The Graduate reminds me an awful lot of Harold and Maude, which came out about four years later. Both feature young, intelligent, sensitive heroes who have no idea what they want out of life but are certain that their well-meaning parents don’t understand them. Both of them strike up unlikely, inappropriate relationships with far older women. And they both have a comedic style that aims to present outrageous situations in the dryest possible way, hoping that the juxtaposition will create a tension that just must be released with laughter. This might have worked back then, but it rubs me the wrong way now.
There’s something about the face of the comic who tries out dry wit while knowing he’s delivering a killer line that just makes me want to punch it. Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman both have this affectation early in their movies, and it’s a little off-putting until we get to the meat of their stories. While The Graduate ranks much higher than Harold and Maude on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies (number 7 and number 45, respectively), I think I actually like the latter a little better; it had an ultimately more likable protagonist, a more engaging relationship and a better, more genuine ending.
Hoffman, though, is great as Benjamin Braddock, a newly-minted adult who’s just graduated from college. His parents have the next few steps all planned out for him, but Benjamin doesn’t want any of it. The pressure of expectation just makes him nervous and uncomfortable, so he tries to duck out of his graduation party at the earliest possible opportunity. Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), one of his parent’s friends, corners him and insists that he drives her home. Once there, she tries to seduce him.
Benjamin initially rebuffs her advance, but eventually caves. They spend the summer meeting up in a hotel under assumed names and having a lot of sex. A LOT of sex. Unhappy with the way he’s spending his time, Benjamin’s parents set him up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). They hit it off, which drives Mrs. Robinson just insane with jealousy. The whole thing blows up rather quickly, of course, and the rest of the film follows Benjamin as he tries to put the remnants of his relationship with Elaine back together.
Directed by the great Mike Nichols (this was only his second film; he went on to do Working Girl, The Birdcage, the amazing movie Wit and Charlie Wilson’s War), the film admittedly has plenty of style. Mrs. Robinson’s attempt at seduction is an iconic moment in cinema, and Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack was a pretty new move at the time. Credit where it’s due — a lot of the tropes we use in our cinema today were first popularized here. It’s a cultural touchstone that people should know about.
But is it enjoyable? That’s a different matter. As likable as Hoffman is, Benjamin Braddock is really a selfish jerk. He has the self-absorption of youth and the boundless capability to make really bad decisions without any sense of purpose. He doesn’t know what he wants, so we really don’t care when he strives for something. There’s a sort of mild amusement at his discomfort, a sympathy for his tendency to flee from the expectations of the adults around him, but no real connection with him. When he chases Elaine through the final hour of the movie, you know they’ll end up together simply because they must, not because Benjamin has gained the things he needs to actually be good for her.
The Graduate is one of those movies that makes me feel how age has crept up to me when I’m not looking. I have less affection for the folly of youth, especially when I see how much it hurts the people around the young. Benjamin’s parents are clueless, but well-meaning and harmless; it’s his privilege to completely disregard their investment in him, their desire to see him mature into the best possible person. He has a mother and father who are willing to give him anything he needs to succeed with his life, and he turns up his nose. It’s surprisingly, fundamentally frustrating. Is it because I grew up poor, or is it because I’m too old to connect with that adolescent ennui? I’m not sure.
Mrs. Robinson is clearly a woman who doesn’t really care about the feelings of the people around her; she’s only concerned with her own pleasure. She uses Benjamin because he’s easily used, and threatens to blow up his life to get her way. When he calls her bluff, it destroys two families. How are we supposed to root for these people?
But this is a comedy; perhaps I’m overthinking it. Why would their behavior be any different from any other black comedy protagonist? I think the difference here is that the read I get from The Graduate is we’re supposed to root for Benjamin. With most black comedies there’s the gentlemen’s agreement that everyone knows these characters are terrible, and we root for the people who can be terrible most artfully. Here, there’s no charisma behind the malice; when Mrs. Robinson confronts Benjamin, we’re very much supposed to feel he’s the victim, even though the only reason he’s breaking off the relationship is so he can actually make a move on her daughter.
Maybe that’s the big disconnect between me and this movie; it feels an affection for its hero that I don’t share. Nichols does a great job with carving out a new, youthful kind of film, and Hoffman plays Benjamin as bewildered, confident, detached and driven by turns — all quite well. And as important as the movie is, it just leaves me kind of cold at the closing credits. Benjamin rides off into the sunset, on towards his new life, where presumably he’ll make the same mistakes he did before. It’s a new life, perhaps, but he’s the same old selfish boy.