THE GRADUATE: THE SOUNDS OF LONELY SILENCE
It is a movie about choices, the wrong ones and the right ones and what do when you're not certain which are which.
It is a movie about lost and broken people, those who don't know where they are going or how they got there or why they feel like nothing or that they are nowhere, in a fishbowl where everyone looks but no one else can get in.
It is a movie about just letting go, not worrying what others think or what you should be doing differently or how the world see your role in the universe at large.
It is, if you haven't guessed it from the title above, The Graduate, one of the great psychological pieces of cinema hiding in plain sight as a satirical comedy, a barbed-wire-framed look at wealthy suburbanites who don't have a clue what is really occurring in the world beyond sight of their martini glasses. It is that too but it is much more, a troubling look at those who want a life raft out of their meandering, drunken existence.
I just watched this gem for the first time in years, along with my wife and 24-year-old daughter, who had never seen it and knew nothing about the cast or its history. And I can say on recent viewing that this movie, released in 1967 during a much different era from our own, not only holds up today but is timeless in its exploration of all the lonely people, like the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby" released just a year earlier.
Except these lonely people of The Graduate live in opulent manses of wealth with Olympic-sized swimming pools and big picture windows looking out onto a large yard of grassy nothingness.
There is little need to recap the entire storyline. But for those who have never seen it -- and if you haven't, catch it now on Hulu -- here goes the capsule summary: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) comes home from college after graduating and has no clue what we wants to do at the next stage of his life. He did all the things he should in college -- ran track, was a member of the debate team -- but where that has gotten him is a meaningless piece of paper. He calls himself a nothing, while his upwardly mobile parents push for graduate school and maybe a law degree like his father's.
And there's this lover's triangle that is set up like a three-sided Sword of Damocles. At his graduate party, where everyone is half-crocked and full of themselves, he meets Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who is hungry for something, anything to break out from her bored life. She is married to Benjamin's law partner, who sleeps in a separate room and gives her little attention. She has married by necessity early on due to an unwanted pregnancy. Mrs. Robinson is trapped, isolated, alone. All she wants is to feel either briefly alive or else numbed enough by alcohol to escape her rote existence. She is icy but in charge.
You know the story from there -- Mrs. Robinson (first name never given, tellingly) seduces Benjamin, who is needy for a balm in his own right. Benjamin moves from being a bewildered virgin early in the film to assuming false cocksuredness and swagger after he starts this affair with a woman twice his age. He is something of a cad. Benjamin still doesn't know what he wants from life but the sex at least equates with confidence about his budding libido.
Until it doesn't. The Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross, sweet but conflicted), returns home from college. Mrs. Robinson tells Benjamin that he is by no means to see Elaine, but he does after goading from his family. About halfway through the film, he falls for Elaine, a spark of life that allows the pair to share their awestruck look at the world and its strange ways. But he must eject from the Mrs. Robinson portion of it that will haunt his future.
The movie gets messy after that. A shattered Elaine returns to college after learning the truth about the June-October affair with her mother, and Benjamin high-tails it there in his parent-bought, red Alfa Romeo to win her back. It almost works, until the parents get in the way. The movie gets a bit swoon-inducing as this point, unlike its pigeonholing as a satirical comedy. Some forget how romantic The Graduate really is under its trampy heart.
The first half of the film is full of the vacuousness that the second half attempts to sweep away. Director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees, who shot everything from Oklahoma! in the 1950s to The Last Picture Show in the '70s, brilliantly shows a life in motion with no destination. The beginning of the movie has Hoffman's character gliding down an airport hallway with bags appearing and cars pulling up at the gate interposed, before dissolving into his childhood bedroom. Scenes are intercut with others, with dialogue from one scene overlapping with another. Party sequences are full of conversations overstepping each other, a confused jangle of sound like that of a busy city street.
Benjamin is given a scuba outfit for his graduation and floats underwater in the pool, a fetus in the womb not ready to enter the world. He looks through an aquarium in his room at fish who swim back and forth but go nowhere like him, a closeup of his eyes trained on their movement.
Mrs. Robinson, meanwhile, is jaunty but has a dominatrix-like, flinty side to her personality. She can dominate anyone with a sharp word and a knife-sharp glance. She wants others to light her cigarettes and open car doors, with her giving those commands. Bancroft holds her cigarettes at sharp, obtuse angles. But her eyes are numb, emotionless orbs.
She and Benjamin barely converse. even while in bed. In one scene, he asks her what her day is like, what her interests are. Mrs. Robinson refuses to take the bait and open herself up as a real person instead of a sexual conqueror. Benjamin says he likes art, in an effort to make conversation, but Mrs. Robinson says she has no interest in it. Benjamin asks Mrs. Robinson what she majored in at school. She replies "art," in a whispered tone while turning away. She has lost interest.
Buck Henry, who recently died, co-wrote many of the clever lines in this all-consuming film. There is a scene where Benjamin's father sees his son floating aimlessly in a pool and asks what four years of college was for, what the point was of all that work. "You got me," Benjamin replies, lazily. And there is the nervous Braddock in a hotel, calling Mrs. Robinson from the lobby to let her know he has a room. Isn't there something he's forgetting?, she asks. Like what, he says. "The room number," she answers dryly.
Without giving away too much, the film opens up in the latter half, becoming a romantic chase to the finish with the gorgeous Elaine the bait. The ending is cathartic in its own way after the tension is palpable when the affair is discovered and Benjamin feels that his life is over. There is a letting go, an emotional release that shouts out that nothing really matters but what you want in life.
What is surprising about The Graduate is how it still works today, more than 50 years later. The same longings, loneliness, desires and needs are all on display, maybe more so now than in the heated cultural climate of the late 1960s, when protest marches and freer living were the norm. Today, we are more isolated, tightly wound, keeping to ourselves and our technology. But for many, whether young or middle-aged, we still don't know what we want from life and why are stuck in neutral.
The Graduate is a movie that deserves its all-time status. It is sometimes misplaced as a comedy of its own era, as it is that and much more. It is transcendent, like the Simon & Garfunkel songs that sprinkle the soundtrack. Hello, darkness, my old friend -- The Graduate talks to us again.
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