“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
(I typically keep reviews spoiler-free, but this one will have some discussion of the ending.)
I’ve always considered the 60s to be one of the weakest decades of cinema. There are some gems, to be sure, but the carefree, whimsical spirit in most of the movies of that era just didn’t connect with me. That’s a shame, as the cultural revolution in the 60s is actually a fascinating thing—I really wish there were more movies about that. Well, The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols (Closer, The Birdcage) and starring Dustin Hoffman, is the movie the 60s needed. No movie summed up the revolution’s conflict—and its consequences—so eloquently as this movie. Even if you don’t dig into the symbolism, it’s a very competent comedy in its own right, with smart writing, a killer soundtrack, and just the right amount of drama hiding under the surface.
The movie opens with Ben Braddock, a successful young man, returning home after his college graduation to a party his parents throw for him. There, he meets Mrs. Robinson, a friend of his parents, who asks that he drive her home. Upon arrival, Mrs. Robinson begins her seduction, making it known that she’s available to Ben whenever he wants. He resists at first, but eventually gives in and begins a clandestine sexual relationship with Mrs. Robinson. There’s some tension, and Mrs. Robinson explicitly forbids Ben from pursuing a relationship with Elaine, her daughter who is about Ben’s age. He soon finds himself drawn to Elaine anyway, and must choose between the older Mrs. Robinson and the younger Elaine Robinson.
Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.
With the cultural revolution and the clash of young and old generations in the 60s, it’s very significant that the main conflict in The Graduate is choosing between the young and old generation. A young, successful man ready to start his life in the 60s had to choose between conventional success of the older culture and a wild and free life with the emerging younger culture. It’s no huge surprise that he runs off with the younger lover—but let’s talk about that ending. Ben is in love with Elaine, despite only knowing her for one day, and pulls her away from her wedding. The two run off recklessly in a bus, barely escaping her older parents and friends, and laugh with each other as the bus pulls off. Any other 60s movie would have ended there. But here, the camera lingers, the laughter fades, and you see the realization of reality set in for both Ben and Elaine. What will they do now? What is their plan for the future? Are they any less lost now than Ben was at the beginning of the movie?
Ben makes no effort to hide the fact that he’s completely lost in life. He has no idea what to do now that he’s responsible for any structure in his life, so he becomes engulfed in each opportunity that’s placed before him. The stability of the older culture is shown to be unhealthy, but the allure of the newer culture is shown to have no future. It’s not an indictment so much as an explanation of the difficult choice young people faced in the 60s: do you throw your future away, or accept one that will do nothing but harm you in the long run?
I’m making this movie out to be a stuffy academic piece. It’s actually quite funny and entertaining, the script was great, and Hoffman’s performance was legendary. But the movie is so important in American cultural history that I had to touch on that. Whether you enjoy digging into cultural history or not, The Graduate is worth a viewing. It’s a fantastic American classic with a lot to offer to viewers of all sorts, and a lot to say to disenfranchised youth even today.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Mike Nichols
Genres: comedy, drama