Told from the perspective of its bored and aimless anti-hero, Mike Nichols’ 1967 The Graduate juxtaposes a bleak view of suburban conformism and youth alienation to a background of green grass, white picket-fences and orange Californian sunshine.
Despite Ben’s middle class background, anyone should be able to relate to his predicament – he has just finished studying hard and expectations are really high. Though now he can breathe a little, Benjamin feels like a pressure pan, ready to explode. Who has never felt like that? Who, at the outset of adulthood, never felt that the world was expecting too much from them? Though many viewers might find Ben too much of a spoilt brat, surely they still can feel for him and the typical troubles of a rebellious and confused young man.
After graduating from college, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He is bored and afraid of the future. Soon after, Benjamin starts an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), his father’s business partner’s wife, as they meet in a hotel and have sex. Although he is still aimless – and unlike the youth of the time, completely uninterested in politics – Ben now seems content. His parents urge him to find a job and date Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross). Reluctantly, and against Mrs. Robinson’s wish, he goes on a date with Elaine, and after several embarrassing episodes, they fall in love. When Elaine finds out about her mother and Benjamin’s affair, she leaves for college. At the end, Ben interrupts an arranged marriage to escape with Elaine.
Dustin Hoffman’s magnificent performance as Ben – he’s introspection incarnate – offers a caustic and infuriated criticism of American consumerism and futility. Whereas everyone around him seems to have something to say, he is the most noble and dignified rendering of the sound of silence. Despite – or perhaps because of – Ben’s apolitical attitude, the condemnation of such a way of life seems sharper exactly because it comes from within the milieu. Ben’s zombie-like attitude towards finding some direction in his life upsets his parents far more than if he was involved in political activism – for the nonchalance with one’s future threatens society’s conservative social norms way more than some act of pure rebellion.
..The Darkness of Bright and Sunny Days…
That introspection carved onto Ben’s face is so important. Later in life we are never allowed to turn towards the inside of our minds like we do when young. He wants to think; he wants to really see and feel; he wants to be left alone, like it should be. And everyone around him wants him to deny those desires for the sake of conformism and productivity. For the sake of plastics… They want him to join the ranks of the functioning society as quick as possible. And it has to be said that for someone apparently clueless, Ben reacts with cool cynicism to the demands of respectable society. Obviously, cynics of a different persuasion would probably claim that he is a hypocrite, who refuses to contribute to the creation of wealth, while enjoying the fruits of it.
Like Elaine, who initially seems compliant enough to follow the advice of ‘mature’ adults, Ben suddenly becomes unwilling to accept other people’s dreams. Thus, the film’s final scene, at the back of that bus, after having decided to escape from their families’ grips, instead of indicating that their lives together will be short-lived, it might imply that they are indeed made for each other. Sure, they are kind of lost, but at least they seem aware of that. The discomfort in their faces, when they seem to realise that their grave decision has been the result of a knee-jerk reaction, does not have to mean that they’re screwed. It could imply a new beginning, not in a Hollywood-kind of way, but to start over with the awareness that real freedom is paradoxical in terms.
That’s the poignancy of Benjamin Braddock’s life. He had to fight for the things that he did not want and ended up having no time for the things that he wanted – or rather, the things he did not yet know that he wanted. Because of such fundamental flaw in Ben’s life-story (asphyxiated by over-bearing parents, his main focus has been to procure oxygen and therefore could not blossom), their decision to escape together, even if it seems the prelude for a disaster, is the right choice. It is the alternative of whom had none in life.
Just imagine what Robert Redford would have done to the role. I can’t shake the impression that the end would carry a completely different meaning. Redford’s wholehearted handsomeness surely would imply a happy ending of sorts, even with a similar awkward smile and the uncomfortable silence between them. What Hoffman brings to the role is a down-to-earth quality and a realistic depiction of someone out of his wits, making mistakes like normal people.
There’s the possibility that Ben and Elaine might become unhappy people in their future lives but there’s also the chance that they might become people who can deal with frustration and disappointment more easily. People more equipped to recognise unrealistic expectations when they see those. Naïve they may be, but they’re also old and wise for their age. He is aiming for negative freedom before achieving its positive version – freedom from external restraint before accomplishing the ability to realise his full potential. A high ambition indeed…