From the opening title sequence of Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate, we are inside the claustrophobic destiny of newly-minted college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). There he is, just another passenger on a plane coming from the East Coast and landing in California.
It’s a lonely opening title sequence. At first, he seems to be on a pristine white hospital table. The camera pans out, and we see the other passengers. We hear Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”, in its entirety, and Benjamin stands on the moving airport terminal sidewalk as it takes him to baggage claim. He smiles, finally, as he leaves the airport, jacket thrown over right shoulder and single briefcase in hand.
Viewers today might think this young man, in a grey suit and black tie, is an established businessman returning from a trip. Movie fans 50 years ago learned quickly that Benjamin was the titular character in a film that would change the way we watched, absorbed, and understood films about alienated young characters shedding the last layers of childhood and entering the real world.
Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate was originally supposed to be Nichols’ first film. Instead, Nichols debuted in 1966 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the project remained a possibility. In separate DVD commentary tracks for the 40th anniversary of The Graduate, both Nichols and Hoffman note that the original casting idea for Benjamin was Robert Redford; blonde, chiseled, and a true upper-class WASP California beach bum. Benjamin’s parents might have been Doris Day and Ronald Reagan. That the powers that be stood firm for Hoffman, the antithesis of a Robert Redford type, spoke volumes about the tone this story was going to set.
In Webb’s novel, Benjamin was a Redford type. In the film, Elaine almost marries a Redford type, only to be swept away at the altar by a desperate Benjamin. The Graduate wasn’t creating an agenda about upper-class Jewish angst in a newly matriculated young man so much as establishing the fact that viable leading men could look this way; short, Semitic, vulnerable.
The biggest initial takeaway for many viewers of The Graduate is captured in one word: plastics. Once Benjamin leaves the airport we cut to his face, at home, as if it’s either in or surrounded by an aquarium. He’s upstairs, hiding from the party his parents are throwing for him on the main floor. Benjamin finally walks downstairs and is eventually accosted by Mr. McGuire, one of his parent’s friends. “I just want to say one word to you, just one word: plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? Shh. ‘Nuff said. That’s a deal.” This early in the film, it’s a remarkable example of the rhythm and economy of the Buck Henry script.
For much of The Graduate Benjamin is merely observing. He simply affirms to the plastics adviser that he’s listening. He neither asks for nor is given details about the role plastics will play in the future of the world—or his world—but the message is clear. In this adult world Benjamin now finds himself, all elements are plastic: people, scenery, ideology.
Wisely, we are never told what degree Benjamin had earned. The only background information we learn is that he was a track star, that he won an award. He’s an indistinct fuzzy idea of an adult man about to enter into an affair that will force some definitive life choices to happen, whether or not he’s ready for a change.
This is where Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) comes in. We never learn her first name, but we know her story. The Robinsons are home for the summer, Elaine (Katherine Ross) is expected to be the means by which Benjamin will get out of his post-college funk, his lazy days just lounging in his parents’ pool, but it’s the alluring Mrs. Robinson who serves that role.
Again, from various DVD commentary tracks, we’re told that everything about the initial introduction of Mrs. Robinson’s character was meant to represent a huntress, a leopard out for her prey. Early in the film, from the dark, jungle-like surroundings of her living room, and upstairs where she initially lures Benjamin and presents herself for what would now be known as a No-Strings Attached (NSA) affair, we know she simply wants to use and be used. From her tight leopard print dress, the way she exhales the smoke from her thin cigarettes, and the tilt of her leg up on the chair, she’s ready to finish the hunt. In Benjamin, she knows there’s fresh meat that will provide satisfaction, go down easy, and not ask for anything in return.
Here’s where everybody involved turns our expectations upside down. We soon see that Mrs. Robinson is obviously angry, definitely available, and willing to serve Benjamin’s interests and meet her own needs—but she’s also hurt. Deep into their assignations in an anonymous hotel room, Benjamin asks Mrs. Robinson who she was, what she wanted in her past, and we learn about an interest in art that faded, for some reason or another. Was it before giving birth to Elaine? Was it because she felt obligated to acquiesce to the demands of her husband? Again, we aren’t given specifics because this is a film about impressions, suggestions, passive-aggressive bitterness and anger that never shows its face until the last scene in the church, when Benjamin keeps the crowd at bay with a swinging crucifix. What we’re given is the heartbreaking and beautifully fragile performance of Anne Bancroft, who starts as a hunter but cannot keep it up when her prey wants more than just a physical connection.
Nichols obviously understood that this was a story that would best be told with images, montages, long pauses, and, so to speak, “The Sound of Silence”. From the opening scene to the remarkably compact but rich assignation montage scored to “Sound of Silence” and “April Come She Will”, this had to be about passive observation from performers who knew how to deliver. More than that, though, Nichols needed to have a vision.
Look at the surreal assignation montage, very much in the Bergman/Fellini style of the era. Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson exist in two worlds inside their prison cell hotel room. They walk past each other, in various degrees of clothing, and they don’t speak. Benjamin walks from the bed to close a door that’s opened on his parents in their kitchen. He jumps on a pool mattress and the scene cuts immediately to Benjamin on Mrs. Robinson. It’s a cut as iconic as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey cutting from the primate’s bone thrown in the air that becomes a spaceship in the deep darkness of infinity.
The lead performances are first-rate here, including Katherine Ross’s heartbreakingly fragile Elaine Robinson, especially when she learns the identity of Benjamin’s older woman lover. But Nichols was also remarkable on target here at every moment.
Much has been said about the ending of The Graduate and the climate in which the film was released. Apparently, many of the early test screening questions the filmmakers received were about why Vietnam did not factor into the storyline. What people failed to consider then, and what they’re dismissing now, is that there were two distinct worlds for young people that separated on many lines: academic, religious, racial, economic. What they also failed to appreciate is that The Graduate is a story about love, a story about finding a friend. The only time Benjamin really speaks is after the disastrous scene with Elaine at the strip club. He wants a friend, but he’s too guilty about what he’s been doing to treat her with any degree of honesty and respect.
Elaine learns of Benjamin’s indiscretions and she goes off to school in Berkeley. He follows her, stalks her (more or less), but her plans for marriage are already set in motion. He learns where the wedding will be taking place, and he drives to the church just in time. It’s another of the perfect, iconic moments from a film stuffed with them. (Apparently, what seemed an implied Christ-like pose Benjamin took as he banged his hands behind the glass wall was actually just to prevent it from crashing.)
He yells her name, she sees him, leaves her intended husband at the altar, and goes to Benjamin. The church crowd goes after him like the villagers hunting Frankenstein’s monster, and Benjamin and Elaine are free. They run together toward a bus that happens to be passing by, and it stops to let them in, this woman in a wedding dress, and this exhausted man with a dazed look on his face.
Within the two Dustin Hoffman smiles that bookmark The Graduate is a deeper appreciation of just what the film managed to accomplish. By the end of the opening credits, perhaps three minutes into the film, we see Benjamin smile. He’s leaving Los Angeles International Airport and going home. It’s a brief smile that doesn’t hint at the conflicts to come. In the final moments of the film, Benjamin and Elaine are in the back of the bus. The group of mainly elderly passengers are looking quizzically at them, and the young couple smile. They’re relaxed, free, yet their smiles (Ross’s and particularly Hoffman’s) gradually fade.
Where are they headed? What’s going to happen to them? The Graduate might not have been explicitly about Vietnam and a generation of young people torn apart by that war and its ramifications, but the power it still has to speak about alienation, anger, and the uncertainty of connection still speaks today for college graduates leaving the cocoon of academia and entering the great, queasy, endless unknown road of tomorrow.