The counter-culture sold out long ago but this seminal film from the sixties still plays – even if only as an expertly made romantic comedy.
Forty years ago, those under the age of thirty who had yet to grow a beard, drop out of college or experiment with drugs were brought into the fold of the times with The Graduate, out now in a fortieth anniversary DVD edition.
This hybrid Broadway two-hander and youth culture melodrama truly converted the masses, as surely as the then little-known Dustin Hoffman, as dissatisfied collegian Benjamin Braddock, converted all-American beauty Katherine Ross from on high in the film’s climactic wedding sequence, a counter-culture God reaching even the squarest of the young, preaching the renunciation of the cross in favor of a universe of spontaneity and uncertainty.
Seen today – with or without the annoying commentary track that is the big sell of this reissue – the film plays quite differently – not as a call to arms at all, but rather as a cockeyed Oedipal tragedy played largely for laughs, nevertheless maintaining the genre’s trademark elements of shame, sadness and anxiety.
Benjamin’s affair with family friend Mrs. Robinson, the sly, sultry, sad alcoholic, is not seen as a comically improbable reconciliation of the generations, nor as a mutual dissatisfaction with the emptiness of middle class life. It plays more simply and universally: as a search for that elusive romantic ideal, true and lasting love; from the get-go, Mrs. Robinson knows that Ben is not the answer, simply a temporary remedy, and vice-versa. Both also know that Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine is not the solution for Ben either, though Ben deludes himself into thinking so as a means of eschewing the worst aspects of his character. The memorable last scene, of Ben and Elaine venturing into the future, was to end with a kiss; instead, of course, they simply stare uncertainly at one another, then just as uncertainly ahead. What was once a wide-eyed stare into the face of the unknown reads today as an equally terrified gaze into the eyes of Venus.
Stripped by time to its romantic comedy skeleton, the classic film fan starts to become aware of how much of the film resembles Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which might, in part, have inspired it, with its young-old triangle and its scenes of the schleppy hero mistaken by all – from the Robinson family to the boys at the boarding house at which Ben stays to set things right with Elaine – for a heartless lothario. (The Heartbreak Kid, made a few years later – and remade just recently – comes to my mind, too, with its premise of impossible romantic pursuit.)
All of this, it should be said, did not escape the eyes of the wiser critics of the day, who were able to look into their crystal balls and intellectually separate the film from the zeitgeist. At the time, director Mike Nichols was rapped on the knuckles for staging an unfair fight, failing to afford the world Ben was rebelling against sufficient screen time, thus putting the depth of the character’s dissatisfaction into question.
And indeed, today, the middle class that Ben finds himself at odds with, exemplified mostly by his parents, comes across as a happy, self-satisfied and generally harmless lot, hardly the types to inspire lasting detachment in anybody. Of course, I am writing in an age in which the Benjamin Braddocks of the world have grown up to be mirror images of their parents…were the Pauline Kaels of the world wise enough to see that?
If The Graduate still plays then, and it does, it’s not simply because its themes – the search for true love, the clash of generations – are destined to play in any age. It’s because, as it should be with any film, of the collective expertise of the filmmaking – from the sure-handed staging of the Nichols And May-style bedroom exchanges to the languid close-ups, rac focuses and dissolves of cinematographer Robert Surtees, whose work comes together with Simon and Garfunkel’s catchy, poetic score to create some of the best introspective sequences in the history of American cinema.
Whether it’s this fortieth anniversary re-issue you see, or the thirty-fifth that came out half a decade ago, or the forty-fifth and fiftieth anniversary versions that are sure to come, rent and enjoy The Graduate – not as the distant din of a decades old alarm-cry, but as an extremely well crafted romantic comedy.
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