It’s easy to beat up on movies that are held as sacred cows by previous generations, and at a half century old, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), is as slow-moving a target as Dustin Hoffman’s callow Benjamin Braddock on the moving walkway at the airport.
Ben’s ennui seems so quaint nowadays as he lounges by the pool, directionless. As a thought experiment, try to imagine what Ben’s millennial counterpart would be doing during the same period after college in a 2017 remake: Driving Uber customers around and choosing between paying off his student loans or buying up ramen noodles in bulk, maybe? Even Ben’s tortured low points are scored by some of Simon & Garfunkel’s most hauntingly beautiful work. Today it’d be Meghan Trainor or, God help us, the Chainsmokers.
There’s a lot about this film that just doesn’t work anymore—or, perhaps, never really worked to begin with. Individual character motivations are hazy or totally unexplained. The women come off horribly for no good reason. The ending is an ellipsis that was totally unplanned and the director just kind of went with it.
It is still a good movie and if you haven’t seen it, you should still consider renting, streaming or otherwise making the time. Because despite all of the above, and despite the movie’s evident belief in its own profundity, there are plenty of reasons The Graduate remains a part of America’s cinematic canon, even if it also remains stubbornly frozen in 1960s amber.
Mr. Maguire: “I want to say one word to you, just one word.”
Ben: “Yes, sir?”
Mr. Maguire: “Are you listening?”
Ben: “Yes, sir, I am.”
Mr. Maguire: “Plastics.”
Benjamin Braddock returns home after graduating college, finding himself once again surrounded by his boring parents and the banal, phony adults who all think they know best. If you come from a middle class Middle American family with aunts and uncles that nagged you about getting a house about ten seconds before the subprime lending meltdown woke you up to the fact they had no idea what they were talking about, you’ve been on the receiving end of some version of what Ben goes through. Buck Henry’s script at least has fun with this most discomfiting of times. (Though it doesn’t help in hindsight that the one silly old guy who suggests Ben go into plastics was actually absolutely right—with careful investment, he’d probably be fabulously wealthy now.)
Ben finds himself at the home of his parents’ friend Mrs. Robinson (the late Anne Bancroft, a mere six years older than Hoffman). It turns out she wants more than just a ride home. It’s worth pointing out that the film is absolutely shocked at the idea a lady—an older, dignified lady—would ever initiate sex. It actually treats the scene almost like a horror movie might: We mostly get to see Ben’s dopey stare, cut with single, subliminal frames of Mrs. Robinson’s naked form.
Lacking anything better to do, though, Ben later goes along with it. He and Mrs. Robinson start a secret love affair that takes place entirely at an upscale hotel. Hoffman is at his awkward best negotiating the front desk sign-in and conducting a phone conversation with his increasingly annoyed paramour.
Time blows by. Ben’s parents insist he go out on an arranged date with Mrs. Robinson’s own daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Ben, like the hero he is, can’t put his foot down to his parents and just goes along with it. Mrs. Robinson—in the most reasonable move she makes in the whole film, really—snarls to Ben that he’d better not do it. He does, and to his … credit? … tries to make the experience as horrible for Elaine as possible. It doesn’t work: Against all logic and causality, Ben and Elaine develop a crush on one another.
Raging against his insistence on seeing her daughter, Mrs. Robinson threatens to blurt out their affair and ruin everything, so Ben decides to tell Elaine first. After she flips out and runs back to Berkeley, Ben takes the perfectly reasonable step of stalking her to try to bring her around to liking him again and it works. Before he can get her to run away with him, though, her parents shove her into an arranged marriage that we’re assured will be exactly the same grand mistake her mother made.
To save her from her own lack of agency, Ben barges into the wedding and runs off with her, leading to that much-debated final shot of the two lovers sitting side-by-side on the bus as their faces fall—a byproduct of the camera just rolling and Nichols just deciding to roll with it. Are they contemplating their disastrous future prospects now that they’ve ruined their relationships with their families? Are they already thinking ahead to when they’ll need to come crawling back?
Mr. Braddock: “Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.”
Ben: “Oh, it’s not. It’s completely baked.”
The character who makes out the worst in the film by far, and deeply unfairly, is Mrs. Robinson. A whole lifetime later, after the raging sexual revolution that followed the era of the film, only the most willfully ignorant Tinder rejects fail to understand that mature women like to get their freak on like anybody else, and only the most boorish guy would ever fault her for making the first move. Back in 1967, though, she’s portrayed as a black widow, even though we get a glimpse of her shattered dreams. She was forced out of college and into a dull marriage as a trophy wife after she became pregnant with Elaine, we find. She probably hasn’t felt desired, pursued, appreciated, in decades.
But even though she’s been shoved along the same moving walkway as Ben, we’re not made to feel any sympathy for her. She instantly turns heel when Ben tries to pursue Elaine and becomes the raging antagonistic force against his (misguided) quest to be with her, going so far as the accuse him of raping at one point and, at another of breaking into her house and assaulting her. Those sneaky ladies!
She loses her fling with Ben, the trust of her husband, and even her daughter, and for what? She’d probably be able to talk her dolt of a husband into an open marriage nowadays. It doesn’t seem fair since Mrs. Robinson is the character from this movie, the one we all remember. Any fellow who has had even one fun romp with even one lady who is even one hour older than he is has heard a Mrs. Robinson joke. It’s a naughty little badge of honor for both participants. It’s strange to think that its namesake gets such a raw deal in her own feature.
Mr. Braddock: “Would you mind telling me then, what those four years of college were for, what was the point of all that hard work?”
Ben: “You got me.”
I’m trying not to be too frustrated with this movie, really I am. It’s just that in the half century since it innocently played across cinema screens, an awful lot has happened, and speaking generally, it’s happened to you, if you live anywhere within the blast radius of a Baby Boomer or, like me, were raised by one. The problem with the wide-eyed cluelessness of Ben, with his total lack of self-determination except when he’s committed to doing totally the wrong thing, is that it’s still how his generation acts.
Is it fair to judge a film by the generation who laid claim to it? I don’t know. I also don’t know if it’s fair to blame said generation for floating in that same pool for the past 50 years, rousing itself to have the occasional torrid love affair, all while giving as much thought to it all as Ben and Elaine did.
I’m not saying The Graduate is a bad film. It isn’t by any means. It has moments of deadpan humor you rarely see anymore. It sparkles with wit and cleverness, it’s well-shot, and unlike DC superhero movies it knows how to show instead of tell us what it feels.
It just doesn’t have any idea what it wants.
Kenneth Lowe is a mean individual stranded in a limousine. He works in media relations in state government in Illinois and has written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Illinois Issues, and Colombia Reports. You can read more of his work at his blog.