Watching Mike Nichols’ 1967 cult classic “The Graduate” was, more than anything else, a very confusing experience for me. What began as a funny, stylish (in the most 1960s way possible), sexy and intelligent story about a young man’s affair (Dustin Hoffman in his first film role as Benjamin Braddock) with the alluring and seductive Mrs Robinson at some point disintegrated into a bland, clumsily written and superficial, well, durge. There are a smattering of iconic moments which have become hallmarks of 20th century cinema, and it was fun to finally see how they fit into the context of the film. But, following the promising opening act of the film, that’s about it.
The initial scenes between Hoffman and Bancroft are incredibly funny, Hoffman’s awkwardness and naivety reflected perfectly in Bancroft’s commanding and experienced Mrs Robinson. She is the allure of the grown up world, in all its wondrous, sexy excitement and Hoffman’s depiction of Braddock as a timid little sparrow trying to take his first feeble flaps is where the film really hits its comedic strides. Nichols famously told Hoffman not to “act” necessarily, but for him to respond as if it was actually him with a friend of his parents being asked to go to bed. There’s a great scene in which Benjamin arranges to meet Mrs Robinson at the Taft Hotel, where he registers under the pseudonym “Mr. Gladstone” and ends up confessing to being a member of a next door party to avoid revealing his rendezvous. Mrs Robinson arrives, rolls her eyes in exasperation, but sees his inexperience as endearing. This is how the film should have progressed throughout its entire run time, because that’s where the characters had chemistry and where the set ups were actually clever. Of course it should be acknowledged how scandalous this frank portrayal of sexuality would have been in the 1960s, especially between an older woman and a college student, and its totally understandable how Bancroft became such a figure of fantasy for generations of young men.
As soon as Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross, who was bizarrely nominated for an Oscar for her perfectly fine but extremely forgettable role) comes onto the scene, the whole story takes a ridiculous and unsubstantiated plot turn where Benjamin meets her once, falls madly in love with her, follows her to Berkeley where she’s been forced to marry a blonde, faceless fraternity boy she briefly dated, storms the wedding and they flee on a bus together after barricading the church door closed. While the first act of the film is a wry, insightful and often incredibly funny depiction of these characters and their insecurities, the tone of the film changes so rapidly that its quite jarring. The characters act so bizarrely and without any real human emotion or instinct, and in my mind I think that the director was so intent on that final climactic scene where Benjamin and Elaine elope that he just had to get them there and didn’t care how that happened. Also, I like Simon and Garfunkel as much as the next guy, but this was like getting repeatedly bashed over the head with Simon’s flat cap.
The final shot of the film, in which Benjamin and Elaine sit at the back of the bus and the excitement and adrenaline fades from their faces as Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” plays is certainly a thought provoking conclusion. Has the young couple just realised the gravity and reality of what they’ve done, or are they sitting back in peace now that all the nonsense is behind them? Did Benjamin ever really love Elaine or did he perform the way he did out of spite? It’s a great note for the film to finish upon, but as I said, it shouldn’t have taken so much confusing and dull exposition to get there. There are enough laughs in the first act to warrant a watch here and the performance from Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson is sensational, but “The Graduate” isn’t what I was expecting and now that I’ve seen it, won’t be something that I’ll be revisiting any time again soon.
By Jock Lehman