Monday Movie: The Graduate, by David Bax
Recently, I was washing my hands in a restaurant bathroom when “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel started playing over the sound system. The man at the next sink, with a quizzical look, asked me, “What is this song again?” I told him but, internally, I was momentarily shocked that he–a man even older than myself–didn’t recognize it immediately. It’s not just a great song. It’s from The Graduate! But then that got me wondering what exactly The Graduate‘s place is in the present day.
In the midst of our current cultural conversation, it’s impossible not to frame Benjamin Braddock in terms of his privilege; this is a young man for whom refusing to settle on a grad school constitutes a form of rebellion. In its defense, director Mike Nichols was clearly aware of this at the time of the film’s making. His casting of Dustin Hoffman instead of a matinee idol like Robert Redford (who screen tested for the role) was an attempt to undercut the character’s social status, to make him at least something of an underdog.
Still, the Benjamin that exists in the final product is not some feminist ally. Most of the time, he’s still a self-centered, feckless creep. In retrospect, Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson is a much more sympathetic character, if complicatedly so. She is a bitter and cruel woman but the truth of her circumstance–forced by decorum into a loveless marriage because of an unplanned pregnancy–highlights the way women, even those at the top of the economic food chain, can be robbed of agency in the name of paternalistic ideas of “decency.”
Yet it’s a testament to the power of The Graduate and the enduring elasticity of great art in general that the movie still works so well. The things that stand out about it today may or may not be the same things that made it such a success more than half a century ago. Yet it remains both sublime and (let’s not forget) fucking hilarious.