The Graduate, Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate’ Still Seduces

The timeless message from Mike Nichols’ romance comedy The Graduate is that its lead character runs toward something but finds he has only come full circle.

That song, that seduction, that ending, and that energy: The Graduate has long since ceased to be just a film. Certainly, at the time, debuting in 1967, it was a massive success critically and commercially, and that hasn’t dimmed in the intervening decades. Re-released in this Criterion Collection edition, complete with a hatful of extras, the sense of time and place still register strongly without any loss of vibrancy.

Just as impressively, few films have ever captured that feeling of upper-middle-class ennui with such astuteness, laying bare a world rich in material possessions peopled by those who feel empty inside.

So iconic has The Graduate become it’s sometimes easy to forget it’s more than just a collection of grandstanding moments. The fact that certain elements have, pardon the pun, graduated into endlessly replayed and parodied cultural tropes can overshadow the whole. There’s a lot more going on with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), as captured through the arch of Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) leg, as he shrinks back with sexual timidity as the older woman seduces him, or when he’s hammering on a church window to win back the heart of Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. All around the much-loved moments, there’s a witty and painfully spot-on obliteration of a stifling life offering little in the way of escape.

This being the late ’60s, at least freedom beckoned, which is great if everyone can grasp it. They can’t. The Graduate opens with an absent Benjamin staring blankly ahead, seated on a plane that is taking him back home to California from college. He returns to a big party and a new Alfa Romeo, his whole life ahead of him. Everyone wants to know what he plans to do next, and several have ideas. Has he considered plastics? Except Benjamin doesn’t know and wants to be left alone to contemplate his own future. This is not a behavior his parents understand.

The only excitement in Benjamin’s life comes from Mrs. Robinson, a bored and lonely family friend. In scenes of cringe-inducing comedy, she makes Benjamin drive her home from the party before forcing him inside. When he fears she’s seducing him, she bats away his accusation, leaving him even more flustered. That is until she removes her clothes and, following a series of split-second shots of her naked body, makes it clear she’s available to him. The bored housewife and the lost graduate begin an affair, giving them both the only thing they look forward to.

Up to this point, The Graduate plays mainly for laughs. There are deeper moments of reflection as Benjamin continually seeks solitude, but the comedy shines through strongest. Every minute of the seduction, tinged with erotic energy, is excruciatingly funny. The best sequence comes when he first invites her out, embarrassing himself at an upmarket hotel as he stumbles through attempts to book a room and appears suave. His immaturity is further revealed if you will, when he grabs a breast the moment her top comes off.

Theirs is not a relationship built to last, as Elaine’s return from college hangs over them both. Everyone seems determined to set the two youngsters up, a prospect that forces a row and turns the course of the story. Meanwhile, Mrs. Robinson seems to be in control for much of their time together. Sexy and implacable, she treats Benjamin’s stuttering exploration with wry amusement. Really, all they do is have sex, and when he sparks a conversation, roles start to switch. Lying in bed, flicking the light on and off, she reveals she lost her life to a young pregnancy and quick marriage. Elaine’s life resulted – and so did a lifetime trapped with a dull man – with only a bottle for company. Her calm exterior cracks at the thought of Benjamin pursuing her daughter, which inevitably he does.

Predictably explosive results follow. Teary rows and intense arguments spare no one. Mrs. Robinson, distraught and abandoned once more, is cast aside. In amongst high quality performances, it’s Bancroft who steals the show. In his breakthrough role, Hoffman nails his conflicted and bumbling young man, but even he can’t evoke anything as powerful as the melancholy despair Bancroft brings to Mrs. Robinson. All she wants is something exciting in her life, and the one thing she finds to give her ends up taking everything else from her.

It’s easy to miss this tragic undercurrent at first because The Graduate zips past so effortlessly. In his sophomore film, Mike Nichols brings a tremendous energy to the chaotic closing scenes that see a mad cross-country chase played to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”. The madness keeps cranking up until Benjamin bars the church doors with a crucifix so that others may not pursue them as he rescues Elaine from a marriage that will leave her stuck and unhappy, like her mother.

Nichols fosters an intense intimacy with his actors, losing none of the fraught melodrama Buck Henry buries in the screenplay, adapted from Charles Webb’s novel. Characters often face each other in shadows, staring intently, covered in a sheen of sweat. It’s as uncomfortable to watch as it is enjoyable.

For all the many successes of The Graduate, not everything comes off so well. The way the film has sewn itself into modern American culture serves to mask a few flaws. This is a very good film, not a perfect one. The love affair between Benjamin and Elaine never feels fully formed, rushing on too quickly from his time with Mrs. Robinson. It’s unclear that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson feel that much for each other. These “distances” between characters undermine Benjamin’s obsessional hunt for Elaine and the audience’s ability to believe her willingness to run off with him.

After everything that’s happened, Benjamin only manages to go full circle, never escaping the aimless young man of the opening shot. When the triumphant church rescue is complete, the camera watches the faces of Benjamin and Elaine, their joy fading as they wonder what’s next. It’s a question as pertinent today as it was back then.

The two-disc Criterion Collection release comes packed with an impressive set of extras. There are two separate audio commentaries, one with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, several new interviews including with Hoffman, screen tests, a making-of featurette, a short documentary, and a live performance from Paul Simon.

RATING 9 / 10