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  • Post last modified:04/29/2023

The Graduate: Still As Seductive


Dustin Hoffman. Photo: Embassy Pictures

Reading Roger Ebert’s two reviews of The Graduate, written thirty years apart, is a little strange. In my view he gets almost everything about this classic film right the first time round. However, in the second review he’s seen the movie with new eyes and decided that it is highly overrated. Apparently, now it’s a story about a “tiresome bore and his well-meaning parents”. I can only reach the conclusion that he’s also come to believe that Citizen Kane is merely a tale about a cold-hearted newspaper tycoon and his obnoxious mistress.

Confused and uncertain of what lies ahead
20-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college and returned home to his parents. They’re hosting a party for him, but Ben feels confused and uncertain of what lies ahead and retires to his boyhood room. A friend of the family, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), follows him and asks him to give her a ride home; Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) is unavailable for the evening. Ben reluctantly agrees, but when they reach her home, Mrs. Robinson talks him into joining her for a drink. Their conversation takes a turn for the strange and it becomes obvious that she is sexually interested in the young man. Terrified, he rejects her advances, but it doesn’t take many days until he picks up the phone and nervously arranges a rendezvous with her at a nearby hotel. 

They embark on an affair, but the relationship becomes a little strained when Mrs. Robinson makes him promise not to date her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) who is coming home during a break in her studies at UC Berkeley. Ben agrees, but is more or less forced by his parents and Mr. Robinson to ask her out. Their evening starts disastrously, but they soon find that they have much in common…

Funny in a discreet, sly way
In the late 1960s, Hollywood was changing and with this film director Mike Nichols showed that he was certainly part of the new, fresh generation, even more so than with his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The Graduate is consistently funny but in a more discreet, sly way than perhaps Blake Edwards would accomplish. That sense of humor is cleverly fused with a bit of naughtiness, especially in the sharp dialogue and in that wonderful sequence where Mrs. Robinson first tries to seduce Ben. 

Along with cinematographer Robert Surtees and editor Sam O’Steen, Nichols always finds visual tricks and ideas to emphasize the emotions.

Never as outrageous or revolutionary as some people (including Ebert nowadays) would like it, the movie does have fairly conservative principles and the ending is true to them. Still, it arrived at the same time as the sexual revolution of the decade and the awakening of Ben appealed to audiences; his graduation into manhood may seem a tired subject today, but that’s only because we’ve seen it copied in so many subsequent films. Along with cinematographer Robert Surtees and editor Sam O’Steen, Nichols always finds visual tricks and ideas to emphasize the emotions; just take a look at that scene where Elaine finds out the truth about Ben and her mother. The director also found a perfect soundtrack for Ben’s feelings – a slew of brand-new Simon & Garfunkel songs that ended up becoming their greatest hits. Watching this film now certainly brought them back to life for me again. 

Hoffman got his breakthrough thanks to a brilliantly convincing performance and Bancroft is magnificent as the sexy but damaged Mrs. Robinson, her most famous role; their scenes together are fascinating because of the stark contrasts between them.

Roger Ebert helped lift this film and several others we now regard as classics. There’s no need to look back in remorse regarding The Graduate. It is 40 years old now and still just as enjoyable whether you choose to ponder its themes of fear and liberation, or simply watch it for the sake of entertainment.

The Graduate 1967-U.S. 105 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lawrence Turman. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry. Novel: Charles Webb. Cinematography: Robert Surtees. Editing: Sam O’Steen. Songs: Simon & Garfunkel (“The Sound of Silence”, “April Come She Will”, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, Mrs. Robinson”). Cast: Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson), Dustin Hoffman (Ben Braddock), Katharine Ross (Elaine Robinson), Murray Hamilton, William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson.

Trivia: Mike Farrell and Richard Dreyfuss can be glimpsed briefly. Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were considered for the part of Ben; Jeanne Moreau and Doris Day as Mrs. Robinson. Later a Broadway play.

Oscar: Best Director. BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Screenplay, Film Editing. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Director, Actress (Bancroft).

Quote: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” (Hoffman to Bancroft)

Last word: “I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite [to Robert Redford], who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience. His little whimper was my little whimper when Jack Warner would tell a joke; in fact, people had to tell me to try not to whimper when he told jokes, that he was going to notice. And that was the direct source of Benjamin’s whimper.” (Nichols, Film Comment)

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