"Hello darkness my old friend. I've come to speak with you again."
Those lines, from Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence", open and close The Graduate and they speak for much of the film's tone. Mike Nichol's film is, in some sense, a sex comedy. It also, in some sense, reflects the spirit of optimism and rebellion that characterized the 60s. Yet the pervading tone is sadness; this is above all a film about alienation and loneliness. The ending of the film is fondly remembered - the film's hero runs off with the girl of his dreams, getting on a bus as they begin their new life together. But the most telling shot comes when the couple sit down, and look at each other. They have nothing to say, nothing to share. There is a distance there that is unsettling. And then the sad chords of "The Sound of Silence" begin as the bus rolls off into an uncertain future.Preview
I have spoiled the ending of the film, but The Graduate is so firmly ingrained in popular culture that I feel little guilt in doing so. Even those who are not familiar with The Graduate can feel its influence today. Of course, it launched the careers of such talented people as Dustin Hoffman and Mike Nichols, but its reach extends further. Released a year before the Summer of Love, The Graduate's frank depictions of sexual activity broke barriers in Hollywood. And it began the trend of popular music being incorporated into movie soundtracks. Yet despite all the imitators, The Graduate remains fresh today.
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is the quintessential overachiever - track star, award winner, bright young scholar. But he returns home after college with no idea of what to do with his life. Soon enough, he becomes seduced by one of his parent's friends, the attractive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). But soon after the affair breaks off, Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
This kind of material could be the stuff of soap opera, but not here. The film's director, Mike Nichols, initially looked for a typical Californian type - tall, blond, muscular - to play Benjamin. But Hoffman's nervous mannerisms won Nichols over, and the film is the better for it. Benjamin feels like an authentic person, as does Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson, who hides a history of alcoholism and unhappiness behind her sexy sophistication. The two are also gifted comic actors, and the early seduction scenes are hilarious, and rightfully famous.
The Graduate is not a film that lives and dies by its acting, however. Director Nichols demonstrates an evident visual flair. At the very beginning of the film, I was struck by the simple image of a sad-looking Benjamin, in profile, gliding across a moving walkway at the airport. Throughout the film, Nichols create similar compositions that suggest Benjamin's utter loneliness. In one, he sits in a water suit at the bottom of an abandoned pool. In another, he stands in the middle of Elaine's college campus, dwarfed by his surroundings. These carefully composed images greatly enhance the film's mood.
I wish I could say that the film's second half was as good as its first. But Bancroft gets slighted in favor of Katharine Ross, playing her daughter Elaine. Although a great beauty, Elaine is also the dullest character in the film, with no discernible personality. Quite simply, nothing in the second half of the film matches the comedic heights or emotional depths of the first. Another problem throughout the film is the adult supporting actors, who all seem to be playing caricatures of superficial materialists. With the possible exception of Mrs. Robinson, there is not a single likable adult character, and this hamfisted generalization is tedious.
So yes, The Graduate does have its share of problems. But it casts such a captivating, almost effortless spell that its shortcomings are easy to forgive. The film is a snapshot of the 60s, to be sure, but to this day it has lost none of its emotional power. So here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.