The 1960s were a tumultuous time for cinema and, although they may have been slightly behind with this particular shift, big-league Hollywood was no exception. It was throughout this decade that Hollywood’s self-enforced censorial edict, the Hays Code, in effect for over thirty years, was most heavily eroded and eventually disregarded entirely. There seems no film, decision or moment that officially removed the code, but rather a gradual movement saw more and more forbidden content slip through without complaint from either the audience or the producers. That being said a few important films certainly helped hammer in the final nails. In 1960, Hitchcock’s Psycho quite flagrantly disregarded certain limitations, one as banal as depicting a flushing toilet, while later in the decade the blossoming directorial career of German immigrant Mike Nichols seemed to brush past many other constraints1. He found his start in making the transition from theatre to film with a familiar text, a screen adaptation of the hugely successful play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which raised hackles due to its inflammatory language. His second feature, The Graduate, twinned ably with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde; both released the same year to herald the fall of the code and the potential for previously forbidden subjects to be explored in earnest. In that sense it’s perhaps appropriate that The Graduate is often heralded as the film that best captures the zeitgeist of America in the ’60s, a decade of change and of revolution.
In an early role, Dustin Hoffman plays twenty-one year old Ben Braddock. He’s just finished college and, despite the adulation he garners from his parents and their friends for his impressive academic career, he is at a loss as to what he should do next. Offering a potential course of action, or rather clumsy inaction, Ben finds himself seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older married woman and a friend of his parents. Although initially reluctant to engage in such carry-on, Ben finally finds himself unable to resist the possibilities offered by the older woman. After all, it’s not like he has any better ideas about how to fill his empty, post-college days. Engaging in a brief but busy affair, Ben and Mrs. Robinson2 meet night after night at a hotel for sex. Trying to break the routine Ben attempts to engage Mrs. Robinson in conversation but finds it impossible to maintain any serious rapport. At this point he does learn details of the older woman’s past. Her daughter Elaine, only slightly younger than Ben, was an unplanned arrival and it was the potential stigma of pregnancy that forced Mr. and Mrs. Robinson into their apparently loveless marriage. Seemingly jarred by the topic of her own daughter Mrs. Robinson forces Ben to swear never to take Elaine out on a date. Despite Ben’s promise the rest of the world, Ben’s parents and Mr. Robinson to be exact, have different plans and a date between the two youngsters becomes impossible to avoid. The result is Ben realising that he loves Elaine while having to dance around the wrath of her mother and the obviously complex relationship they share.
If ever a list of great Hollywood films is compiled you’ll always find The Graduate perched somewhere within. For many it seems the finest encapsulation of the unusual atmosphere of ’60s America and, indeed, the world. Breaking free, more so than ever before, of the world created by their parents the youth of the age also contended with the disaffection of the Vietnam War. Many men had to go fight in it while those who stayed at home had images, often disturbing, beamed into their household every night documenting America’s struggle for ‘freedom’. This difficult position which the youth of the day occupied, idealism concerning the future combining with a fevered rejection of the present offered by their elders, is certainly broached by Nichols’ film, originally a novel, but the truth is that time has not treated the film all that well. Even without that particular issue it seems apparent now that the film was a somewhat superficial and hedged depiction of a social revolution.
All this is not to say that The Graduate does not boast many fine qualities that ensure it a lasting audience. Disregarding for a moment social and historical concerns, the core pairing of Hoffman and Bancroft yields some superb moments of awkward comedy while Nichols’ assured direction belies his inexperience with the medium and couples to great effect with the superb cinematography of the highly experienced Robert Surtees. The production impresses throughout with Ben’s free-floating, post-college existence finding literal manifestation in various guises such as his time spent in the family swimming pool, sometimes floating carefree on the surface while other times sinking to the bottom to complete isolation. The framing of shots throughout beautifully utilises the strengths of wide-screen composition with frames often halved or sectioned by various objects in the fore or background. Throughout, either through framing or narrative, Ben is alone and at odds with his environment. Capturing the static nature of Ben’s world Nichols and editor, Sam O’Steen (who previously worked on the director’s debut feature), often conceal edits or fade one sequence of inaction into another. As the story progresses and the protagonist is stirred to action the various production techniques also taken on a sharper and quicker pace.
These fine, if perhaps stock, production techniques merely play a supporting role to the fine work of the main actors. Hoffman may clearly be too old for the role but it’s hardly an issue. He’s youthful enough and certainly comes closer to appropriately filling the part than many a casting decision made during Hollywood’s Golden Age3. Bringing a clumsiness and awkwardness to the fore, he successfully repels many of the usual associations we might project onto a typical young male protagonist. He is neither dashing nor suave nor ever in control. Bancroft, as the icy Mrs. Robinson, also excels. Both parties manage to deliver their dialogue with the definite timing and pace and rapid-fire interplay of classic Hollywood.
The only difference is that instead of perfect flow and diction to every call and response we get pitch-perfect stumbles and mumbles breaking in as Hoffman’s character tries to hold his own. She preys on the young man both for amusement but also for distraction from what seems to be a superficial and hollow lifestyle. Financial security seems a mainstay for all of Ben’s family friends, but their pursuit of the American dream obviously hasn’t led to happiness. Of course, the superficiality that would seem to mark the elder generation’s lifestyle is granted little authenticity within the film. Although that would seem to be something that Ben is railing firmly against, it’s shaped through so many assumptions and crass generalisations that it’s difficult to take it very seriously. Nonetheless Ben, to break the cycle, must stake his own claim to happiness and not only disregard, but actively work against the decrees and expectations of his elders.
The problem with all this is that if The Graduate does capture the zeitgeist of ’60s America, it is a romanticised zeitgeist, one that is a world away from the bristling anger and genuine unrest of Vietnam and the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. The social fallout is handled, at best, abstractly in Ben’s general disaffection, but even the film itself seems somewhat unconvinced by its own thesis. The use of music from Simon and Garfunkel plays prominently into this. Obviously popular at the time and representing a renaissance for folksy, simple songs, their music at times is highly effective whilst elsewhere it seems dumped unceremoniously in simply to plaster over the cracks. “The Sound of Silence” plays out, almost in its entirety, on at least two separate occasions throughout while we also hear snippets of it interspersed between other scenes. “Mrs. Robinson”, the title altered permanently to fit this film (earlier versions of the song were for Mrs. Roosevelt), fares only slightly better as the jaunty rhythmic guitar intro plays over Ben’s frantic attempts to track down Elaine. Like so much else in the film the choice and use of music speaks to a clever and careful sense of composition rather than a real belief or identification with the material. Couple these issues with the passage of forty years and it only further highlights the unfortunate disconnect between construction and theme.
The film’s potential coup de grâce comes with the closing sequence. Having ‘rescued’ Elaine from her own wedding, Ben runs off with her to catch a conveniently passing bus. The camera lingers on the two lovebirds as they find seats at the back and, their elation at having broken social conventions subsiding, we find them simply looking uncertain and perturbed. In one sense the scene holds all the potential of that final scene in Chaplin’s City Lights, one of the assured highlights of the visual cinema, but Nichols himself has revealed that it was simply a happy accident arrived at while shooting4. Like so much else in the film it seems this unusual passage was more the result of the ‘luck’ that can be harnessed when quality contributors unite than a clear comment on whatever came before. Certainly the scene closes things on a mark of ambiguity. Ben and Elaine have broken away from their parent’s grasp and chosen their own course. Where does this leave them? Elaine’s college education surely won’t pay for itself and Ben’s shiftlessness may be cured, not through personal growth but through harsh necessity as he tries to provide for his significant other. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson married only to legitimate an unplanned child. In a sense, for all their smiles and bravura, Elaine and Ben have tripped on a similar pothole, all the while thinking they walked a different road. It’s a good finish and certainly better advised than something clearly happy or sad but at the same time it seems unhinged by the flimsiness of everything that went before. More so than offering any real statement or insight into the turbulent generational conflict of the ’60s the film seems to simply be as confused as anyone else. Perhaps this is specifically why so many cite it as a wonderful document of the time but that assessment still seems problematic or perhaps just wrongheaded.
Throughout we’re treated to a whole lot of structuring, much it very canny but also very obviously composed. Ben’s lazy days, his affair, his pursuit of Elaine and the workings of the older generation seem as artificial and rote as anything previously filmed and don’t convincingly speak to any new-found freedom. Far from capturing the supposed ideological shifts or transitions of the era we have something that’s as stiff as anything that preceded it; even if an adulterous tale and a brief flash of nudity marked it out as belonging to the new. Perhaps that was the message that was intended all along; that the new-found freedom of the ’60s was as much a lie as anything else. If that’s the case then that message seems simply stumbled upon, much in the same way that the director found the film’s final shot. Neither free-flowing nor accurate, neither timely nor representative of its time, The Graduate boasts a quality of composition that makes for a fine film but lacks the energy, honesty or insight to succeed as anything more. Nearly a decade earlier the blackguards of the French New Wave, inspired largely by American cinema, exploded the format with an energy and exuberance that was largely unrivaled. It seems a shame that The Graduate, quintessentially American, couldn’t latch onto the example.
1 There were, of course, innumerable earlier incursions against the Code. Throughout the 1950s director Otto Preminger in particular raged against it while many blatant breaches slipped through in less closely monitored B-movie productions. An obvious example can be found in Joseph H. Lewis’ gritty 1955 noir The Big Combo which features what amounts to two henchmen engaged in an openly gay relationship.
2 Members of the older generation of which she is a constituent are never afforded first names throughout the entire picture.
3 A thirty-one year old June Allyson playing a sixteen year old in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 adaptation of Little Women springs immediately to mind.
4 On Inside the Actors Studio (1994), director Mike Nichols claims that the final “sobering” emotion that Benjamin and Elaine go through was due to the fact that he had just been shouting at the two of them to laugh in the scene. The actors were so scared that after laughing they stopped, scared. Nichols liked it so much, he kept it. Source: IMDb… http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/trivia