CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: The Graduate (1967)
In the hands of anyone other than director Mike Nichols, The Graduate would have flopped. At first glance, its premise is relatively unremarkable – a college graduate escapes his feelings of boredom and alienation by having an affair with an older woman. It was Nichols (and producer Lawrence Turman, who purchased the book rights for a thousand dollars) who saw something in the source material and shaped an understated story into a masterpiece, and an eventual cult hit. The film struck a chord with the 60s counterculture; yet it feels just as relevant upon its re-release in 2017, striking that same chord with a ‘millennial’ audience. It’s imbued with a certain kind of magic, a timelessness that is extremely rare in cinema. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t come along very often.
Perhaps its timeless quality lies in the universality of its themes. Put simply, it’s a story about being overwhelmed by life. Benjamin Braddock has returned from college and finds that suddenly, he is an ‘adult’, and is expected to decide what he wants the rest of his life to look like. He is surrounded by his parents and their middle-aged friends and they are all telling him, wistfully, how lucky he is, and how many opportunities are open to him. But inside he feels as though he is drowning; he looks at his parents and their friends and the last thing he wants is to end up like them.
Anyone who has spent three to five years in the cosy, hopeful, familiar surroundings of University life only to be thrust out into the ‘real world’ with absolutely no idea how to navigate adulthood will resonate with The Graduate; but so will anyone who has recoiled at the thought of becoming their parents. The character of Mrs. Robinson embodies a sense of incongruity – when we find out that she was once like Ben, a hopeful art student who, due to unforeseen circumstances, was forced to leave her true self behind, we ache for her and we ache for ourselves. She is the manifestation of Ben’s (and every graduate’s) fear. This was, in fact, the moment in the story when Nichols realised that he wanted to make The Graduate – when he saw Mrs. Robinson as “a woman who had been one kind of person and had consciously moved away from what she was into something for which she had contempt”.
Nichols encouraged cinematographer Robert Surtees to experiment with technique when shooting the film and as a result, the look of The Graduate is uniquely memorable, even iconic. There is, of course, the film’s most illustrious shot, of Benjamin framed by the arch of Mrs. Robinson’s leg – but Surtees’ employment of symbolism in his style makes for some beautiful moments, like Benjamin being swallowed by the swimming pool, Elaine’s face coming slowly into focus as she has a pivotal realisation, and Benjamin running furiously to prevent Elaine’s marriage but seemingly getting nowhere.
A number of the film’s stand-out moments were unplanned, or resulted from serendipitous circumstances – most notably, the ending. That exquisite change in the facial expressions of Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross as the gravity of what they have just done dawns on them was a result of the actors’ fear of Nichols, who had just been shouting at them. As their laughter abated, they were unsure of what to do, and awkwardly stopped – Nichols kept the camera rolling and liked the final result so much that he kept it in. And one of the most iconic endings in cinema was created.
The casting of Dustin Hoffman in the lead role was another fortuitous decision. In the source novel, Benjamin Braddock is described as a five-foot-eleven, tanned and blonde-haired track star, but Nichols decided to deviate from this sketch by casting Hoffman instead; then an inexperienced stage actor. Reportedly, Robert Redford had his eye on the role, and would have been a far more conventional choice that was truer to the book. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Hoffman portraying Benjamin, and the fact that his appearance is so different to the other characters that populate his world just adds to his sense of alienation. He also possesses an anxious humour that is essential to the character’s relatability and charm, no doubt facilitated by this being his first major film role.
In trying to figure out just why The Graduate is so timeless, so universally appealing, it’s worth comparing it to another timeless and universally appealing release from the last year, Moonlight. The two films, although quite different on the surface, share a lot in common: they are about misfits trying to figure out their place in the world; they share a simple premise and a strong cast; and although they could both be described as ‘innovative’, neither is showy or ostentatious in its presentation of a minimalistic story. But most importantly, both films are genuine, and made by genuine people; to quote Nichols’ speech as he accepted his Best Director Academy Award for the film: “It was a picture made by a group, and we cared for each other, and we cared for what we were doing”. This is surely the recipe for a masterpiece.