Graduate, The (United States, 1967)

May 05, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Graduate, The Poster

Like fine wine, some film age well. The passage of years or decades does little to limit their capacity to provoke tears, laughter, or some other feeling. Then there are the vinegar vintages – movies that may be highly regarded at the time of their release but gradually sour. Although I’d love to say that The Graduate, the 1967 classic, is in the former category, it isn’t. Watching the film in 2018, I was surprised at how dated and stale it feels. Although the first half still works – largely due to the performance of Anne Bancroft as the iconic Mrs. Robinson – the second half is a mess with only a couple of funny lines to recommend it.

The Graduate represented a breakout opportunity for director Mike Nichols (who, after a long career as a comedian was turning to filmmaking) and star Dustin Hoffman, as well as giving previous Oscar winner Anne Bancroft the role of a lifetime. (Something of a mixed blessing since it resulted in typecasting – she complained that three-quarters of everything she was offered after 1967 expected her to be the older seductress.) It played well to a young crowd, who related to the suffocating sense of isolation and ennui experienced by Hoffman’s Ben Braddock. Decades later, Ben comes across as more petulant than sympathetic. His romance with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) is woefully underdeveloped and it doesn’t help that Elaine is more of a writer’s construct than a real character. Once Mrs. Robinson essentially disappears following the funnier and more substantive first half, the movie falls apart. Hoffman is a great actor but Ben doesn’t represent one of his better roles and he is unable to hold things together without Bancroft’s presence as a steadying anchor.

Based on the novel by Charles Webb as adapted by Buck Henry (Calder Willingham gets a screenplay credit because of an earlier, rejected draft), The Graduate opens with the triumphant return home of Williams College graduate Ben Braddock to Pasadena. During a party held in his honor by his father (William Daniels) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson), Ben feels suffocated so when a guest, Mrs. Robinson, asks for a lift home, he’s happy to oblige.

At her house, Mrs. Robinson turns on the charm but Ben manages to resist not only her come-hither lips but her bare breasts. Later in the summer, however, he nervously invites her to join him at a hotel. While there, they consummate the relationship. The affair is short-lived but it boosts Ben’s self-esteem while doing little to scratch Mrs. Robinson’s itch. When her daughter, Elaine, arrives home for a stay, Ben goes out on a date with her – something that doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Robinson. Ben and Elaine’s date starts out rocky but they eventually connect. By the next morning, Ben is convinced he’s in love with Elaine but Mrs. Robinson is willing to take drastic action to disrupt the budding romance.

The Graduate’s first half, which details the seduction and subsequent affair, works today although Ben comes across as awkward and naïve – more a caricature than a character. Mrs. Robinson, however, is strong and credible. A scene in which she explains why she married Mr. Robinson and what she gave up in return for her surname is telling and poignant. When the movie takes on shades of Fatal Attraction, the things we have learned about Mrs. Robinson prevent her from becoming a cookie-cutter villain. However, with the exception of a few short scenes, she vanishes after Ben begins dating Elaine.

There are two fundamental problems with the film’s final 45 minutes. In the first place, it’s hard to buy into the great romance that envelops Ben and Elaine after a single date. The second is that, narrative issues aside, Elaine isn’t an interesting character. Although there’s nothing wrong with Katharine Ross’ portrayal, she’s not given much to work with. Elaine isn’t sexy, charismatic, or quirky. She shows little depth and, if she’s smart, it doesn’t come across in her mannerisms or dialogue. It’s easy to grow impatient during the scenes when she and Ben are together.

Mike Nichols’ directorial style shows flaws that might be expected from an inexperienced director. He tends toward obvious flourishes. To show Ben’s almost claustrophobic sense of suffocation, he opts for long takes in close-up. As Ben is emotionally drowning, the character ends up under water in scuba gear. When Elaine gradually recognizes what Ben is telling her, a blurred image becomes clear. The Graduate is replete with moments like these and, although they are sometimes effective, they also call a little too much attention to technique.

Much as I like Simon & Garfunkel, the repetitive use of three of their songs (“The Sound of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair”, and “Mrs. Robinson”) becomes monotonous after a while, especially since there are instances when the songs are awkwardly incorporated (“Scarborough Fair” being the most obvious offender). The version of “Mrs. Robinson” used in the film sounds like an early demo of what eventually was recorded for Simon & Garfunkel’s next album, “Bookends.” The film boosted the group’s reputation but it’s questionable whether the best use was made of their material.

Based on the countless rapturous contemporaneous reviews, it’s clear that the movie had a strong impact when it was released. Perhaps the best acknowledgement of its degradation over time came from Roger Ebert. In 1967, he wrote a glowing 4-star review. Years later, when re-assessing the film for its 30th anniversary, the best he could assign was a half-hearted three stars. Twenty years later, it hasn’t improved. The Graduate is worth seeing primarily for Anne Bancroft’s performance but also as a time capsule looking at a lifestyle that would soon disappear in a haze of booze, drugs, rock music, social upheaval, and Vietnam. None of those things are touched on in The Graduate but, soon after its release, they would be impossible to ignore in real life.

Graduate, The (United States, 1967)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Sexual Content, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1