactly goes through Elaine and Benjamin’s minds when their expressions change in the bus. My guess is that they’ve realized the grave error of their ways. The sense of adventure Benjamin may have sought after years of being a righteous pupil is a quest that seems to have expired when he boards the bus with Elaine. Elaine, on the other hand, is probably considering the grave impact that leaving a wedding ceremony, a fiancée and her family behind will have on her, and how unfulfilling her relationship with Benjamin will be in the future. Whatever relationship they pursue in the future will now be a cause of circumstance — whom else do they have to go to?
The subtleties, plot choices and soundtrack of The Graduate indicate the higher level of intricacy that the film achieves as opposed to modern romantic comedies. Indeed, it’s no wonder it’s a classic film.