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The Graduate (1967) by Mike Nichols

The Graduate (1967) by Mike Nichols


The Graduate (1967) has been recognized as one of the key, ground-breaking films of the late 1960s (“The Graduate (1967)” American Film Institute recognition put it in the 100 best American Movies List. In 1996, The Graduate was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” (“The Graduate (Mike Nichols)”). This paper will try to understand what the era of the 1960s was, analyze the film as a historical document, find out the film cultural and historical value, discover by which means that was translated through the film to the viewer.

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The Plot of the Film

A college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home to Los Angeles. On this occasion, his parents give a party where family friends and father’s business partners have been invited. All the guests are concerned with Benjamin’s future and they ask him what he plans to do next. Benjamin seems to be frustrated as he is at a crossroads in his life. He goes upstairs to stay alone in his room. Suddenly, the door of the room opens and the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) enters, asking Benjamin to drive her to her house, as her husband has already left the party and she does not have a car. Benjamin drives Mrs. Robinson home but she insists on his accompanying her, and they come into the house. There, she offers Ben to drink and then tries to seduce him. He is confused by her behavior as he is young, awkward, and he seems not to have had a sexual experience before. At this moment, Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) returns home and after a brief dialog Benjamin leaves their house.

After that evening, Ben and Mrs. Robinson become lovers and meet almost every night during some period until Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) return from the college. From this moment, Benjamin gets caught in the crossfire. From one is side Mrs. Robinson, who demands him not to date her daughter, and from the other side are his parents, who insist that he takes Elaine out. Being stressed by all these circumstances, Ben follows the will of his parents and takes Elaine on the first date at a strip club. This way he tries to push her away. When he notices the tears in Elaine’s eyes, he becomes aware that it has not been such a good idea to take her to this place. He explains himself and invites her to another place. They have a good time together, and Ben falls in love with Elaine.

Elaine’s mother Mrs. Robinson is angry with Ben for that. She threatens him to tell Elaine that he is having an affair with her mother. Then, Benjamin tries to be first who speaks to Elaine but the conversation goes wrong. Parents send Elaine off to college at Berkeley. Believing that Elaine might be his true love, Benjamin sets off a journey to Berkeley to make amends. He decides to marry Elaine, but her parents approve of her marriage with another man. Ben does his best to prevent this marriage. He takes a trip to Santa Barbara, finds the Church where the ceremony is being held, and when Elaine sees him shouting her name. With Benjamin, she escapes from her wedding. The end of the film is that Benjamin and Elaine get on a bus, escaping from everyone.

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The Epoch of the 1960s

The 1960s went down in the history of America as a period of liberalization. Marwick characterizes this period by the next features: “black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion” that was evidenced by “massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behavior; the new feminism; gay liberation; the emergence of `the underground’ and `the counter-culture’; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world.” Marwick also adds:

They might, in addition, be able to contrast this with a list of key features of the fifties, including: rigid social hierarchy; subordination of women to men and children to parents; repressed attitudes to sex; racism; unquestioning respect for authority in the family, education, government, the law, and religion…

In the 1960s, America witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the escalation of the struggle for civil rights of African-Americans in the same year. In April 1963, Martin Luther King led a campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Some part of American society protested against the War in Vietnam and participated in radical students’ antiwar movements from 1965 until 1968. Protests against various aspects were common in the 1960s, and the feminism movements became active since 1963. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded (Krieger 118-132), and all those developments led to the emergence of the generation of Hippie in 1964 (“The 1960s,”

To summarize, the 1960s were one of the most diverse and contradictory periods in American history. Because of all those changes in society, values of the previous decade of the 1950s were doubted by many young Americans. They became aware that all believes of the older generation were not effective, which led to the wide range of social difficulties of the 1960s. Young people became aware that the world was not an ideal but it should be better, and it was up to them to make the world a better place. As a result, there are a number of people, especially the young ones, who began to rebel against formerly set social norms and standards.

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The Film’s Critics

Critics have expressed diverse and contradictory points of view regarding the film. Thus, regarding the genre and the plot, Roger Ebert characterized The Graduate as “the funniest American comedy of the year.” In his review for Variety, Murphy called the film “the delightful satirical comedy-drama about a young man’s seduction by an older woman, and the measure of maturity which he attains from the experience.” The reviewer for Time noted that “the screenplay, which begins as genuine comedy, soon degenerates into spurious melodrama” (“Cinema: The Graduate”).

However, one should note that the film is neither a comedy nor farce as it may seem first. The film touches important life aspects that concern social, family, religious questions, changing society values in the 1960s. The common theme of the film is the generation conflict. According to Man it represents “full spectrum of the generational differences in terms of conceptualizing femininity or masculinity” (106). The film shows both women and men who belong to different generations and have different view on the life. With the help of characters embodied in the film one can realize that the spirit of the epoch of the 1960 is a spirit of struggle for freedom and human dignity. It makes one understand that only a young generation is able to change the world for the better as the youth has not yet lost the ability to aspire to the ideal and to believe in it as well as the ability to reach it. Steven Winn describes that by the following phrase: “The Graduate” captured a sense of the drift, alienation, anomie and defiant idealism of the ’60s.”

To summarize, the film The Graduate makes the viewer realize that the world has become different in the 1960s. The 1950s’ standards no longer apply as the world and society constantly change and develop. What was true yesterday, today might be called into question. There is an example how to be devoted to own principles and fight for the ones.

The Film’s Message

The thematic core of the film is composed of several complex themes that run throughout it and enlighten view of the life of two generations – parents and adult children. One of the film themes is the older generation that finds its stability in “plastics” (Beuka 2000). One of the family friends Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) seems to speak dually, using a concept “plastics” as if comparing people to inanimate material – plastic:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.

Ben: Yes sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal. (“The Graduate (1967)”)

During this time, the women’s liberation movement and new conceptions of masculinity sought to break out of that had been the standard the 1950s: “Women across the country became more and more dissatisfied with their stay-at-home life” (Krieger 130).

Thus, the theme of women’s emancipation is embodied in the character of Mrs. Robinson, who is a married woman, unhappy and unsatisfied. She continues to live with her husband, even though there is a distance between them and they sleep in “different bed-rooms” (“The Graduate (1967)”), just because the social status of being marriage and save a family is a set norm. She regularly drinks alcohol, and she dares to seduce a young Benjamin despite being aware of his virginity.

The theme of materialistic view on people relations sharply passes throw the film story line and brightly demonstrated by a dialog that takes place between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in the hotel room:

Ben: Will you wait a minute, please? Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?

Mrs. Robinson: I don’t think we have much to say to each other.

Ben: Look, for months, all we’ve done is come up here and leap into bed together.

Mrs. Robinson: Are you tired of it?

Ben: I’m not. No. But do you think we could liven it up with a little conversation for a change?…Now look, we’re going to do this thing. We’re going to have a conversation… (“The Graduate (1967)”).

The movie shows how deep the gap between generations ran during that extraordinary time in the late 1960s. The young generation is represented as more spiritual than the older one. The choice preference of the new generation are timeless values, and that is symbolically demonstrated by the scene when Ben leaves his new Alfa Romeo, a luxurious graduate present from his parents, on the road when the fuel has run out. There is a message that nothing does matter when one falls in love.

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The traditional notions of religious sentiment and Christianity experienced a momentary inflation in the 1960s (Mailer et al. 34), but, in fact, they were not neglected by the new generation. The basis of the religion and its main message is “love”: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (New Jerusalem Bible, 1 John. 4.8). The choice for love perfectly illustrates the episode inside the church, when Elaine has already said her “yes.” She is married. Ten years earlier, this scene would have taken place just before she said her vows and he would have “saved her,” before legally saying, “I do.” However, that is not the case here. It does not stop Ben from shouting her name at the time of the wedding ceremony or Elaine from leaving the ceremony after having said her “yes.” When Mrs. Robinson addressing Elaine proclaims: “It’s too late”, she replies: “Not for me!” declaring that love more important to her then all the conventions and, appeared to be obsolete, traditions. By closing the doors of the church from outside with the big cross, the young people symbolically defend themselves from all the evil, lies and hypocrisy and leave everything behind.

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To summarize, this paper has analyzed the film as a historical document by revealing which historical changes had been happening during the 1960s, what it was the era of the 1960s, and how it influenced society. This information has allowed to understand why the film is considered as a historically significant one and made one become aware of its cultural and historical value. Despite The Graduate being released in 1967, it contains no hippies, no political manifestos, and no danger. The sharp social conflicts and the attempts to solve them were illuminated in the film. It was translated through the film to the viewer by the plot, where social problematic themes arise, by reflection of that reality through certain situations that characters involved in, and their thoughts, dialogues, and deeds. The end of the film allowed one to see that Benjamin and Elaine get on a symbolical bus that embodies motion and the transfer from one historical period to another one. Their faces are in close-up. Benjamin and Elaine represent the new generation traveling towards a new life, towards a new future that is still unknown but surely different and exciting, that is only expected to be unrevealed.