review: the graduate
August 11, 2006
Several times during Mike Nichols’ 1967 dramedy The Graduate, the camera angle abruptly goes wide, leaving a young Dustin Hoffman looking very much alone in the desolate vastness of the frame. It’s deliberate, of course, and it perfectly captures the impossible confusion and immense isolation in Hoffman’s character, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock. The film, trumpeted as one that “defined a generation”, lives up to its formidable reputation, evoking themes and emotions with urgency and verisimilitude that more modern efforts such as 2004’s Garden State have tried mightily to match.
It may be a male fantasy to have women throwing themselves at you, but Ben isn’t most men. Home from college, he wanders aimlessly, aloof and detached, through lavish graduation parties and empty conversations with his doting parents and relatives. Then he meets Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of a family friend, who, after a series of acutely uncomfortable conversations, propositions him. Ben, desperate to connect with someone, anyone, begins a soulless relationship that increasingly disgusts and ensnares him even as he struggles to end it.
Complicating things is Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), whom Ben’s parents and Mr. Robinson repeatedly suggest that Ben date, which he eventually does, though over Mrs. Robinson’s objections. And of course, they fall in love (or at least Ben does). Yet the truth eventually comes out, damaging their relationship and wounding Ben’s already fragile self-esteem. His ensuing odyssey of sorts to win her affections again is at once both hilarious and heartfelt, inspiring and illuminating, at times inexplicable and always memorable.
Rather than using a traditional orchestral score, Mr. Nichols made the suitably unique choice to include a selection of achingly poignant Simon & Garfunkel tunes. Played alone, they might seem hopeful, even happy, yet over the swirling emotional tapestry of Ben’s life they take on a potent sadness, prompting this reviewer to sit back ponder deeply the film’s universal themes of love and loss as Ben’s red sportscar zooms down the California expressway. It’s almost existential, in its own way.
Hoffman, Bancroft, and Ross all received Oscar nominations for their roles in the film, and deservedly so. Playing the straight-laced, impeccably polite, and stupefied Ben, Hoffman speaks little yet commands the viewer’s attention with his uncanny internalizations of the character’s overflowing emotions which ripple unexpectedly across his youthful, taut, and often blankly staring complexion. Bancroft is equally fabulous as the monied, thrill-seeking Mrs. Robinson, whose unyieldingly callous appraisal of Ben’s affections for Elaine is stunningly inhuman in places.
Finally, Ross makes the most of her relatively limited screentime; her antics with Hoffman as they fight off a band of furious relatives with a wooden cross are reason enough to see the film (in case you still need one). Nichols’ direction is spot-on too: the bold color palette, innovative cinematographical concepts (exemplified in a painfully funny sequence from Hoffman’s perspective while in a scuba suit), and entertaining editing choices are beyond reproach. But is it really the #7 film ever made, as the American Film Institute ranks it? For me, not so much; all my favorite films share that certain ineffable quality that makes them feel nearly like an extension of my own being, and The Graduate did that at times but left me mildly unfulfilled at the conclusion for reasons that defy description. Even so, this hardly diminishes the film’s excellence or my high regard for its many pleasures.
–D. S. W.