The year 1967 was significant in cinema history, and if you’re trying to make sense of why, you don’t have to look much further than Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. It is a film which appears at a great turning point in Hollywood film history, at the moments of transition between one era tied to the strictures of classical storytelling and codes self-imposed censorship, and the beginning of a new American perspective on film influenced by artistic innovations from the cinema of Europe. It was, in Murray Smith’s words, a period of “vertical disintegration and post-Fordism”1, where studios were seen to be slipping out of touch with audiences, systems of production were failing, and a new perspective was essential for the reinvigoration of the American film industry. The Graduate is directed by a man who emerged not out of the Hollywood studio system, but from the arena of American stand-up and sketch comedy where he forged a successful partnership with Elaine May. At a time when the greats of the studio system were reaching the end of their careers, Nichols, with his unique set of skills, entered into an industrial landscape and a cultural tipping point that places The Graduate are the forefront of social, moral and cinematic change.

What is striking about The Graduate is how keenly it capitalises on the changes that characterised America in 1967. At least within the context of the Hollywood film industry, the film challenges some of the very basics of film storytelling and representation. With greater access to foreign cinema following the landmark Paramount Decree in 1948, which opened up the American exhibition spaces to both domestic and international cinema, The Graduate offers its own American spin on European art cinema. Historically, American cinema had been classical in its storytelling, its characters propelled by transparent goals; it was a cinema with objectives. But Nichols sets up Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in defiance of these expectations; indeed, the first image we have of Ben is of him standing blankly on a travellator at the airport, propelled forward not by will, but by machine. And with that one extended image, Nichols perfectly crystallises the concerns of the film, and the cultural moment it represents. This is a film about movement and propulsion, the conveyor belt of social expectations, the milestones of acquisition and advancement. But it’s also about paralysis, indolence, a total absence of initiative.

Braddock, either by design or chance, comes in 1967 to symbolise both the expectations of a culture, and the youthful rejection of an aspirational capitalism that had shaped the previous generation. His concerns over his future are legitimate and real, but to reject the path mapped out for him due to his education and social class means there is no other path for him to follow. Despite the enticing intonation of the word “plastics”, Braddock is a man without industry. Nichols challenges the classical system by proposing a hero that lacks purpose, who exhibits as Thomas Elsaesser suggests “an almost physical sense of inconsequential action, of pointlessness and uselessness: stances which are not only interpretable psychologically, but speak of a radical scepticism about American values of ambition, vision, drive”2. Much like the characters in films from Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard or Jacques Rivette, The Graduate disengages from typical quest narrative structures, and moves – at least for the first two-thirds of the film – towards a purely situational structure.
But Nichols doesn’t just use the film as a process of exploring the ennui of youth culture through a drifting, unmotivated central character. Through Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), The Graduate opens up the enormous sacrifices made by the previous generation, especially the women who surrendered their own paths to the demands of their husbands. Nichols reveals an artificial world with strict codes on both gender and class. Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin is played for laughs, but it’s also a key to the skills she has been forced to hone in order to survive in the world she lives in.

Their affair reveals much about what it is to be a housewife in this society and culture: her unplanned pregnancy, the surrendering of her art degree for domesticity, the crushing boredom of her life, her escape through sexual adventure and excitement. She, too, is a woman without a future. Anne Bancroft was only a couple years older than Dustin Hoffman at the time of shooting, but everything about Mrs. Robinson suggests years of surrender and sacrifice and a burning hatred for the social structures that have kept her firmly in her place. Nichols isn’t just offering a critical perspective on the crisis facing the young generation, but the rigidity of the social conventions that have crushed those that conformed. Nichols cuts Mrs Robinson up into small, stark isolated frames: a breast, an angry mouth, a tan line on her stomach, the curve of her leg. It’s like these social pressures have shattered her, and we have to reconstruct her from the fragments. So while some may argue the film ultimately abandons Mrs. Robinson and punishes her for her sexual agency, I think it’s fair to suggest that it is the expectations of the society which delivers the punishment, not the film itself. And truthfully, it is not as if her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) and Benjamin himself come out of the film looking any better.

In the famous conclusion to The Graduate, Nichols stages this to best mess with an American audience waiting for the traditional denouement. If the first two thirds of the film have suggested a slackening of causal, objective-focused narrative developments, containing an unmotivated hero without specific goals, then the final third appears to reverse this approach. Nichols lays out the expectations for us: suddenly we have a deadline and a goal: to prevent Elaine’s marriage by a specific time to ensure that the hero – such as he is – can get the girl. But Nichols manages to both give us what we instinctively expect, and yet also simultaneously take it away from us. Benjamin faces the conventional obstacles in his dash to prevent Elaine from marrying, and in the flurry of activity as he screams her name and the two flee the church for a passing bus, it’s easy to forget that he utterly fails in his quest. This is a deadline that isn’t met; he arrives at the church at the very moment when Elaine’s marriage is finalised.

Nichols encourages a giddy complicity in Ben and Elaine’s impulsive escape from social convention, and our recognition of the union of the heterosexual couple as a traditional ending to the romantic comedy genre. But the conclusion is also a symbol of absolute futility and failure – even the customers on the bus return Ben and Elaine’s exuberant laughter with blank, affectless gazes. Nichols may give us the romantic couple, but he undercuts the film fantasy with a recognition of the truth. Their thrill lies only in the pointless act of rebellion, and not in the future which follows, and as the smiles fade, the blankness of the future yawns before them. When Ben finally acts, Nichols argues, it is not an act of heroism or nobility befitting a film protagonist. It’s just a spectacular mistake.

The Graduate has this incredible slippery quality: it feels grounded in Hollywood, but it’s constantly stripping away what Hollywood cinema means, overturning the ways that stories have been told in mainstream America. Even the montages don’t work the way you would think, with sequences cut for Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” leading immediately and without pause into another montage cut to “April Come She Will”. Superficially The Graduate seems to suggest the familiar, but the more you look, the more you come to understand how the uncertainty of 1967 undercuts every frame of the film, undermining your assumptions and calling into question the long-standing tradition of Hollywood storytelling.

 

Endnotes

  1. Murray Smith, “Theses on the Philosophy of Hollywood History” in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Steve Neale, Murray Smith eds. (London: Routledge, 2000). p. 6
  2. Thomas Elsaesser. “The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s: Notes on the Unmotivated Hero” The Last Great American Picture Show (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004) p. 283

About The Author

Mark Freeman is a teacher of Cinema Studies and a freelance writer on film. He is currently completing a Ph.D at LaTrobe University focusing on Australian screen culture.