Directed By: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Tag line: "This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future"
Trivia: Paul Simon wrote two songs for the film that director Mike Nichols rejected: "Punky's Dilemma" and "A Hazy Shade of Winter". Both appear on the Simon and Garfunkel "Bookends" album
At first glance, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate may seem a far cry from the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, two late ‘60s films that gave voice to a younger generation of movie fans. Yet despite its comfortable suburban setting, The Graduate is ultimately about losing your way; about accomplishing something your parents feel is important, only to learn it doesn’t mean a damn thing to you.
Recent college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has no idea what to do with his life, and is struggling to find his identity. Things only get worse for Ben when the older Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner (Murray Hamilton), starts making sexual advances towards him. Mired in self-doubt, Ben takes Mrs. Robinson up on her offer, and soon the two are embroiled in a torrid affair. When the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), returns home from school, both Ben’s parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and Mr. Robinson insist that he ask her out for a date. The notion doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Robinson, however, and her anger only intensifies when Ben actually falls in love with Elaine, leading her to take drastic measures to break the young couple apart.
Ben Braddock is a lost soul through most of The Graduate, and not even his college degree can help him figure out what he wants from life. The manner in which Nichols conveys Ben’s confusion is both stylish and effective. Take his graduation party, for example, which is one of the film’s first scenes. It’s a standard setting: a suburban shindig with a large group of people talking amongst themselves, about nothing in particular. But for Ben, who we can already tell is a bewildered young man, this party is celebrating an accomplishment that’s become meaningless to him, and he longs to escape the slaps on the back and congratulatory praise of his parents’ friends. Yet everywhere he turns, there are more people, many offering empty words of wisdom. Throughout this entire sequence, the camera never leaves Ben’s side, and we're as excited as he is whenever a lane of escape opens up, only to fall back in disappointment the moment it closes, like when Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) appears from around a corner, advising Ben to consider a career in plastics. We can feel the party closing in on Ben, sharing his claustrophobia, and when he finally makes his way to his bedroom and locks the door behind him, we’re as relieved as he is.
What played out in the above sequence was a befuddled young man trying to leave his own party. What we felt, however, was his crippling anxiety, his driving desire to be left alone. By telling this story in such an active, participatory manner, director Nichols ensures we become one with Ben’s predicament, and while Ben may not be looking to change the world, we know, at the very least, he’s out to change his own condition. This is the magic of The Graduate, and the reason it’s a classic: it took the story of a rich kid’s self-serving attempt to break free of his parents’ way of thinking, and turned it into a film that spoke to a generation.