Story by Scott Probst
It has been many years since I first saw The Graduate, Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft – not quite since it first came out, as I was only three years old at the time, but early in my life.
I began to think about how it would be seen now to the first-up viewer. There are a few obvious things about the film that stand out: it has a solo male protagonist, and so does not seem on that score to be saying anything significant or positive about the role of women. The family units portrayed in the film are all western-conventional nuclear units, and the sexuality on display is uniformly heterosexual.
So far, for a film made on the west coast of the US in the mid-sixties, it seems pretty straight in every sense.
Hoffman’s Ben Braddock, however, is far from fitting straight in. He seems confused, in shock and unable to make sense of even the most straightforward social conventions. He walks through social occasions like a sleepwalker, with some creeping sense of horror at what he is taking part in. Although everyone around him – all adults his parent’s age for the first half of the film – seem to have clear expectations about what he might do and are full of worldly advice for how to proceed, he cannot make sense of anything they tell him.
Ben is an agent of disruption, first for just not doing anything in the eyes of most, just lying around all day and going out mysteriously at night. He does not conform to expectations, or even pretend that he is going to.
Mrs Robinson, famed through upbeat yet vaguely mournful song her, is also disruptive in her aggressive chase of young Ben. She is sexually aggressive, assertive in manner and strong willed in her choices. Also, she is not specifically punished for her behaviour, unlike the contemporary trope where the sexually available woman often is punished or even dies for her trouble. She is simply unhappy and seeking some pleasure. Although she is disruptive in this sense, she seeks aggressively to maintain the social status quo by preventing any news of her behaviour from leaking outside, and particularly to prevent her daughter from partaking of the same pleasure that she has. She does not even want to talk about anything at all with Ben when they are together.
The film has a positive lack of heroic behaviour: Mr Robinson is strangely afraid of Ben when he confronts Ben over the affair; Ben does not threaten Mrs Robinson when she intends to tell Elaine and ruin their chance of a relationship; Ben breaks down and confesses his confusion to Elaine at the first hurdle. The characters display ordinary confusion and anger at every turn. There are no epic climaxes; even the confrontation at the church, where Elaine abandons her minutes-old marriage and Ben waves a huge cross around, is more ridiculous that dramatic. The real drama all along is in the obvious hatred for someone like Ben, who would cross the lines of convention and destroy the script that seems to be demanded of everyone.
Looking back, the final scene seems the most evocative of the times the film was made in. Ben and Elaine have denied convention and broken with expectations, yet they have no idea what will happen next. The only assurance is in their own authenticity, something Ben has been searching for throughout the movie, listening to advice to ‘get into plastics,’ taking up Mrs Robinson’s offer of an affair and then trying to turn it into a relationship, and confessing the Elaine that ‘the rules seem to make themselves up.’ He is no less confused, but at least he is himself.
With its dislocation from conventional values, and characters adrift in a confusing world, The Graduate reminded me of another film from the same era (1971), Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin, based on Jules Feiffer’s play of the same name. Although absurdist and very black, it has some similar surreal qualities to the world inhabited by the characters, trying to find their way in a set of rules that seem to have lost any meaning. In Little Murders this tension is resolved by a move towards the darkest of emotions, however the loss of meaning in a world awash with social convention is a common thread between the two films.