Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is a peculiar film, and four decades of pop-culture accretion hasn’t changed that. The film serves as a template for every second-rate indie coming-of-age story you’ve ever seen (including Orange County, Ghost World, and the most insidious offender, Garden State) as well as inspiring classic parodies in Wayne’s World 2, the Naked Gun series, and every single film by Wes Anderson. In fact, I move that the “protagonist gazes at the sky from the bottom of a suburban swimming pool” trope be officially and vigorously banned from all scripts, scriptwriting classes and undergraduate diaries for the next two decades.
Approaching the film in 2011, what is the film’s continuing appeal? Is it a slice of 1960’s socially-aware satire? A particularly well-crafted piece of cinema? Or a film that, by playing with classic Hollywood romance, anxieties of modernity and almost-ridiculously Oedipal energies, becomes a fascinating look at love and subjectivity?
The film is definitely the first two – as the earnest, badly-mixed strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ kick in for the first of too-many times, we can’t help but feel suspicious towards those damned adults and their orthodoxies, man. Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock resonates as a kind of disillusioned anti-hero of the sixties, despite the fact that he seems to have never heard the word ‘counterculture’ in his life. Even as ‘Scarborough Fair’ plays for the third fucking time, the film’s story of love affairs and sinister emotions is always couched in politeness, routine, pretence. There’s no such thing as a ‘free love’ in WASP-y Los Angeles. This is not a film about discovering new ways of seeing the world; it’s a film about dealing with the ways in which we already see it.
Ben’s identity crisis is rendered through a range of inventive cinematographic techniques. The idea of ‘seeing-through’ – perspective shots that move from foreground to background, often framed by fish tanks, windows or natural lighting – is highlighted in the film’s most memorable scenes. Ben Braddock behind/inside the fish tank, or staring through the surface tension of the water, or banging on plate glass at the First Presbyterian. Hoffman plays the lead with a detached, narcissistic dissociation from the world around him. But the character is likable because he’s iced in – despite wanting a connection, he can’t form one.
The most playful sequences of this type revolve around Ben’s first hotel rendezvous with MILF par excellence Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). In the hotel bar, she receives a call from Ben, who asks her to look around. As the depth of field increases, we see Ben, through a window, inside a phone box, nervously staring back as if still in his tank. Later, as Ben waits for Mrs Robinson in his hotel room, the camera pans to follow his neurotic efforts to ‘set the scene’ – opening and closing the blinds, turning on the bathroom light, brushing his teeth (with his own toothbrush!). The emotional struggles between Ben and Mrs Robinson, particularly in later bedroom scenes, continue to centre on this battle for the light switch.
In these scenes, too, we recall The Graduate’s greatest strength – an unflinchingly comedic command of dialogue. Adapted for the screen by comedian Buck Henry (co-creator of Get Smart, and Liz Lemon’s father on 30 Rock!), the script crackles today with absurdist punchlines (“Plastics!”), melancholy reveals (“Art!”) and understated social satire (“Agitators!”). The film is best during these extended conversational set-pieces, where the method performances truly pay off. In the “art” scene, for example, the emotion is wrought by an on-again/off-again lamp (half of the conversation occurs in total darkness), the two leads dressing and undressing, and about three camera angles. The dialogue is both candid and theatrical, as Ben searches for some conversational code with which to relate to his lover – whatever it is, it isn’t art. The swing between hilarious and morose is often disorienting, but that’s part of the film’s charm.
The other part, of course, is the web of Oedipal associations and correlations between the main characters. The Robinsons are a permissive, sinister double of the Braddocks, and Ben’s inability to relate to his mother, Mrs Robinson, Elaine and the world are shown to be coextensive. Mr Robinson in particular is a weird inversion of a father figure, all high-spirits and authorisation, at least until his peace and permission turns into passive aggression (emphasis on aggression). And the film’s profoundly ironic climax – in a fit of youthful defiance, Ben Braddock accomplishes exactly what his parents wanted him to do – there is less of a break from nuclear orthodoxies as a melancholy confirmation of them.
But The Graduate persists as a classic, not only because of its historical, cinematographic and psychological dimensions, but because it is still a fucking funny piece of film. Dustin Hoffman would go on to play an array of classic and comedic characters on the strength of the film’s success. Now preserved by the US National Film Registry, The Graduate’s iconic status to contemporary viewers comes from the way in which its humour seems to call out from another time, inviting us into a sixties both swinging and neurotic.