Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is one of those touchstone movies. You never forget the first time you saw it.
For me it was in 1967 at the Granada Theatre in Lawrence, Kansas, where I was attending KU. But I’m not sure The Graduate I saw more than 40 years ago is the same Graduate I watch today on DVD...because I’m no longer the same person.
Back then I viewed the introduction of bumbling sad sack Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his first movie) to the adult world and the predatory Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) as a perfect parable pitting us (the kids) against them (corrupt and co-opted adults).
This was the era of Vietnam, social protest, and pot, after all. The Establishment was corrupt. Move over, old guys, and let us kids have a say.
Seeing the picture again, though, I’m struck by the filmmakers' ambivalence toward the characters, regardless of their ages.
Hoffman's Benjamin evolves from a hilariously naive virgin to someone who, in his determination to be with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), uncomfortably resembles one of today's celebrity stalkers.
And you realize with no small shock that, viewed from the perspective of middle age and beyond, Mrs. Robinson is less evil than pitiable in her search for sexual kicks with a clumsy kid. (Amazingly Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman, yet the gulf between their characters seems to span decades.)
It's equally unnerving to realize that while The Graduate is justly regarded as a brilliant comedy – Mrs. Robinson's seduction of the slope-shouldered Benjamin is one of the single finest comic scenes in American cinema – the film's final third is virtually devoid of humor.
Benjamin's tense confrontation with the cuckolded Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) has about as high a squirm factor as can be tolerated. Benjamin’s pursuit of Elaine, whose parents have pushed her into a quickie wedding with a fast-track frat rat, is nothing less than a race to retain his sanity.
What's most surprising of all is that, although it was a product of the late '60s, The Graduate wasn't at all a counterculture movie, at least not in the love-beads-and-bell-bottoms sense. Benjamin doesn't do drugs, his hair is short, his wardrobe is pure Brooks Brothers.
There's not one reference to the war then raging in Vietnam. The soundtrack features not the acid-drenched sounds of Country Joe or Jefferson Airplane, but rather the timeless bittersweet folksiness of Simon & Garfunkel.
And this is one reason the film endures. Nichols and company took some heat in 1967 from critics who found the picture lacking in political awareness. The naysayers carped that Benjamin was supposed to be a brilliant academician but he seems to know next to nothing about life outside the classroom.
Well, yeah. That's the point. Benjamin represents the eternal idiotic innocence of youth. That's why the film still plays so well.
And as big a burden as we viewed it at the time, the bumbling incompetence of our younger selves seems more honest, more attractive, more desirable with every passing year.
We laugh at Hoffman's hapless protagonist because we've all been there. And a couple of hours spent with The Graduate lets us once again visit that special place of fast-fading innocence.
The series Make ‘Em Laugh features films voted the best American comedies of all time by the American Film Institute.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.