The Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols
Adjusted for inflation, The Graduate is the 21st-highest grossing film in domestic box office history, nestled awkwardly between Jurassic Park and Fantasia. A former mass culture phenomenon is now best known for a single iconic shot/line ("Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?") and a Simon & Garfunkel song, but has otherwise been withdrawn from widespread consciousness. Yet The Graduate hasn't ossified into a youth-of-'67 time capsule, despite charges most succinctly leveled by Roger Ebert, who in 1998 took the occasion of a re-release to celebrate Mrs. Robinson's survival of "that insufferable creep, Benjamin" and remaining "the only person in the movie you would want to have a conversation with."
Complaints about Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson being marginalized in favor of a dullard young man originated with the film's initial release: writing in Film Quarterly in Spring 1968, Stephen Farber and Estelle Changas sighed that "what seems to be a lamentable blindness to Mrs. Robinson's very real sexiness is to be taken as a moral victory." But they also noted that Mike Nichols had made a "Youth-grooving movie for old people"; they meant that as a pejorative but it accurately matches producer Laurence Turman's 1992 recollection: "Kids started it, then the parents went, then everybody went."
Nichols's coolly analytical satire denigrates panicky postgrad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) without invalidating his self-confessed "compulsion to be rude all the time." An hour in, that statement's the first indication Benjamin's been aware of how odd his behavior seems, and how willing he is to make everyone in his parents' suburban California neighborhood uncomfortable to buy some time to brood. The Graduate bluntly presents Benjamin's awareness that he's not even a peripheral player in a youth movement around him. In the very first shot, his right-hand immobility on a moving sidewalk is underlined by an automated message to pedestrians to pass on the left.
No liberalism for Benjamin, who's shown locked in place even in motion, a very literal motif tirelessly repeated by Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees. Other metaphors are similarly on-the-head. In his room, an aquarium display mini-scuba diver blows bubbles involuntarily. Benjamin will subsequently be humiliated for the amusement of his parents' friends by being pushed, in full scuba gear, down into the pool, where he sits and sulks, another object planted in its place. After the affair with Mrs. Robinson begins, he floats on top of the pool, a callow California sunbather; when the fallout breaks, the heavens come pouring down.
None of this is subtle, and from the moment of release there were complaints that the anti-suburbia, death-by-a-thousand-cocktail-parties theme was tired. But the visual storytelling is perfect: with editor Sam O'Steen, the potentially insufferable Simon & Garfunkel montages are compact, wordless and perfectly evocative. The on-the-noseness is earned by the film's dispassionate scorn.
The generation gap tormenting Benjamin—a man with his parents' natural dullness a generation too soon—leads him to Berkeley in search of Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). There, though, he sees nothing but her, a convenient answer to his utter lack of an interior life. Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry's subsequent two collaborations (1970's Catch-22 and 1973's The Day of the Dolphin) were angrier and more inchoate; by the latter, Benjamin's metaphorical underwater prison has become the home of a persecuted dolphin, a completely inchoate metaphor.
Hoffman's infinite panoply of panicked facial reactions and the truly stunning planning of every sequence complement a film whose skepticism has aged very well. An appropriate double-feature would be 1971's Taking Off, starring Henry as a respectable New York state parent sucked into early-70s New York grime and counterculture while ostensibly searching for his runaway daughter. Parents and youth get an equally (un)sympathetic treatment; The Graduate errs on the side of equal caricature, and its clear-eyed meanness remains invigorating.
Opens April 11 at Film Forum