There are certain movies made in the 1960s that seem to stay forever in the 1960s. They have no lasting message and you can definitely only handle watching them once (Funny Girl). Then there are the movies made in the 1960s that helped to redefine movie making, and fueled the empowerment of a younger generation. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) all fall under this category.
Forty years after its original theatrical release, The Graduate is still extremely timely and its themes and message are relevant whether in the context of 1967 or 2007. The story of the film easily appeals today’s audience because A) we have all at one point questioned the direction that our lives are leading, and B) romance, love, affairs with older women, and Anne Bancroft peeling off her silk stockings will always be in style.
In many ways, The Graduate stands independently from the events of the 1960s, and can be regarded as a simple story of Ben (Dustin Hoffman): a boy who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life post-college and is seduced into having an affair with his wealthy next door neighbor Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) only to fall in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). However, audiences in 1967 watched The Graduate with the knowledge that America was in the midst of the political and social change that came with the Vietnam War, and this places the movie in a distinct cultural and historical context.
Unlike many young male protagonists in movies made or set in the 1960s, Ben is neither a soldier in the war, nor is he outspokenly against the war, and he certainly doesn’t fit the peace-loving hippie type. In fact, the war isn’t directly mentioned in the film at all. Ben is removed from kids his own age throughout almost the entire movie, and instead only surrounds himself with people of his parents’ generation who define his future with the sterile and depressing word “plastics”.
His reaction to the unspoken-of events in the world around him leads him to reject the idea of graduate school, and remain idle in a world filled with the upper class, middle-aged friends of his parents. Ben’s only outlet is sexual pleasure, but even in this he doesn’t stray beyond the comfortable world of his parents’ friends. He seeks to gain some sort of understanding of his future through his affair with Mrs. Robinson, but he is barred from the events of the world around him because of the claustrophobic insularity of Mrs. Robinson’s generation.
Ben breaks free when he falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, and while Elaine certainly doesn’t have Mrs. Robinson’s legs, with the introduction of her character comes Ben’s exposure to youth culture in the film, as he makes the transition from his parents’ generation to his own. Whereas Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson is only sexual in its nature, Ben’s affair with Elaine is intellectual and personal, and with her he is able to embrace the uncertainty of his future.
This uncertainty, and Ben’s rejection of his conservative parents’ world, would seem, to audiences in 1967, to reflect the social and political atmosphere of the time. The complete rejection of social norms that occurs at the end of the film sent a message to the youth of the 1960s that is still relevant today: it is time for a new generation to come into their own. This latent political message transforms the would-be simple yet appealing plot of The Graduate into a mantra of sorts for the youth of the 1960s, and most likely for youth of generations to come.
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, this collector’s edition of The Graduate comes with special features that are almost as stylistically appealing as the movie itself (and a very aesthetically pleasing main menu). There is a particularly enjoyable collection of interviews by various directors and movie critics who comment on the lasting effect of The Graduate, and its influence on them as well as on modern cinema. Also, there is a very lengthy and expansive interview with Dustin Hoffman, who describes in great detail his experience making The Graduate.
To me, The Graduate is dated only in its entirely Simon and Garfunkel-written soundtrack, but even if you think they are lame (god knows I can’t help but love them), their folksy songs work perfectly with editing of the movie, and lend themselves well to the long drawn out shots in the film. Also, if you are a really big Simon and Garfunkel fan, and watching the movie itself doesn’t provide you with what you need, the 40th Anniversary DVD comes with a short but sweet soundtrack that you can listen to on the drive from L.A to Berkeley while you pretend you are Dustin Hoffman.
And anyway, despite a few moments that might be cliché to modern audiences, any aspect of the movie that might seem dated is largely overshadowed by the fact that The Graduate speaks to issues relevant in the 1960s that can certainly be translated to America today, which is probably one of the reasons why audiences both young and old continue to adore it.