For those tired of CGI-fueled flicks who yearn to broaden their filmic horizons and possibly step out of their cinematic comfort zone, finding an older movie to start with can be tough. There are so many different factors to consider when choosing an old movie, that it can quite often be overwhelming to decide where to begin. So to relieve this burden I will be discussing one film that I think is a great place to start if you are trying to get into the “classics,” that being the 1967 Oscar-winner, “The Graduate.”
Not only is “The Graduate” a masterpiece, but it also feels extremely relevant for many college students at this exact moment. With only three months left in the school year, for seniors (like myself) this summer will not be marked by the certainty of another semester, as we will be graduating in May. Some may apply to grad school, some may hunt for a job, and others might just take some time off for themselves. These next few months thus mark a time of transitional ambiguity in regards to what the future holds. This exact state of “limbo” and the deep feelings of uncertainty that mark crossing the threshold of adulthood are what underscore, “The Graduate,” making it a suitable and timely “throwback film” to review and a great classic movie to begin your exploration of older cinema with.
To set the stage for this film, it’s important to understand both the history of the era and also the state of the film industry when it was made. During the 1960s in America, the sexual revolution was underway, political unrest was high, and the Vietnam war was raging on, among other major cultural phenomenon. As the country was fundamentally changing, Hollywood mirrored this shift, as movies began to shy away from just classical narratives and began to take on subject matters that were long forbidden by the Hollywood Production Code. This shift in filmmaking that reflected a changing society is perfectly exemplified in “The Graduate,” which feels extremely pertinent today considering the current unrest of our country.
“The Graduate” follows Benjamin Braddock, a 20-year-old boy (or “man” as his father says), who has just recently graduated college after an impressive and decorated four years at school. The pressures of life and societal expectations silently crush him to the point that even interacting with his parents’ friends at his graduation party is almost unbearable. However, on the night of his grad party, Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, makes a sexual advance on him. Going against all the principles he thought he held, Benjamin begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson, his longtime family friend who’s twice his age. Things grow increasingly complicated for Benjamin, as he tries to hide his affair while at the same time his parents attempt to set him up on a date with Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, who just so happens to be Benjamin’s age.
In less than two hours, “The Graduate” brilliantly addresses a multitude of themes involving sexuality, identity, isolation, youth rebellion, existentialism, societal norms, and more. And for college students, this film hits even closer to home as it largely ruminates on the anxieties that come with post-grad uncertainty. Addressing some fairly serious topics, “The Graduate” does not stay pigeonholed in a dramatic genre, but instead utilizes comedy and other cinematic tones to break tension, which not only makes it feel more realistic but also makes it that much more entertaining. The changes in tone throughout the movie effectively mirror the state of Benjamin who is all over the place, yet immobile all at once, which can be credited to the auteurs behind the camera.
Where I find this film truly succeeds is in the way the narrative is presented, and this lies in the direction of Mike Nichols who won the Oscar for his efforts. Nichols crafts the film in an artistic and provocative manner, beautifully choreographing each scene, and making every shot striking and worthy of analysis. The visual choices Nichols makes help to add meaning and reflect the internal identity crisis that Benjamin is going through. Benjamin’s struggle is shown less through his actions, but instead through the strategic and artistic editing strategies employed. In this sense, the creative and groundbreaking direction and editing tactics do more than just present the story as it is, as they function to the point of representing both the temporality of the plot while also effectively exposing Benjamin’s own feelings toward his sexual encounters and the troubled internal conflict that consumes him.
The two main performances from Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin, and Ann Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson are truly worthy of recognition. Hoffman’s portrayal of Benjamin as an All-American boy who might not be as perfect as his parents think of him to be, both induces empathy from the viewer while at the same time making us question whether or not Benjamin is really anything else but blindly selfish. Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson steals every second of screen time she’s featured in, from her casual seduction scene, to her vulnerable discussion of her now-dead college dreams. Each actor in “The Graduate” uses their co stars’ performances to uplift their own, making for some of the most memorable scenes and dialogue in the history of cinema.
When discussing “The Graduate” it is impossible not to mention its soundtrack, which was recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. With hit songs such as “Mrs. Robinson,” and “The Sound of Silence,” this movie becomes all the more iconic. What is so important about this soundtrack is that it does more than just set the mood for each scene, but instead the tone of the song and the lyrics themselves actually generate meaning within the narrative itself. Benjamin’s melancholy and solitude are further accentuated by the brilliant lyrics coupled with the evocative melodies. While Benjamin aimlessly floats through his parents’ pool ignoring the world around him and falling deeper into isolation, we hear the haunting voices of Simon & Garfunkel sing, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” What could have been a fairly undistinguished scene instead becomes one of the most striking in the movie, as it offers a poignant and highly communicative look into the psyche of the protagonist, which can largely be credited to the soundtrack.
“The Graduate” is one of the few movies that I have trouble finding fault with. There is so much to be appreciated in this movie and it delivers on all marks. Not only was it the highest grossing film of 1967 and an Oscar-winner, but it still remains to be appreciated in filmic discourse to this day. The American Film Institute (AFI) has it ranked #17 on its list of 100 best movies of all-time, #9 on its best comedies list, and #52 on its best romances list. “The Graduate” offers so much for the viewer to consider, while also leaving much unresolved. Part of the beauty of this film is that not everything is outwardly satisfied, leaving a lot up for interpretation and making the viewing more personal to each individual spectator.
If you haven’t seen “The Graduate,” I highly recommend giving it a chance. I understand that not all movies over 50 years old withstand the test of time, but in the case of this film that could not be further from the truth. On the surface it will always be fantastic, but if you pay close attention to the filmic choices made, consider the deeper implications that build layers within the film, and really invest yourself into what is being communicated, this movie becomes all the more worthy of appreciation. “The Graduate” gives meaning to the term “classic,” and whether you want to begin watching older movies, need a film to help you reflect during a transitional time, or just simply want to be entertained, this film will more than satisfy you. Be sure to check out “The Graduate” as it’s available to watch for free on YouTube, or to rent/buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
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