Warning: spoilers lie ahead!
Once upon a time, there was a film in which a purposeless young man drifting through life after graduation enters an affair and then falls into true love. Forced to make a decision about his future, he demonstrates his freedom of spirit by rebelling. He chooses the spontaneous way, the romantic way, the right way. This film was not called The Graduate.
Oh, a lot of people think The Graduate goes that way, but I don’t. Maybe I am on the wrong side of the argument. Before you decide, hear me out.
The Graduate is billed as a comedy. Really, though, it is deeply unsettling. Its hero, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) keeps doing the wrong thing even though we are trying to like him; its villain, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), is sympathetic because we see the vulnerability behind her cunning; its love interest, Elaine (Katharine Ross), is beautiful but dim-witted. All of the characters do things which initially seem to be things no real person would do, but on further reflection, I think they are actually things which real people do, but only when they are fools.
The movie can be summarized as a catalog of such foolishness. Benjamin, the honoree at a lavish graduation party, drives a guest home and does not return until much later. His parents do not inquire as to his whereabouts. His guests are not offended. Benjamin’s reason for not returning is that a much older woman has stripped naked for him and offered him as much free sex as he can handle. He takes her up on it out of sheer boredom and spends the rest of his summer floating around a swimming pool, depressed. He promises never to date the woman’s daughter, then takes the daughter to a gentleman’s club so she will hate him. It backfires when they fall in love instead. She marries another man, but Benjamin shows up at the church and they run away together.
Now, in my view, that leaves three characters who have done something rash. Interestingly, the one with the best justification is sly old Mrs Robinson. She is caught in a loveless marriage based on a foolish mistake deep in her past. She feels inadequate, like an athlete who got taken out of the game in the first five minutes. She is sexually deprived and has no real emotional connection with anybody. She seduces Benjamin because she wants to. It makes her feel needed, enjoyed, happy. When Benjamin goes to the hotel desk to book a room, she smiles broadly at his naïveté. When he kisses her for the first time, she is visibly amused. Count Mrs Robinson’s smiles. It is a short list. And her smiles all come from Benjamin.
Benjamin’s justification? He is just bored and, frankly, immature. Elaine is even dumber. He takes her to a strip club, humiliates her, sees her burst into tears, explains he’s only dating her to please his parents—and then she lets him kiss her! They fall in love! He stalks her back to Berkeley, where she’s fled after finding out about his affair with her mother, and before he can even fully explain the affair, she agrees to marry him!
I am told that The Graduate’s first audiences saw it as a triumph for free spirits. Maybe the movie was meant that way. None of the adults have first names, not even Mrs Robinson. They are symbolically anonymous. Mrs Robinson is a cruelly calculating woman whose maliciousness is revealed in degrees over the course of the film. Benjamin encapsulates that little bit of lost soul in all of us. Elaine has little depth, but gosh is she good-looking. The flight from a church seems to me quite a symbolic gesture, especially when all the older generations get locked in. Symbolic, too, is the fact that the lighting of the Robinson house is much warmer when Elaine is home. (It’s yellow then and a stark white when she is away.) The final scene was filmed in many takes because director Mike Nichols wanted to make sure the happy couple, together at last, smiled broadly enough.
The film itself gives only two conscious hints that something is amiss. One is that final scene, where the smile is still not convincing enough, and eventually Benjamin and Elaine sit in awkward silence. They don’t kiss or even hug.
The other hint is the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. Paul Simon sings, “And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson…Stand up tall, Mrs Robinson.” And, rather than happy music befitting a successful love story, over the final shot we get the song (“Sound of Silence”) which has epitomized Benjamin’s moping.
And with good reason. What happens after the movie ends? Benjamin and Elaine still have not really faced the truth of “the Robinsons’ affair.” They have not had a lengthy conversation since the first date. The last time they were in regular contact was in high school. Their love is about as mature, deep, and well-founded as Romeo’s was for Juliet. Worse still, Elaine is legally married to somebody else, neither can count on a penny of support from their parents, and they have no plan, no possessions, and no marketable skills.
Once I started to see Benjamin and Elaine’s love story as a series of bad ideas, more pieces started fitting in the puzzle. Benjamin demonstrates with Elaine the same thoughtless impulsiveness that he showed with her mother. Elaine could benefit from her mother’s way of reading other people’s emotions. And why is Benjamin so listless, so bored? I’ll tell you why: because he’s a spoiled brat. His parents are rich and his friends offer him lucrative jobs. He graduated from an Ivy League school with honors. His birthday present is a scuba suit valued at $200 (in today’s money, $1,271). His graduation present is an Alfa Romeo convertible. A neighbor says he looks like the kind of guy who can get any girl he wants. Benjamin Braddock is drifting through life because he already has it made.
Then he throws it all away on an impulsive love affair. Not the impulsive love affair with Mrs Robinson, although that was a stupid idea. No, he throws it all away on the affair with her daughter. You could argue that it’s good to escape a life of privilege and absurd luxury in order to be true to yourself and get the girl of your dreams. But that is not the case when you are as impulsive, short-sighted, and downright dopey as Benjamin Braddock. He exhibits no creativity, no curiosity, no clear insight into the minds of others, and no ability to comprehend his own plight. He shows no sign of being college-educated; why aren’t there any books in his bedroom?
In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock leaves behind his family, his upbringing, his friends, his education, his good sense, and ultimately even his Alfa Romeo, and gambles everything on a future life with a woman whom he dated for one night. At the end of the movie I felt unsettled and disturbed; I had expected a happy ending but got an ambivalent shrug of a final scene instead. I cannot help but think that The Graduate is a tragedy. Its characters will come full circle. As they sow, so shall they reap, a fact the young heroes would have learned had they not fled the church. But they will learn it in twenty more years, when Elaine, caught in a loveless union based on a foolish mistake deep in her past, feeling inadequate, and with no real emotional connection to anybody, will finally prove that she is her mother’s daughter.
Postscript. After I watched the movie and told a few people my initial thoughts, I was asked if I even liked it. Yes, I liked The Graduate very much. The soundtrack, acting, and most especially the directing by Mike Nichols were superb. Buck Henry, author of the script (and Liz Lemon’s dad on 30 Rock) has a really terrific cameo as a deadpan hotel clerk, Benjamin Braddock banging his head against the wall is one of the best movie moments I’ve ever seen, and there were many brilliantly crafted shots and scenes. Overall, it was a hugely satisfying watching experience. It was just distressing and disturbing too, and inspired a pessimism in me I really did not expect. Very possibly, the film’s ambiguity about whether it is a romantic comedy or a tragedy of wasted passions makes it a true masterpiece.