'The Graduate' Still Seduces

As energetic as it ever was, sharp jokes and even sharper edges aren't lost in the transition from hit film to cultural touchstone.

The Graduate

Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1967
US DVD release date: 2016-02-23

That song, that seduction, that ending and that energy: The Graduate long since ceased to be just a film. Certainly at the time, debuting back 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, but 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 very fact that certain elements have, pardon the pun, graduated into endlessly replayed and parodied cultural tropes, can serve to 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 film opens with an absent Benjamin staring blankly ahead, seated on a plane 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 via 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 it’s the comedy that 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 appear 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, for much of their time together, Mrs. Robinson seems to be in control. Sexy and implacable, she treats Benjamin’s stuttering exploration with wry amusement. Really all they do is have sex though, 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 resulted and so did a lifetime trapped with a dull man, and 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. Hoffman, in his breakthrough role, 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 that ends up taking everything else from her.

It’s easy to miss this tragic undercurrent at first because The Graduate zips past so effortlessly. Mike Nichols in his sophomore film brings tremendous energy right through 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 sown 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 not clear that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson feel that much for each other, either. 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.

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