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Five Favorite Films: The Graduate (1967)

July 9, 2011
  • Dir. Mike Nichols
  • Released by Embassy
  • Based on the Charles Webb  novel
  • Rating: ****

At least one comedy had to make the list, so it might as well be a movie that also reflects my favorite period of filmmaking, the New Hollywood era. In case you are unfamiliar with New Hollywood, I will quickly explain it.

Hollywood began censoring films in the 1930s under the Production Code. However, by the 1950s, television was stealing away audiences, and so code restrictions slowly grew more lax. This allowed young filmmakers to break away from sterile studio pictures and to go on location and shoot bold, experimental films that reflected their fresh and unconventional points of view. Suddenly, big budget productions were eschewed for low-risk, if highly-controversial, personal films that were making bold statements and breaking cinematic rules.

By the mid-1960s, the Code was obsolete, and 1968 saw the arrival of the MPAA ratings system. New Hollywood had established itself, and The Graduate is very much an example of this era. It reflects the concerns of the 1960s youth concerning the ambiguities of the future and their resulting transgressive behavior. (In fact, one older character in the film worries that the protagonist is one of those “outside agitators,” a label that only has meaning within the context of the late 1960s zeitgeist.) Fear and alienation motivate all of the young adult characters in the film. And, lest the film only have relevance to the new generation, it also explores the ultimate results of youthful fear–mid-life depression and self-loathing.

The characters are alternatively tragic and hilarious, and the film balances its comedy and drama expertly, never overwhelming the viewer with either. The unforgettable songs by Simon and Garfunkel highlight the melancholy mood, while the spectacular cast captures the natural awkward humor of the situations. Situational and dramatic irony drive both sides of the film, so the two work more symbiotically than most comedy-dramas.

Dustin Hoffman manages to draw us into his despair with his delightfully aloof performance as recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, while Katherine Ross is so ideally-cast as Ben’s Berkeley-enrolled love interest that it is hard to think of her work here as acting–she is Elaine Robinson. Murray Hamilton, as Mr. Robinson, nails the unintentional irony without ever breaking character, and Buck Henry makes for the funniest concierge ever to appear on film. However, Anne Bancroft’s seductive and secretly-haunted Mrs. Robinson is who everyone remembers, and for good reason. Considering that this is a character-driven piece, the casting was vital to the film’s success, and a better group of actors could not have been chosen.

As if its value as a time capsule and its rich, three-dimensional characters were not enough to make it reach my favorite films list, the movie also sports some excellent directorial work from Nichols. His use of the widescreen ratio is astounding, especially the way that he uses negative space to convey the alienation of the characters; if you have only seen this in pan-and-scan, then you have not seen the movie. Nichols also outshines his contemporaries in the use of montage (complemented perfectly by the S&G soundtrack), implementing it as a legitimate narrative tool rather than treating it like a gimmick (as some New Hollywood directors did). The transitions in these montages are still more impressive than those seen in the best music videos, and that is hardly faint praise from me.

But what is its personal value to me? I related strongly to the character of Benjamin ever since I first saw this movie as a child. Even in my pre-teen years, I could already understand the fear that one’s accomplishments would amount to nothing in real life. Once I becam a college graduate myself, I felt the connection more than ever. Even if this movie’s intention is to speak for the Baby Boomers, somehow I feel that it speaks for me as well. That’s how a timely movie becomes a timeless movie.

This film remains the only one of my five favorites never to  have a sequel, although Rob Reiner’s Rumor Has It serves as a sort of tribute film, and it has certainly seen plenty of spoofs and homages. Despite some intriguing ideas pitched by Hoffman and others, I feel that it is best that the movie be left alone. It says everything that needs to be said, from its first shot of Braddock isolated on an escalator to its lingering final shots of a bus taking the young characters into an terrifyingly-unpredictable future.

Oh, and for you trivia fans: Graduate executive producer Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures was better-known at the time for exploitative ad campaigns, such as the one that he developed for Godzilla, King of the Monsters!


From → Film Criticism

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