50 years ago, The Graduate was released and soon became widely regarded as the cinematic epitome of sixties’ suburban America. The 1967 film was a slow burner; it’s popularity came from word of mouth on college campuses, but from there, it rose to great heights. Director Mike Nichols won an Oscar for his work, Dustin Hoffman’s career was set in motion and the success of the film garnered it the title of the 22nd highest grossing film in US cinema history. But half a century later, is The Graduate’s social commentary on the generational differences between college students and their parents still accurate?
21-year-old Benjamin, played by a fresh-faced, pre-fame Dustin Hoffman, returns to his childhood Pasadena home after a successful jaunt at some east coast university. His parents organise a homecoming party for him, and fill it with all their own socially homogeneous friends.
As Benjamin reluctantly socialises, one looming question follows him through the smoky parlour room party; what will Benjamin do now that he has graduated? He seems to be set for a life of the nine-to-five routine, probably in the plastics business, but it seems that he would much rather mope at the bottom of the swimming pool in the diving suit that he’s parents bought him. 50 years later, the prospect of job security, or even a lifetime on one career path, is no longer a reality for graduates. But back in 1967, Benjamin falls into an existential crisis. His discontent with the world leans toward the melodramatic, when the greater context of America in the sixties is considered; the Vietnam war or the civil rights movement are unlikely to ever cross Benjamin’s mind.
Then comes the romance element of the film, when Benjamin is seduced by one of his parent’s friends, Mrs. Robinson. In his summer following graduation, Benjamin gets everything that a young man is supposed to want, from the red sports car to the affair with the older woman. But there is a complete subversion of this cliché, because Benjamin does not want the life he has. Sometime into the affair, he is strong armed into taking Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine on a date and he falls madly in love. Conflict ensues.
The comedy of the film relies heavily on Benjamin’s lack of social skills and his awkward inability to conform to the world around him. This ‘fish out of water’ trope is beginning to lose its comedic value with millennials, perhaps it is because we’ve decided not to laugh at those who are clearly uncomfortable or that our society no longer has as strong a consensus to stand out from as the one that existed in The Graduate? But one stroke of humour that I doubt either Nichols or the soundtrack artists, Simon and Garfunkel, could have intended comes about as a result of meme culture.
In the opening sequence of the film, Hoffman walk onscreen to the tune of ‘Sound of Silence’, most known by its melancholy first line “Hello darkness, my old friend.” In 1967, the track was a perfectly brooding accompaniment to Benjamin’s mind set during the film, while nowadays it’s impossible to hear without thinking of various memes; videos of a kids falling from monkey bars or Ben Affleck being sad. Frequent use of the song throughout the film has made viewing in 2017 a much more humorous experience than the film’s makers could have anticipated.
Watching from 2017, there is much to dislike about the frivolous lives of these suburban socialites. Mrs. Robinson is predatory and controlling. Benjamin is naive and neurotic. Elaine might as well have been a mannequin for all the lack of thoughts she seems to have. The film’s message stands unaffected. The story of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson seeks to represent the generational gap, the misunderstanding and disillusionment, that can exist between children and their parents. To outside observers they may be living the American Dream, yet we come to empathise with both the young and the old, with the mutual despair felt by both the alcoholic Mrs. Robinson and the aimless Benjamin.
Film critics have described The Graduate as a cinematic rejection of post-war capitalism; a triumph of liberalism over conservatism. But the ending of the film proves that it’s not that straightforward, there is no winner and perhaps no real generational gap, but rather uncertainty for everyone in life. Benjamin crashes Elaine’s wedding and the young lovers elope together. In that famous final shot of the film, they sit together at the back of the bus and we see the ambiguity in their happy ending. Their smiles fade and a familiar question looms, “What do we do now?”
Muireann O’Shea – Film Editor