Some movies are so iconic, so ingrained in the consciousness of culture that it feels like you’ve seen it even when you haven’t. The Graduate is one such film. I’d never seen it before this afternoon’s theatrical showing thanks to TCM and Fathom Events, but I could tell you what it was about, quote you some lines, and describe several scenes. Surely, everyone who cares about movies is familiar with that view of Dustin Hoffman between Anne Bancroft’s legs, can hum that memorable Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, and remembers the “did I just see what I think I saw?” quick cut scene of a naked Mrs. Robinson.
Made in 1967, The Graduate was the most successful film of that year, making $104.9 million at the box office. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (Mike Nichols won for Best Director), turned Dustin Hoffman into an overnight star, is arguably the most iconic movie to come out of the Hollywood New Wave of the ’60s, and is generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock a recent college graduate who returns to his home in Pasadena without a clue as to what he’s to do next, where his life should take him. What he wants is to take some time off, some time to think and figure out who he is. But his upper-middle-class suburban family with their upper-middle-class friends all want him to act a part. They want him to be the successful, young, clean-cut, All-American grad. Really, they want to be him with a bright future ahead of themselves instead of the dull, completely unsatisfying past they’ve lived out.
At a party, he meets Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) who attempts to seduce him. At first he balks – he’s frightened and confused – but eventually he succumbs, more out of boredom and weariness than actual lust, and the two have an affair over several weeks. Then, he meets her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) and falls in love. This sets off a chain of events that often defies belief but is so winningly directed and acted that it feels true.
Like a lot of Nichols-directed films, The Graduate is filled with a lot of funny moments but it’s the drama that sticks to you. I left the theater humming those Simon & Garfunkel songs and feeling rather sad. There is a melancholy running throughout the film that remains with you long after the credits roll.
It is hard to believe that The Graduate was only Dustin Hoffman’s second film role. He’s spectacular in it. He imbues that particular brand of malaise that comes from that time in life when you’ve just graduated college but have yet to find yourself absolutely perfectly. Anne Bancroft likewise portrays a woman who has given up who she is for a nice house and beautiful things – and hates herself for it – just beautifully. At 41 years of age, I found myself feeling rather sorry for her. She made choices that she thought would bring her comfort but has only brought her misery.
Who can forget that fantastic pop score? What it must have been like to watch that movie in 1967 and hear those now-classic songs blasting through the theater. At the time, it was fairly unusual for a film to use popular music in film. It must have felt like revolution watching that movie with those songs so perfectly blended together.
I hate to use the word “dated,” but The Graduate is certainly a film of its time. It is such an icon of the late 1960s it’s hard to think of it without thinking about all that was going on culturally at the time. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, civil unrest, the Vietnam War – all these things come to mind while watching it. One could write an entire article (and no doubt someone has) on how those things are perfectly reflected in the film.
Going in to see the movie, I felt like I already knew it. I’ve seen those famous scenes played out over countless clip shows, I’ve heard the music on my radio and even quoted some of its lines. I felt like there wasn’t much more for me to know. I was completely wrong. I thought I was getting an uncomfortable comedy about an older lady seducing a much younger man as the ’60s generation gap played out. But I got something so much more interesting, so much more moving than I ever thought I would.