The Graduate Critical Essay

Throughout the 1960s a rapid social, political, and artistic shift was occurring in America as a new generation fought to reorganize its understanding of gender in the face of how their parents understood it. During this time, the women’s liberation movement and new conceptions about masculinity sought to break out of the 1950s suburban paradigm that had been the standard, particularly in terms of male and female relationships. This shift was depicted in several films of the 1960s and forms the thematic core of the film “The Graduate." What is most compelling about this particular film in terms of gender is the way it reflects the changing understanding of gender of both males and females and of different ages as well.

The film presents two young people who are on the brink of coming to terms with new meaning of individuality and gender and also presents the older generation and its unflinching suburban values. Caught in the middle of these representations of gender is the enigmatic character of Mrs. Robinson who embodies both the new understanding of femininity as well as the old patriarchal values her suburban society is founded upon. With such a volatile mix of clashing gender conceptions and generations, this film presents a perfect representation of the gender struggles of the 1960s. In addition, this is all set against the backdrop of suburban America and thus integrates issues of class along with those of gender as well.

To summarize briefly, the 1967 film by Mike Nichols, “The Graduate" revolves around the story of Benjamin, a recent college graduate, who is at a crossroads in his life. Caught between adolescence and adulthood, he is searching for meaning in the upper-middle class suburban world of his parents. While at home between schools, he begins a sexual relationship with the wife of a neighbor, Mrs. Robinson. Uncomfortable with his own sexuality, Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson continue an affair for quite some time, during which she asks him to promise to stay away from her daughter, Elaine. Things become complicated, however, when Mr. Robinson and Benjamin’s father attempt to arrange a date between the two young people. Not wishing to violate his mistress’ request yet caught up in the wishes of his parents, Benjamin takes Elaine on a date, which is disastrous as Benjamin tries to push her away. Eventually, however, the affair between the Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin is discovered and Elaine goes to school. Benjamin stops his affair and essentially stalks Elaine at college, hoping to win her back. She is engaged to a man her parents find respectable and is about to marry him, but at the last minute Benjamin takes a cross-country trip to try to stop her marriage. To the horror of Mrs. Robinson and the other guests, he is successful and the two leave together.

A simple summary of the plot of “The Graduate" cannot possibly begin to unravel the several very complex themes that run throughout the film, especially those that relate to gender. Interestingly, gender does not stand alone as an issue and is continually addressed along with class and generational issues. The 1960s were a time when the old societal and familial values were being questioned and this film successfully addresses this dissatisfaction while at the same time relating these issues to gender, both for men and women. The main backdrop of this film is the world of 1960s suburbia—a place of perfectly manicured lawns, glimmering swimming pools, and impeccable homes, all of which are lined along a handsome street with perfect symmetry and homogeneity. The problem with this image is that under the surface, tensions resulting from issues of class and gender are always present. What this film is trying to achieve (among other things) is to offer a comment on how gender is constructed in a world of “plastics," or artificiality on all levels. Furthermore, it seeks to explore what one scholar terms “suburban emasculation" (Beuka 14) as well as how new concepts of femininity were emerging. This film appears to be a gender-conscious response to the prior depictions of the family unit with its clear-cut gender lines and it brings to mind how “recurring thematic concern in Hollywood cinema over the plight of the suburban male is a far cry from the utopian visions of the patriarchal suburban family proffered by network television sitcoms of the 1950s" (Liebman 17). This whitewashed understanding of the society and gender relationships is questioned in this film as the characters realize that it is only a hollow image and seek to find themselves in this new realization that the world is completely different and the 1950s standards no longer apply.

“We thought we had a commercial picture here, but we didn’t know what we had,” an Embassy Pictures official said to me. He was marvelling at the success of “The Graduate.” Joseph E. Levine, who is the president of Embassy Pictures, and who was in a large financial hole before “The Graduate” started paying off, marvelled, too, in a press release of this spring: “It’s absolutely incredible. There’s no way to describe it. It’s like an explosion, a dam bursting. The business just grows and grows and grows. Wherever we’ve played it, whatever the weather, it’s a sell-out attraction. And people have been coming back two and three times to see it again. I haven’t seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been in the business. . . .” So far, “The Graduate” has been shown in some nine hundred and fifty theatres, in almost as many cities of the United States and Canada, and from early figures the experts can now accurately project the degree of a movie’s long-term success. “The Graduate” has broken house records in about forty per cent of its engagements. In New York, in its first week it broke the house record at each of the two theatres it played in—the Coronet and the Lincoln Art. In its sixth and seventh weeks, it broke both records again. In its first six months, it grossed more than thirty-five million dollars in the nine hundred and fifty theatres—more than two million of it in New York. Whereas most films taper off after an initial spurt, its business continues to swell, just as Mr. Levine indicated; the receipts still haven’t peaked. From its performance thus far, Levine predicts that “The Graduate” will become the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history. Howard Taubman, of the Times, agrees that it will outgross even “The Sound of Music.”

Of course, box-office isn’t the only measure of a motion picture’s success. Like the Beatles, “The Graduate” has met with favor from every level of brow. Critically, it hasn’t been a controversial movie—like, say, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Two or three reviewers greeted it with mild enthusiasm; the rest, even hard-to-please critics, were wild about it. Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic, “ ‘The Graduate’ gives some substance to the contention that American films are coming of age—of our age. . . . [It is] a milestone in American film history.” It was included in the Ten Best lists of Newsweek, the Saturday Review, Cue, the National Board of Review, and a score of newspapers, including the Times. It won five of the seven Golden Globe Awards (Best Comedy, Best Director, Best Actress in a Comedy, and Best Male and Female Newcomers), was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won the Oscar for Best Director. It was the subject of an essay question, on pre-marital sex, in a final exam at an Eastern women’s college. Its theme song—“Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon and Garfunkel—reached No. 1 on pop charts. And, as Variety says, the word-of-mouth is fabulous. “The Graduate” seems to have, in the Embassy official’s words, “a very special appeal, on both sides of the generation gap.” Indeed, it seems to have become something of a cultural phenomenon—a nearly mandatory movie experience, which can be discussed in gatherings that cross the boundaries of age and class. It also seems to be one of those propitious works of art which support the theory that we are no longer necessarily two publics—the undiscerning and the demanding—for whom separate kinds of entertainment must be provided. Its sensational profits suggest that Hollywood can have both its cake and its art. Filmmakers of lofty aspirations have long protested that enormous production expenses make it impossible to finance “really good, strong stuff,” because it won’t appeal to enough people to pay for itself. “The Graduate” seems to be telling us that the public has been underrated. Due weight having been given to such factors as economic achievement, popularity at different age and social levels, and critical reception by mass and élite media, it is clearly the biggest success in the history of the movies. Whatever is authentic or meretricious in “The Graduate” must reflect what is authentic or meretricious in our sentiment about its themes, and perhaps even in America’s current conceptions of itself. To some people, this statement will sound absurdly hyperbolic (after all, why set out to go on so about a film comedy?), but my feeling is that we are living in a time when the uses of a Brillo box can be as telling as a State of the Union Message, and that a uniquely celebrated movie may be worth a pretty close look.

I like reading both about movies I’ve seen and about movies I haven’t seen, but I often find myself irritated in the first case by superfluous chunks of expository briefing sprinkled through a text and in the second case by having to pick out and piece together the rudiments of the plot from clues, usually nonsequential, that are buried here and there amid the writer’s own reflections. So, although it’s not necessarily an ideal scheme, I’ll set down here most of what happens in “The Graduate.” Since its television trailer gave away the dénouement, I can include even that with an easy conscience.

The graduate is a young man named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who returns home to suburban Los Angeles from an Eastern college for the summer, loaded with credentials of glory, and at loose ends about what to do next. The evening after evening Benjamin’s arrival, his wealthy parents throw a party for their friends, more or less in his honor. Wishing to be left alone with his confusion, Benjamin tries to hide out in his room, away from the verbal cheek-pinching. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s partner, eventually corners him, and tricks and bullies him into driving her home, escorting her inside, having a drink, and engaging in a disconcertingly intimate conversation. She inveigles him up to her absent daughter’s bedroom, where she takes off her clothes and makes him a standing offer of herself. Benjamin, first miserable and then perfectly frantic through these stampeding events, is saved only by the arrival of Mr. Robinson. The two men have a nightcap together. Mr. Robinson, kindly paternal to the point of senility, urges Benjamin to take out his daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), who is now away at Berkeley. Some time later (after we have seen a bit more of Benjamin’s aimlessness and of the amiable obtuseness of his parents and their set), Benjamin telephones Mrs. Robinson. During and after the call, many minutes of comical footage illustrate Benjamin’s halfheartedness, awkwardness, sexual ingenuousness, and, of course, agony. There’s a painful meeting with Mrs. R. in a hotel bar; a long sequence in which Benjamin engages a room under a false name from a clerk who he imagines suspects his designs; a furtive pay-phone call to cement arrangements with Mrs. R.; more funny business underscoring Benjamin’s nervousness as he waits in the trysting room; and, at length, a remarkably unpleasant interview with Mrs. R. when she arrives, obviously intent upon getting down to business without amenities. Benjamin tries to back out at the last minute. Mrs. R. goads him on by suggesting that he is a virgin and is sexually inadequate. In a spirit of defensive anger, he comes across.

For the next few weeks, Benjamin hangs around his house by day—sunning, floating on an air mattress in the back-yard pool, avoiding his father’s questions about plans—and, by night, meets Mrs. R. at the hotel, where they conduct a tense, conversationless affair. Mr. Robinson has meanwhile enlisted Mr. Braddock in his campaign to get Benjamin together with his daughter. Benjamin jokingly brings the subject up with Mrs. R., and she makes him swear never to see Elaine. After Elaine arrives on vacation, however, parental pressure for a friendly date increases, and at last, in order to avoid a threatened Braddock-Robinson soirée, Benjamin does ask her out. Mrs. R. is livid. Elaine appears: the classy embodiment of a college man’s most extravagant fantasies. Benjamin, consummately rude, takes her to a cheap strip joint for a drink. After trying to be pleasant for both of them, Elaine rushes out in tears. Benjamin catches up to her, explains that the date was his parents’ idea, and apologizes. In the next scene, they are eating at a teen-agers’ drive-in, relaxed and chatty. When he drives her home, much later than he had expected to, neither wants to end the evening. The only place around that is still open turns out to be the hotel that Benjamin has been using for his assignations with Mrs. R., and he becomes flustered into a hasty exit when various attendants greet him as Mr. Gladstone. Back in the car, Elaine asks him if he is having an affair with someone. He acknowledges an involvement with a married woman (“with a son”) but says it is decidedly a thing of the past.

The next day, Benjamin drives up to the Robinsons’ house in the rain to pick up Elaine, as they had arranged, but Mrs. R. hops into his car and orders him to drive around the block. When he demurs at her demand that he never see Elaine again, she threatens to tell all. Benjamin stops the car and races back to the Robinsons’ through driving rain. He runs up the stairs and barges into Elaine’s bedroom, and as he begins to tell her how that married woman he’d been having an affair with wasn’t just any married woman, Mrs. Robinson, drenched and haggard-looking, appears in the doorway behind him. Elaine gets the picture and shrieks at him to get out.

Benjamin keeps an eye on her from a distance until she goes back to school, then stews around home for a couple of weeks longer. One day, he announces to his parents that he has decided to marry Elaine, and drives up to Berkeley, where he takes a furnished room and continues to shadow her. After days of espionage, he accosts her on a bus, pretending, with no particular conviction, that he has run into her by accident. Elaine, who is on her way to meet a date at the zoo, converses with him icily . Benjamin doggedly tags along until her date, a blond medical student named Carl Smith, gives him the old brushoff. Shortly thereafter, Elaine shows up unannounced in Benjamin’s room, demanding to know what he is doing in Berkeley after raping her mother. Benjamin tries inarticulately to straighten her out; she screams him down. Late that night, she appears again, and asks for a kiss. Benjamin proposes marriage. After several days of indecision, she tentatively agrees. Then Mr. Robinson, having learned of his family’s plight, shows up at Benjamin’s room, promises to put him behind bars if he ever comes near his wife or his daughter again, and leaves hollering that Benjamin is filth, scum, a degenerate. Too much shouting. The landlord, who took Benjamin for an agitator from the start, orders him out. Elaine has disappeared from her dormitory.

Benjamin drives back to Los Angeles and goes straight to the Robinsons’ house, entering unannounced. Mrs. R. informs him, with glacial cordiality, that Elaine is getting married to Carl Smith, and calls the police to have him arrested as a robber. Benjamin takes off, and embarks upon a three-day mad dash to intercept Elaine at the altar—posing first, in a fraternity-house dining hall and locker room, as a friend of Carl’s, and then, over a pay phone in Santa Barbara, as Carl’s minister uncle. On his way to the church, he runs out of gas. He races the remaining distance on foot, and reaches a glass-enclosed balcony of the church just as the young Smiths are completing their vows. At the moment when the couple kiss, Benjamin begins banging on the glass and crying Elaine’s name. She sees him and, for a protracted moment, walks blankly up the aisle toward him. Then she cries out to him, and everyone springs into action. Benjamin gallops down the stairs, Mr. Robinson runs to the rear of the church to head him off, Elaine fights her way through the crowd, everybody starts screaming. In the melee that ensues, Benjamin elbows Mr. R. in the ribs, knocks him down, and then grabs a cross from the wall and swings it like a mace to ward off the attacking horde. Mrs. R. slaps Elaine across the face, screaming “It’s too late!” Elaine shouts “Not for me!” and runs out with Benjamin. He bars the door with the cross, locking the entire wedding party inside. The two of them—Benjamin grubby from his three-day chase, Elaine immaculate in her bridal gown—run, grinning wildly, across the broad church lawn and hail a passing bus. The last shots show them sitting exhausted and expressionless in the rear seat, oblivious of the stares of their fellow-passengers.

The tensions of the first third of the movie—ending with Benjamin’s phone call to Mrs. Robinson—arise from the question: What is Benjamin going to do with himself? Mike Nichols, the director, handles its exposition boldly, and we are given every reason to expect that what the movie will try to do is answer it. In more general terms, the first part of the film seems to be asking what it means to be a promising young man in America today. What does it add up to now, in this country, to be twenty-one, with a high-quality education behind you and a brilliant future ahead of you? Naturally gifted, with a family of wealth and position to back him up, an impressive degree, a fellowship award, the ability to excel in almost any career he might choose, Benjamin exists, as the film opens, in that condition of voluptuous potentiality which is supposed to define young men. The condition fills him with anguish and confusion. And this is fine material for a story, because what was once a predicament confined to the sons of a tiny élite has become a mass predicament in middle-class America. The shared assumptions about what one will do with oneself no longer hold together. Not only is Benjamin interesting to us because of the predicament he is in; he could not be interesting, and perhaps not even recognizable as a youth, if he weren’t in it. We could no longer be taken with a young man who stood smiling confidently upon the threshold of his future as a doctor or a businessman. Benjamin’s parents and their friends struggled, we can assume, to achieve what hard times had denied their parents. For Benjamin to make their youthful hopes his own would be preposterous. A son can pursue ambitions that his parents cherished and failed to fulfill but not ambitions that they fulfilled and then found wanting. From Benjamin’s vantage point, his parents and their friends exist in a world of murmuring emptiness. Upon his arrival home, he finds himself surrounded by fawning adults who have, in a way that escapes them, made a mess of their lives. He sees himself on the threshold only of making a mess of his own life. In the first segment of the film, Nichols himself occupies this limited vantage point so thoroughly as to make Benjamin’s perceptions his own, and the audience’s. He has managed to translate Benjamin’s vision of adult grotesquerie into such striking cinematic terms that even the most conventional moviegoers are hard pressed to see through Benjamin’s problem along such lines as “Spoiled brat, what’s he bellyaching about? My kid should have it so good!” Nichols’ conception, early in the film, is uncompromisingly anti-adult—perhaps the most anti-adult ever to come out of Hollywood. In the party scene, he uses huge, smothering closeups to impose Benjamin’s claustrophobia on the audience when his parents seek to show him off as part of their panoply of success. Even though Benjamin is in a position to accomplish no more, really, than they have accomplished, the guests claw at him hungrily. A tippler promises Benjamin the single word that will unlock the riddle of his future, draws him out onto the patio, and whispers portentously, “Plastics.” Benjamin seems momentarily stunned. Even, or precisely, through our laughter, something inside us cries out, with him, “No, that cannot be the word! That must be the opposite of the word!” But Benjamin can’t escape the clutches of the people who seem to live by it—except by standing at the dark bottom of his parents’ pool, breathing from a scuba tank.

A quick survey of parents who have seen “The Graduate” has turned up only a few who fancied Benjamin the villain of the piece. (For these, his mother and father were “bad” only insofar as they’d “spoiled” him.) Most, if they didn’t exactly identify themselves with Benjamin, were at least on his side, in an avuncular way. They managed to feel this sympathy by seeing Benjamin’s parents as terribly extreme. Parents who are in life as intellectually vulgar as the Braddocks urged their children to go to the movie and see how lucky they were. (“We aren’t that bad, are we, Andy?”) Actually, Mr. Braddock is a more reasonable figure than the usual suburban stereotype, that Hollywood blending of Jewish and wasp garishness—say, the father from Darien in “Auntie Mame,” who could be ridiculed because of his bigotry. There is some boldness to the disparagement of Braddock’s fatherhood. Braddock stands for nothing readily impugnable; he simply fails to stand for anything worthy of respect. The film condemns him because he is not a fit model, and because his ambitions for his son are misguided. Indeed, no one gives Benjamin any sense of direction, much less inspiration. Had there been a single great teacher—or, for that matter, a great hanger-on—back at his nameless Eastern college, he would not be quite so mopily lost. His adulthood looks bleak largely because his environment offers no decent ideal of adulthood—not even a clue to what that ideal might be.

The question posed in the middle third of the film, which ends when Benjamin realizes he’s in love with Elaine, is: How is he going to get out of his affair with Mrs. Robinson? We know that an entanglement with a married woman—especially one so awful—can come to no good end, and that the movie, in order to resolve itself, is going to have to get Benjamin out of it and into something else. More important, we understand that the whole Robinson episode is but a distraction from the problem of Benjamin’s future—worse than a distraction, though, for it helps make up the very syndrome Benjamin wants no part of. Mechanical sex—a bitchy adultery—is as indispensable to the vacuous suburban scene as a few tall, cool ones hoisted over the hibachi. Mrs. Robinson might be his emblem for the plastic world. Benjamin knows he can devote no attention to mapping out his life as long as he has her to deal with. We feel that “The Graduate” will have to return to its initial theme, which the affair has futilely tried to evade

The question we expect the final third to answer is something like: Will Benjamin find his way back to his initial dilemma, come to terms with it at last, and resolve it? Or, at least, we would expect such a question if we could halt the progress of the film until we were ready to proceed, the way we lay a book down on our lap to mull over what has happened and anticipate what is to come. Luckily for “The Graduate,” film affords no opportunity for immediate reflection, except at the risk of missing out on the ongoing action. For this reason, we must replay movies (or their most interesting parts, anyway) in our minds, and judge them largely in retrospect. We do watch movies in our minds rather as we read books: slow the pace at will to get into a particular scene, or even stop the action to get into a single frame; pause to take stock of what the author is doing to us; turn backward to reëxamine something that we didn’t realize would become important. (Marshall McLuhan might dismiss all this as clinging to linear-text methodologies, but I think most people go over movies this way. A number of film critics, one gathers, try to perform the same mental operations while they are actually watching a film. Not only can they not do it; they keep missing more. They go back mentally to retrieve something, only to discover that they hadn’t fully caught it the first time around.) Many films mellow in leisurely recollection; perhaps a fine film must. But “The Graduate,” although it is terrific fun to watch, begins to fall apart under reflection. The final third, in which the best scenes occur, is able to preoccupy us only as long as light is still flickering on the screen. Just when we have greeted Elaine as the catalytic agent to extricate Benjamin from his distracting entanglement with her mother, just when we have braced ourselves for a renewed confrontation with his future, the film, hurtling relentlessly onward, places terrible obstacles between Benjamin and Elaine. Soon it loses sight of its initial problem entirely The winning of Elaine, which we might properly have regarded as a preliminary step on Benjamin’s road to deliverance, supplants the very question of deliverance. As we watch him driving up to Berkeley from Los Angeles, his Alfa Romeo gliding swiftly across the Bay Bridge, he is changing inside. Suddenly, we see him behaving like a man of absolute purpose—a man who knows what he wants and fights for it. Suddenly, he is overflowing with energy and sense of direction. After moping aimlessly through two-thirds of the picture, he is transformed, through his pursuit of Elaine, into the conventional man, resolved upon his chase. On these terms, his success is assured. Once you really know what you’re after, in the movies, it’s mostly a question of going out and getting it.

Despite its bizarre antecedents, the last few hundred feet of the film have a healthy American quality: Benjamin and his girl racing across a green lawn, he in his chinos and stained windbreaker, weary with work well done, and she in her lovely white wedding dress, looking so pure. And she is pure, as far as we know—the first pure flesh amid the plastic. However unnatural what led up to it may have been, they will have a proper wedding night! The clambering onto the bus filled with good common folk. Off on their honeymoon! “What crazy things happen in—well, America!” Somehow, the elation of the scene is almost untainted by any residue of Benjamin’s confusion, or by the “bad” implications of the relationship. The unseen bourgeois, looking very much like the man who spoke the single word “Plastics,” puts his arm fraternally around our shoulder: “See—the kid just needed a sweet little woman to straighten him out.” And we, perhaps clinging to a last-ditch reservation, ask, “But what about his marrying the daughter on the basis of nothing, after he’d been sleeping with the mother, the wife of his father’s partner, who looks so much like his own mother?” And the voice replies, “Are you talking about these two lovely American kids? Sitting in the bus there? Are you going to try and make something nasty out of that?” “For once,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann, “a happy ending makes us feel happy.”

“The Graduate” engages its audience almost exclusively at the level of events until the grandly satisfying conclusion, when its problems (Benjamin’s problems) seem to arrive at a happy solution. The pace of the film is swift and smooth, but its emotional progress—its movement toward resolution—is deeply illogical. The ending does answer the question: How will Benjamin get to marry Elaine, whom he loves? But this union—indeed, the entire boy-meets-loses-gets-girl theme—shapes into a line of resolution only after “The Graduate” is two-thirds over. At one level, the film proceeds awkwardly, deceptively, through a series of less and less interesting problems, sidestepping difficulties of its own authorship, until it can solve only the least interesting of them. All that remains when the bus drives Benjamin and Elaine off into a presumably roseate adulthood is the bare convention of young love triumphant. The trials that Benjamin seemed to forget once he had fixed upon getting the girl, we, too, are encouraged to forget.

Benjamin’s acquisition of Elaine is not an apt resolution of Charles Webb’s novel “The Graduate,” either—the book from which the movie was adapted—but then Webb doesn’t try to pass it off as one. The book is peculiarly spare for a long piece of fiction, reading more like a scenario treatment than a novel. In the manner of a scenario, Webb’s book tries to float its meanings on the surface of events—on easily visible changes in attitude and setting, and on what characters say rather than on what they think and feel.

In the book, Benjamin’s sudden infatuation with Elaine seems purposely unmotivated. Nothing about her presents a good reason for his falling in love with her. The novel, in dialogue that is omitted from the film, makes this abundantly clear at a number of points. For example:

He nodded. “So,” he said, taking her hand. “We’re getting married then.”

“But Benjamin?” she said.

“What.”

“I can’t see why I’m so attractive to you.”

“You just are.”

“But why.”

“You just are, I said. You’re reasonably intelligent. You’re striking looking.”

“Striking?”

“Sure.”

“My ears are too prominent to be striking looking.”

Benjamin frowned at her ears. “They’re all right,” he said.

What was, then, an artful point in the novel is wholly lost in the movie: the fact that Benjamin’s precipitate and (one wants to say “therefore”) consuming love for Elaine makes very little sense. We find ourselves sucked in by a cinematic convention: That’s how people fall in love in the movies; it doesn’t have to make sense. Katharine Ross’s scrumptiousness becomes a more than sufficient cause. Yet because the romance has now grown crucial to the scheme of Benjamin’s life, because we are encouraged to imagine Elaine as the light at the end of his darkness, the film seems suddenly top-heavy. The affair—the preliminary relationship—has been pictured in endless detail; now the love that promises salvation is treated skimpily.

In the film, when Elaine tells Benjamin she doesn’t want him to leave Berkeley until he has “some definite plan,” we appreciate only her coy desire for him to stay—a certain bubble-headed righteousness that Miss Ross makes adorable. In the book, we never overcome the anxiety created in us by Benjamin’s planlessness. Elaine perpetually reminds him, and us, that she is a distraction: “ ‘Well, I just think you’re wasting your time sitting around in this room,’ she said. ‘Or sitting around in a room with me if we got married.’ ” Webb can permit such revealing lines because although he lets his protagonist escape from the essential, he isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. Nichols could not have included Elaine’s keen remark; it is fundamental to his upbeat resolution of the movie that we do not stop to reconsider Elaine’s relation to Benjamin’s anguish about his life. Nichols cannot let us leave the theatre feeling that nothing has changed, so he gives us what he thinks we want by packing the last thirty minutes with passages of tremendous emotional power. The passages begin when Benjamin finds Mr. Robinson waiting in his room (Hoffman’s terrified scream is perfect), and keep coming, all but torrentially, until the final hundred feet of film. Their tension has to do with the horror of confronting brute, implacable stupidity—wrongheadedness—in others. With the over-obvious exception of Benjamin, people all appear to see the world so wackily that, like Benjamin, we have no idea what would be involved in getting them to see it straight. The adults will sacrifice him, and sacrifice Elaine, too. There is no reasoning with them. They cannot “win” (Elaine will obviously get an annulment; the couple can no longer be kept apart), but they will still destroy Benjamin, pointlessly, if they can. If he doesn’t escape with his girl, they’ll crack his head against a pew and have him thrown in jail.

Like Benjamin’s graduation party, the wedding guests are all middle-aged and elderly people. (Don’t kids in California ever get to invite any of their friends?) Benjamin’s creators have thus provided him with an absolutely sound reason for a thinly disguised orgy of parricide—or plain adulticide. If he lit into the congregation without the perfect rationale of self-defense, the scene would appear vengeful, even sadistic. But because the adults’ mindless attack seems to leave him no alternative his aggression seems fitting. The scene takes on overtones of Jesus driving the moneylenders from the temple. An author must manipulate his plot skillfully to legitimize so impermissible a release. Webb swung into his most dramatic pose:

Mr. Robinson drove in toward him and grabbed him around the waist. Benjamin twisted away, but before he could reach Elaine he felt Mr. Robinson grabbing at his neck and then grabbing at the collar of his shirt and pulling him backward and ripping the shirt down his back. He spun around and slammed his fist into Mr. Robinson’s face. Mr. Robinson reeled backward and crumpled into a corner.

Nichols has muted the smash to the face into an elbow to the solar plexus, but Mr. Robinson still lands senseless on the floor, and the scene begins to build to an Oedipal jubilee. If Benjamin could have handled the situation in any other way, or if he had really injured Mr. Robinson (or had killed him), Nichols might have led his young audiences to feel the guilt that lies just beyond, and sometimes mingles with, triumph. But “The Graduate”’s solution aims at gratifying not our understanding of its problems but our insecurities about them. Snatching away the bride at the altar—a pleasing fantasy that has turned up in movies often, at least since “It Happened One Night” and “The Philadelphia Story”—is regenerated by an inspired directorial stroke. Benjamin arrives after—instead of, as in the novel and in previous films, before—the ceremony is over. Benjamin’s crying out to Elaine before the vows would mean simply “Don’t marry him! Marry me!” After the sacramental kiss, his cry means “It doesn’t matter that you married him—or that I slept with your mother! We know what is real!” The chase to the altar puts us in a familiar frame of mind: we forget that the vows are only a ritual; the chase assumes a conventional urgency—maybe he will be too late! Then Nichols craftily steps outside the convention.

The wedding finale has been compared, largely because of its disruptiveness, with the wedding scene in “Morgan!” Yet there was no chance that Morgan would “get” Vanessa Redgrave; his busting up the post-wedding party meant simply that he’d gone over the brink, fallen victim to his unbalanced fantasies. Where Morgan hurts and humiliates no one but himself, Benjamin, like an Ivy League Douglas Fairbanks, outmaneuvers and routs the hostile wedding party. Anyone who has seen “The Graduate” when a fair number of young people were in the audience can have had no doubt about what was happening. Benjamin’s contemporaries aren’t apprehensive about his escaping safely; they stomp and hoot and cheer when he plows into the cluster of parents. And when he starts swinging the cross like a battle-axe they go wild. Hip Negro audiences respond the same way when Sidney Poitier returns the Southern patrician’s genteel slap in “In the Heat of the Night,” or when Jimmy Brown gets to slug a couple of white men—enemy soldiers—in “The Dirty Dozen.” Kids at “The Graduate” can let go because Benjamin kicks hell out of a whole entourage of parents—and with an unassailable motive. As far as I know, no movie has ever shown a black man beating up a white man outside a war setting (though in life it’s not uncommon)—not even in a situation that favors the white man. But one can imagine a screenplay with sufficient art to justify a Negro’s physically humiliating a crowd of dreadful whites. Like Benjamin, he would have to have no choice but the ordinarily forbidden.

Benjamin’s battle for Elaine is so sudden and ferocious that we involve ourselves in it completely. When they finally escape their tormentors, and the tension of the chase is relaxed, our relief is consummate. To Nichols’ credit, he has not permitted “The Graduate” to fade front the screen on a shot of the couple in a clinch, or even on grins of idiotic triumph. They stare blankly ahead, because at last things have stopped happening at a preoccupying clip. Now they have a chance to consider the momentous consequences of what they have done, and the difficulties that lie ahead. This final moment of thoughtfulness—Nichols has painstakingly established the use of full-screen expressionless faces to indicate thought and emotion—lessens only slightly the exuberant tone of his finale. But after the lights go on in the theatre we, for our part, have a chance to realize that Benjamin’s capture of Elaine was, at the outside, a secondary aim. What, after all, is Benjamin going to do with his life? Do we infer from the vigor of his pursuit, and from the conventionality of Elaine, that they will soon be discussing a mortgage on a split-level in Tarzana? That the whole “problem” upon which the film established itself was just a sort of “post-grad blues”—a phase that Benjamin simply had to be jolted out of? Or are these clues illusory? Will Benjamin now, with Elaine in tow, return to grapple with the confusions that unsettled him before the Robinson ladies turned up? These are crucial questions, and “The Graduate” has balked at them. Indeed, Nichols recently told a group of college-newspaper editors that as the movie ends, the real problems are just beginning (we must assume that Benjamin somehow needed Elaine before he could face them), and that the marriage would never work out. Nichols’ remarks were surprising, for none of their pertinent, even crucial extensions come across in his dénouement. The last third of the film implies either that “The Graduate” is about a boy passing through a difficult stage on his way to Normality or that Elaine represents, at best, Benjamin’s cowardly desire to simplify the complex issues of his life-to-be. (At worst, he has fixed upon her as a distraction, exactly as he fixed upon her mother.) The option is hardly satisfactory, so most of the critics have steadfastly ignored the evidence of the text and insisted that Benjamin’s long search for himself arrives at its payoff. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, typically, informed us that “The Graduate” is “rooted in the affirmative premise that the young can escape the traps of a society created by their parents.” And Glamour explained Benjamin’s barely controlled hysteria at the wedding by saying, “He doesn’t care what other people think because [now] he knows who he is. That’s growing up.”

The condition of being altogether lost may be unbearable; it is understandable that people usually take false roads out. The false roads don’t lead toward being found, exactly, or toward any particular wisdom, but at least they allow one a comforting feeling of movement, an illusion of progress—at least they consume energy. For an artist to detour onto such roads is also understandable, I suppose; in any event, it happens often enough. Resisting the lure of such detours and remaining still, in stark perplexity, to watch and listen is the nerviest course, in art as in life. The artist cannot afford to let himself get away with things; if he does, he cheats his characters and, consequently, his audience. If he cannot long maintain himself in the condition of being lost, he cannot long maintain his characters in that condition, either, because he has no sure sense of where it leads, or even of what its resolution might look like. He grows adept not at solving problems but at overcoming them—transmuting them, removing them, “settling” them, directing them toward false outcomes. The higher an artist’s distractibility is, the less tenaciously he clings to the essential, and the easier, and emptier, his aesthetic choices become.

Though we all identify European movies by naming their directors, film buffs who refer to American movies that way have seemed a little pedantic. Familiar though we are with the axiom that European auteurs produce unmistakably personal visions, we have seen Hollywood movies, even the movies of our most “distinctive” directors, as committee efforts. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was the Burton-Taylor movie or, in certain circles, the Albee movie. But “The Graduate” is, definitively, the Mike Nichols movie. In fact, it has given everybody the chance to be a movie buff; that is, to talk about the director. Even its actors, in interviews, have tried to turn attention away from the themselves toward Nichols. The critics—including some who usually scorn auteur notions—tended overwhelmingly to speak of “The Graduate”’s success in terms of Nichols’ success. Many of them called him a genius. The New York Film Critics and the Motion Picture Academy elected “In the Heat of the Night” Best Picture, but both groups chose Nichols over Norman Jewison (and Arthur Penn) as Best Director. The Directors’ Guild of America also gave Nichols its annual award. John Allen wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “The director . . . has [hereby] announced his candidacy for election to the upper chamber of filmmakers now occupied by Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, and others of their calibre. Mr. Nichols, as a director whose sure control shapes and colors every frame of film with a distinctive, recognizable style, is almost sure of election. . . . Mr. Nichols is everywhere, blending, coloring, illuminating. He gives to ‘The Graduate’ that special brilliance that occurs when all the right lights are filtered through the proper prism: his touch as a director is a veritable chandelier of finely cut crystal.” Will Jones wrote more or less the same thing in the Minneapolis Tribune.” Everybody asks why the Americans don’t make movies the way Europeans do, right? Okay, buddies, here’s European moviemaking done right in the heart of American movieville. Hey, there, Schlesinger, Richardson, Antonioni, Truffaut . . . can little Mikey Nichols come play with your gang? You bet.” Nichols said recently, rather as if biting the hands that had fed him so generously, “Critics are like eunuchs watching a gang-bang. They must truly be ignored.” The fact is that critical hungers have been working in Nichols’ favor. Americans want to feel good about what is being produced here. In the early nineteenth century, when Continental literati scoffed, “Who ever read an American book?,” our critics often fell into a similar aesthetic chauvinism; this or that new author was always promising to take his place beside the European masters. A century later, when American movie pioneers set the pace for the international field, the heirs of those critics were quick to claim cinema as a fully legitimate medium for art. But its rapid industrialization—the demand for “something for everyone,” to insure maximum returns on huge production investments—soon dictated a cinema not of truth or beauty but of wish fulfillment: of prosperity, romance, and moral simplicity. At least since the end of the Second World War, with the flourishing of Italian neo-realism and, later, the French nouvelle vague, American entertainment has been forced back into the shadow of European art. Our cultural insecurity vis-à-vis the Old World is at work again. Oppressed by the confusions of the times, we look for the film genius who will do for us what Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, and Olmi have done for the Italians. It is an immense task, granted, but we cannot afford to accept less from our first mid-century genius. He must give this frazzled country some feeling for itself, for its contradictions and despairs, even as it goes through changes that make the job almost impossible.

Not altogether unlike Benjamin, Nichols has long existed on the verge, in a portentous condition of promise. He had a way of shrugging off his unbroken string of successes (five stage and two Hollywood hits out of seven tries) which made them appear playful warmups for some grand feat of art. Because his mastery over “unworthy vehicles” seemed consummate—because, in other words, he had attempted nothing in the theatre that strained at the limits of his talent—people considered him “better” than anything he had done showed him to be. Nearly every artist secretly thinks of himself in this way, but Nichols’ recent public statements suggests that critical overestimations of “The Graduate” may have momentarily beguiled him into presuming that the quality we are willing to attribute to him can already be found in his work.

Nichols has provided his film with the texture, if not the substance, of contemporaneity. Like “Blow-Up,” and more than any other recent American film, “The Graduate” has the look of today. The Berkeley students look like Berkeley students—not like Berkeley students of a dozen years ago, or like a middle-aged conservative’s nightmare of Berkeley students, or like a pop huckster’s souped-up Berkeley students. (Nichols is reported to have salted his crowd with casting-agency hippies. He evidently has an exceptional eye for extras.) Similarly, his camera has captured the exact appearance of a contingent of senior citizens, a nouveau-riche poolside lawn party, a Berkeley student boarding house, an Ivy League-type locker room, a suburban Los Angeles den. The care that Nichols has devoted to surface reality infuses into familiar personalities and their backgrounds a recognizability uncommon in American films (and virtually nonexistent on television). There’s something thrilling in that accomplishment—something rather like the strange excitement of overhearing one’s name mentioned—but his ability to capture our surroundings gives him an authority he does not merit on the subject of the feelings we experience in them.

Nichols also seems determined to weaken the impact of his settings with an almost random series of cinematic tricks. Unusual ways of photographing the details of physical reality—the simple fact of things—are supposed to comment upon the camera’s objects, upon what is really there. Presumably, a director uses the perspectives of his camera (its lens distortions, its angle of vision, its filter coloration, its distance, the suddenness of its attention) to indicate the proper attitude toward the visual facts, more or less as a writer chooses between words to suggest his own viewpoint. The way it works out most often in movies, of course, is that a director tosses off variations in perspective in a spirit of arbitrary virtuosity, confusing us or distracting us from his text, in the manner of a poet whose rhyme and metre bear no more than an incidental relation to the sense they serve. Many critics and moviegoers imagine that intrusive alterations of perspective are the “mark” of a film director much as readers once believed that similes and conceits were the mark of a writer. We now understand that good writing can exist quite independent of such conventions—that, in fact, a careless, eclectic use of them results in bad writing. Nichols approaches his visual arrangements like a young writer stuffing incongruous stylisms of Dickens, Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway—and some good schtik from Salinger, Mailer, and Bruce Jay Friedman as well—into his prose. In reading, we have a clear view of how disastrously this subverts what reality of his own a writer manages to bring to his material, but we are not so wary of the non-integral perspectives of the motion-picture camera.

Nichols may be somewhat proud of his artful photography, for he has apparently authorized as the film’s advertising emblem a composition that he employs twice, ostentatiously, in the film: Benjamin (in the ad he is decked in ceremonial cap and gown) framed by the bare, curvaceous leg of Mrs. Robinson. Nichols goes in for this sort of camerawork throughout the movie. What’s the point?

“Well, to take this particular issue, the shot of Benjamin through Mrs. R.’s leg as she fiddles with her stockings is intended to fill our field of vision, like Benjamin’s, with brassy sexuality.”

Well, then, why are we looking through the leg at Benjamin, instead of at the leg as if through Benjamin’s eyes?”

“Well, this way we get to see Benjamin reacting as well as what he’s reacting to.”

“Well, why don’t they just show the leg from Benjamin’s shoulder and then right away show us him reacting in a closeup, because we get distracted from him by that leg in the foreground anyway.”

“Well, this way you get the whole idea instantaneously, in a single shot.” Clearly, the argument can continue on both sides, and over each jarring cinematic change: Is this new perspective justified at this moment by what is happening in the movie? Does it work here? Though unusual perspectives are often assumed to be self-justifying, they tend to make us aware of ourselves as an audience—to insist upon the urgency of our being entertained, or else to give us the uneasy feeling that the director is providing insights we aren’t absorbing. Like a child who has been given a great many presents at once, Nichols seems to have just discovered that the camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding. Now he has it crouching low to peer up into a dazzling blur of sunlight. Now staring wide-eyed in to the headlights of oncoming cars so that the beams bounce from the lens, creating floating discs in the night. Now jumping into a swimming pool to catch the swirly patterns of air bubbles in moving water. Now snuggling in a closet corner and ogling out past the hangers, now squinting through a fish tank, now gazing at reflections in a polished tabletop. Now it’s barrelling low along a bumpy highway, now jogging on some unseen shoulder, lending a “documentary” quality by cutting off the tops of people’s heads for cruel, open-pore closeups. Now its lens is foreshortening, now it is wide-angle, now telescopic, now looking to one side so that the main image is way off center. Nichols’ devices keep elbowing us nervously in the ribs, as if without them our attention might stray: anticipated-sound cuts, with dialogue from a new scene beginning while the image of the previous one still lingers on the screen; dizzyingly fast cutting back and forth between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson when she first offers herself to him, turning her naked body into a blur of flesh; a painful sequence photographed through the distorting glass of a scuba mask; a pullback to a bird’s-eye shot of Benjamin sitting in a deserted Berkeley plaza, which dissolves, to suggest the passage of time, into a shot of Benjamin in precisely the same posture but with the light brighter and the plaza filled with bustling students; a phantasmagoric series of cuts, beginning with the affair proper, that include shots of Benjamin being borne by his raft in the pool and by Mrs. Robinson’s body in bed, Benjamin having breakfast with his parents, then watching TV at home and watching TV in the hotel room.

Nichols’ cameraman, Robert Surtees, has been quoted as saying, “I needed everything I learned in the past thirty years to shoot ‘The Graduate,’ ” as if this were automatically to be taken as testimony to Nichols’ directorial brilliance. Ideally, of course, a director’s style should emerge organically from his over-all conception of the material. A cohesive point of view should lead to a legible plan that relates each shot to the film in its entirety—or, failing that, at least to the surrounding shots, to whole scenes. Nichols, fairly bursting with ambitious ideas, seems to have been squeamish about giving any of them up. His apparent compulsion to retain each distinct evidence of his “creativity” unhooks scenes from one another, and even produces a disjointed quality within individual scenes, as though he intended, instead of a narrative, a series of vignettes. Denied the cabaret option of discretionary blackouts, Nichols is frequently at a loss for some means of proceeding gracefully

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “The Graduate Critical Essay”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *