A disillusioned college graduate finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.
I find it very fitting that, as I sit down to write this post, it looks as if it may rain outside.
I have only ever watched Mike Nichols’ The Graduate twice in my life: once as I was ending high school, going into college and the other in my junior year of college, soon to be graduated. Both times I watched this film, it affected me in ways that I was not prepared for. The first time I watched it, I don’t quite remember what I had been thinking. I only remember that I felt deeply about the film. I felt a general connection to the main character of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). The second time I watched the film, I remember it leaving me uneasy. I was soon to be a graduate myself and felt just as lost as Benjamin. This third time that I’ve watched The Graduate, I find that it left me feeling angry, again connecting with the main character on a different level entirely.
Mike Nichols is a master filmmaker. There is no denying that. The way he uses framing to convey emotions to an audience is mindblowing;The way the music seamlessly blends with the story and the way that water symbolizes so much.
Framing is easily one of the first things a viewer will notice about The Graduate. The film begins with a closeup of our main character, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, while his head rests on a pillow on an airplane as he returns home to California. The dead space from this shot seamlessly blends into the next big shot of Benjamin against a white wall in the airport, he stands just right of center. This creates an uneasy feeling, a feeling of uncertainty, in the viewer without anything ever being said. We are visually presented with Benjamin’s feelings: the feelings of isolation, of not belonging. Repeatedly throughout the film, Nichols uses framing to convey emotions. Nichols chooses to use a close-cropped frame on Benjamin’s face to increase and emphasize the anxiety that he is feeling. At one point, Nichols uses this close-cropped technique while Benjamin is in a phone booth, really managing to express the feeling of being trapped or the walls closing in. Nichols chooses to then keep the viewer at a distance during crucial conversations, so it keeps us detached from the situation. We only feel what Nichols’ intended for us to feel.
Mike Nichols’ use of symbolism in this film is iconic. There are some small moments of symbolism, like when Benjamin holds the door at the Taft Hotel for the older generation that is leaving, and then those that are part of the younger generation push past Benjamin into the hotel, more eager to get there than he seems to be. The largest use of symbolism in The Graduate, however, uses water. It appears again and again at crucial moments throughout the film. First, there’s the fish tank in Benjamin’s room. He sits just outside of that world, but observes it, nonetheless. Then, there’s the swimming pool in his backyard (the human equivalent to a fish tank, one might say). He’s repeatedly shown floating on top of the water, just above that world that he cannot survive in, only every once in awhile going in fully. For his birthday, Benjamin is given a scuba suit by his parents (played by Elizabeth Wilson and Mr. Feeny, himself, William Daniels). He is literally given the ability to breath in this environment that he, otherwise, cannot breath in, by the generation before him. They push him back down when he tries to come up for air. And, lastly it is raining every single time a pivotal conversation happens.
Dustin Hoffman truly gives a great performance as Benjamin Braddock. This was his breakout role, and it’s easy to see why once you see his performance in this film. He plays Benjamin so naive and walks the line between believable and unbelievable so well. He was clearly in tune with the character. Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Benjamin Braddock feels very much like the heart and soul of the film. The editing is used to enhance Benjamin’s feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, and naivety in the audience, in a masterfully chopped up scene between Benjamin and a naked Mrs. Robinson (played by the wonderfully iconic Anne Bancroft). Editing is used to emphasize Benjamin’s feelings again, as he carries on his affair with Mrs. Robinson at the Taft Hotel. Nichols beautifully cuts up scenes at different locations to seamlessly flow together quickly, clearly using the editing to heighten Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Benjamin Braddock.
The writing is a whole other monster entirely. There is so much genius embedded into this script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb). The emphasis on Benjamin’s concern for his future, with blunt lines like “I’m just worried about my future. I’m a little upset about my future.” manages to feel very genuine. The clever word play throughout the film with lines like:
Room Clerk: Are you here for an affair, sir?
Room Clerk: The Singleman party, sir?
Benjamin: Ah, yes, the Singleman party.
Using something as simple as the character’s names to emphasize the sense of a generational gap. All older adults are only known by “Mr.” and “Mrs.”. No first names are ever given. Not even to Mrs. Robinson. Meanwhile, the younger adults are only referred to by their first names. Never anything else. And these are only a handful of the things that make this films writing incredible.
Musically, this film was a big deal. The Graduate is known as one of the first films to have a soundtrack written for the film itself. Paul Simon wrote all the songs that play in The Graduate specifically for the film, and then performed them with his musical partner Art Garfunkel. And, truly, Simon had his finger on the pulse of this film. The music fits the themes of the film, it fits the characters, it blends everything together nicely. This film would not be half as iconic without that absolute banger of a soundtrack.
My favorite thing about The Graduate still to this day is the ending of the film, beginning with the famous church scene:
What I love is how the camera stays on Benjamin and Elaine (played by Katharine Ross) just a little too long. You feel like the camera should already be off. We should have already looked away. We shouldn’t see the realization set into these two characters’ faces. We shouldn’t see them realize that their lives, as they know it, are over. And, they’ll have to give in to the environment they’ve been fighting. Because, what else are they going to do?
I’ve always liked the theory that 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer is a pseudo-sequel to this film. That makes sense to me, because what other future is there for our characters of Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson?