Revisiting Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate: A powerful satire that debunks stereotypes of romance and youth
As part of a special column Rewind to Unwind, I take up Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate to assess its relevance in modern times
What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020 and how they have aged (if at all).
Why The Graduate?
“As a culture, we tend to reveal ourselves through what we laugh at” – this saying is very apt for Mike Nichols’ seminal feature, often considered a mouth-piece for an American culture-shift in the late 1960s.
Having grown up in a fairly aware, middle-class set-up, films (especially ones of critical acclaim) always gained prime focus during impassioned dinner-table conversations. From a time when I’d happily remain ensconced within Harry Potter spells and JK Rowling’s mammoth world, I’d often hear my aunts and uncles revel in the kind of impact that The Graduate had on them. Phrases like “the uselessness of benign bourgeoisie” and “the power of counter-culture” drifted lightly above my head as the 1967 film was hailed for its timeless symbolism and sharp satire, that got Nichols an Oscar for Best Director from the seven nominations the film earned that year.
Almost two decades later, I find it an inevitable choice for me to revisit this cult classic to understand what it holds in today’s context and whether it passes muster.
The experience of watching The Graduate is incomplete without a thorough understanding of the timeline that it was based on. Precariously balanced in a transitional decade of American history, the film came at a time when a cultural semi-revolution and political unrest threatened to topple the relatively secure, sedate post-war years.
Deftly adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from a Charles Webb novel, The Graduate primarily deals with the vacuity that seeps into young lives when they stand at the cusp of adulthood.
A paragon of eligibility, Benjamin Braddock (Ben, played by Hoffman) exists, as the film opens, in that condition of voluptuous potentiality which is supposed to define young men of the age. Well-‘bred’ and utterly polite, these exalted expectations wear him down to a state of utter confusion till he’s almost a mechanical man.
Hoffman’s physical awkwardness and blank expressions push the narrative into a brilliant comedy, keenly brought out by scenes throughout the film. When a particularly enthusiastic Mr McGuire, a friend of Ben’s father, pulls him out of a claustrophobic parade of a welcome-party to have a serious ‘man-to-man’, he comes up with a single word. “Plastics,” he says gruffly, as if to signify an astute piece of advice on Ben’s probable future. Ben nods profusely, still unaware, still directionless.
Ben’s hopelessness, callow, far-away looks into his parents’ disgusting chatter reminded me of how well-fitted the story was for present times, when most global powers grapple with soaring unemployment rates while simultaneously producing Ivy League graduates and their like, equipped with over-arching GPAs and very little to channelise it towards.
From Benjamin’s vantage point, his parents and their lot reside in a realm of murmuring emptiness, and this vision of adult grotesquery is captured into striking cinematic terms (cramped close-ups opening into telling wide-angles).
Ben’s ‘adulteration’ (if you will) begins with his sexual liaison with a much-older Mrs Robinson (an inimitable Anne Bancroft), a friend of his parents. Their dalliances are then, a breakthrough moment, one where he feels he actually exercises choice.
His naiveté notwithstanding, Ben is a willfull participant in Mrs Robinson’s seduction of him.
In his repeated gawky dealings with Mrs Robinson in bed, and out of it, Ben comes to symbolise the pathetic youth (modern and dated), desperately trying to mould himself into “doing something different.”
His relationship with Mrs Robinson is steadfastly need-based, and completely unromantic. Benjamin’s rebellion per se, to sexually involve himself with a much older woman, thus automatically feels contrived, more like a product of boredom than a genuine urge to push the envelope to self-discovery.
Mrs Robinson stands as the only character in the film with some notable agency, unapologetic to the point of being scheming, and cold-hearted in her business-like transactions with Ben. She makes no qualms in admitting that her daughter is in fact a product of her sacrifices and appeasements to her egotistic husband. At a time when American women were taught to inculcate qualities of the home-maker (a way of life still heavily prevalent in India), Nichols’ film dared to question this mindless romanticisation.
I found myself thoroughly enjoying Bancroft’s portrayal of the sexy cougar in her bold animal prints as she seamlessly manoeuvred Ben’s tactless moves.
Mrs Robinson stood for everything inherently human – decked with her understandable share of insecurities and thwarted dreams, to the point of being jealous of her daughter Elaine, who was the epitome of virginal innocence and an obvious object of male desire.
Sexual appetite has always been a far-reaching concept for a woman, whether in cinematic literature or otherwise. Mrs Robinson is by far one of the strongest proponents of it in film history, a fact that Nichols and his team depicted in no ambiguous ways.
She refuses to confine herself within the pitiable life of a trophy-wife, acting only as second fiddle to her unimpressive husband. This liberation, in essence, was what stationed The Graduate as a true reflection of the times. It was both a social commentary and a veiled political reminder of the freedom with regard to the after effects of the Vietnam War (a reference conspicuously absent in the film).
Mrs Robinson is also the only source of inspiration for Ben, even if it acts as a “how-not-to-be” for him. The film condemns Mr Braddock’s weak attempt at being an ideal father-figure, vainly thrusting his impugnable ideologies down Ben’s throat. Nichols turns a similar contemptuous gaze at Mr Robinson, an unworthy family-man whose cheap advice to “sow some wild oats” amounts to Ben dating his only daughter.
The film thrives in its visual symbolism, underlining each motif with precise artwork behind the camera. Robert Surtees’ cinematography emphasises each feeling, each emotion through frames that works wonders in a world governed by Hoffman’s physical acting rather than verbose communication.
Repeated shots and references to water (via aquariums and swimming pool) dramatises Ben's inner sense of psychologically drowning, of being submerged in an oppressive world he cannot seem to remain afloat in.
The continuous play on light and shadow draws attention to the truths that each character hides – emotions that they fear to confront. Nichols and Surtees establish this further by setting frame compositions with one character in shadows or better still, completely out of frame — to drive home the non-communication between them.
Personally, the silences in the film felt like a run-up to the listlessness that young adults complain of in 2020, which many mental health experts attribute to the constant dependency on mobile phones/tablets/computers.
Almost as an anodyne to the building oppression in the film, the makers eventually introduce the character of Elaine (Katharine Ross). A competent young girl studying at Berkeley, she is of little interest to Ben in the beginning. However, a forced date ends on an unexpected note, when for the first time, Ben finds himself feeling for someone else. Elaine acts as the catalyst to release him from his distracting entanglement with her mother, a sort of female knight in shining armour.
Her guileless ways pose as a breather for Benjamin, who feels the pressure mounting from Mrs Robinson to disengage with her daughter at the earliest. That Hoffman’s character might fall for Elaine seems predictable, but Nichols’ treatment of that arc is purposefully hilarious. In a sudden bid to win her affections (after confessing his illegitimate relationship with Mrs Robinson), Ben drives up to Berkeley from Los Angeles — overflowing with energy and a sense of direction.
Ben’s abrupt transformation seemed to me as futile as his affectionate overtures towards Mrs Robinson. His romantic urge towards Elaine is not only arbitrary and bizarre, but derails his arc in the unappealing zone of creepy stalkers rather than love-lost puppies. A genre of romance highly popular in Indian entertainment, the stalker-lover syndrome has made many ‘a million at the box-office with the likes of Shah Rukh Khan (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) and Dhanush (Raanjhanaa) advocating such gestures on-screen.
But what sets The Graduate apart is the makers’ treatment of this young couple’s love story. Ruthless towards his characters and his viewers, Nichols instead presents this “happily-ever-after” climax in a subversive, anti-romantic light and manages to package it as a bleak parody instead.
The Graduate, for me then, is an excellent commentary of an era rife with hollow promises of future opportunities (not unlike our present) that amount to nothing.
Ben stands to face an inevitable loss, even if he supposedly ‘wins’ his lady-love.
Whether it be Ben's rebellion or his passion, the winds of fate stand steadfast to impede them. Though critical, the film is a worthy narrative of our times, holding the mirror to the futility of young blood in an atmosphere of petty social mores and bureaucratic diktats.
(All images from Twitter)
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