1967’s The Graduate is the story of recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), his seduction by, and subsequent affair with, older woman Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and his relationship with her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). The film scored seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Lead Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress (for the three above-mentioned actors), Cinematography, Screenplay, and a Best Director win for Mike Nichols - who beat, among others, Norman Jewison for In the Heat of the Night and Stanley Kramer for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (co-incidentally, both starring the incredible Sidney Poitier - in a marvelous professional year for him, that also included To Sir, with Love).
No matter how many times I see this magnificent film, I always find something new in it. In some ways the plot can be described quite simply and straightforwardly, but the film’s ultimate beauty lies in its nuance and tiny details. There is just so much terrific stuff in this 106-minute cinematic gift! Here’s five of the reasons The Graduate is a Five Star Film:
1. HOFFMAN’S FIRST FILM LEAD ROLE
Dustin Hoffman is just so perfect in his role as Benjamin. It’s actually quite amazing how much he says with his face, even the times he’s not speaking, or speaking or speaking very little. Case in point: the opening three minutes of the film, when we see Benjamin sitting on a plane, moving on an airport travelator, being picked up at the airport, then sitting silently in front of his fish tank. Before he even opens his mouth, we have an insight into how lost he is. Hoffman’s brilliant performance would be impressive coming from an experienced film actor, so it’s quite incredible that it’s actually his FIRST filmic leading role. The Graduate was thirteen years before Kramer vs. Kramer, sixteen before Tootsie, and twenty-two before Rain Man.
2. ANNE BANCROFT
Anne Bancroft is terrific in her complex role as Mrs Robinson. With a lesser actor (and director), Mrs Robinson could have come across as one-dimensional. But her Mrs Robinson is multi-faceted: messed up and lost in some ways, but also powerful in others. Yes, Mrs Robinson is predatory, but Bancroft plays her in such a way that we don’t just see the clichéd creepy opportunist.
3. ICONIC SCENES
The best line in The Graduate’s most famous scene comes from Benjamin: “… ?Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me” , is followed by a laugh from Mrs Robinson, and a beat later, Benjamin’s response of “… ?aren’t you?”. This iconic exchange, shot so that Benjamin is framed in the triangle created by Mrs Robinson’s raised knee, says so much about the two characters and their power positionings. The acting and direction in this scene is absolutely superb.
An interesting scene that counter-points this one is the final one [SPOILER ALERT! …], in which Benjamin and Elaine have run onto the ‘getaway bus’, and are sitting in the back seat. What’s interesting here is that unlike the power play in the above-mentioned seduction scene – where the characters are on totally different wavelengths – in this scene, the lovers mirror each other, as they go simultaneously experience a series of emotions: from excitement to happiness, to contentment, to contemplative thought, to a final realization of what they have actually done.
4. THE SIMON & GARFUNKEL SOUNDTRACK
[SIDE NOTE: Ok, here I must lay my cards on the table, and declare that I love anything that involves the sublime music of Simon & Garfunkel. Having been introduced to their music as a three-year old child, first seeing them live when I was twelve, and again years later – I just melt when I hear those divine, melodic voices and beautiful lyrics].
S & G’s wonderful soundtrack enhances the film in so many ways. Particularly poignant is the use of The Sounds of Silence three times (including in the above-mentioned opening minutes). April Come She Will is used to great effect when Benjamin is in his bedroom and in the pool, and Scarborough Fair is extremely moving when used when Benjamin is driving to find Elaine at her college. The one thing, however, I’ve never understood about the soundtrack is why S & G’s delightful song At the Zoo was never used in the zoo scenes.
5. THE COMIC WITHIN THE DRAMATIC
One of the beautiful things about The Graduate is how there is so much humour and wit embedded in the often dramatic and tragic storyline. Some lovely key comic moments include:
- “Plastics!” Mr Braddock’s friend’s one-word of (unsolicited!) advice to Benjamin.
- Mr Robinson’s repeated refusal to acknowledge that Benjamin likes to drink bourbon, not scotch.
- The sight gag of Benjamin in his ridiculous scuba-gear birthday present, which is funny but also tragic – in that it’s yet another symbol of how Benjamin’s parents just don’t understand him, and however well-meaning, have no insight into him as a person.
If you haven’t seen The Graduate, I urge you to do yourself a favour and seek it out. Even if just to witness the absolutely stunning piece of editing when Benjamin dives from a pool onto a lilo, and suddenly lands in bed, on top of Mrs Robinson.
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf