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Fifty Years Later, ‘The Graduate’ Isn’t As Relatable As It Once Was

Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967)/© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson…”

This month marks fifty years since “The Graduate” arrived in theaters with a landmark soundtrack, a shoestring budget, and a relatively unknown and unconventional leading man. It became an immediate hit and garnered seven Oscar nominations, including the first of Dustin Hoffman’s seven nods. “The Graduate” is unquestionably a part of pop-culture Americana – its soundtrack is iconic, the wedding crashing scene is an oft-imitated trope, and Mrs. Robinson coyly sliding her stockings over her calf with a leering Dustin Hoffman in the background is one of the all-time greatest movie posters. But, a half-century on, does “The Graduate” continue to captivate in the way it did for theater-goers in 1967?

The answer that comes to my mind is “not so much.” After watching “The Graduate” for the first time in several years, I was a little surprised to realize that the film was easier to appreciate than enjoy. It’s unquestionably well-made, after all. Mike Nichols was nothing if not a talented director and “The Graduate” was most certainly in his wheelhouse. But, unlike a lot of Nichols’ subsequent work, there’s a distance and coldness to “The Graduate” that lingers far more than any other aspect of the film. Despite its flashes of humor, there’s almost a sterile feel to the goings-on. In fact, the only time the film really feels red-blooded and alive are the scenes with Ann Bancroft as the infamous Mrs. Robinson – her seductions are a well-honed dance that Dustin Hoffman gracelessly stumbles through, his hormones and polite desires stepping all over Bancroft’s light-footed appeal. That was, of course, the intent – playing Bancroft’s predatory confidence against Hoffman’s everyman earnest awkwardness.

Unfortunately, all that early promise more or less falls away with the arrival of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Looking at her budding romance with Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) with fresh eyes, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the allure of the arbitrary coupling. There are no substantial conversations between the two, and nothing of note really occurs to pull them together beyond the film specifically telling us that they are to be together. And yet, young master Ben had latched onto Elaine with a sort of manic obsession that verges into uncomfortable stalker-ish territory – a lost young man desperately banging on the windows of a church to stop the wedding of a girl he barely knows, but has somehow fixated on.

In rewatching “The Graduate,” there is an undercurrent that certainly exists in a sort of drab grey.  The post-college malaise of Benjamin Braddock’s story felt both accentuated and trite. Perhaps it is because it has been well over a decade since I last saw the film, and I’m now well-past my own post-college malaise (well, mostly anyway). Ben, to me, is less an identifiable everyman and more how I would imagine Holden Caulfield in his college years – occasionally petulant, a little too self-serious, and well, a bit of a creep.

There really is something to be said for revisiting the classics. Time has a way of freshening our outlook – at times that serves a film well, and in other instances, it casts a harsher light. Re-experiencing “The Graduate” falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch.  There are moments of great acting and the chemistry between Bancroft and Hoffman is still electric, but unfortunately that chemistry is the film’s appetizer and not its entrée. Roger Ebert would occasionally revisit his film reviews and update his thoughts where necessary. In 1967, he gave “The Graduate” four stars and called it one of the funniest films of the year – Roger Ebert’s taste in great comedy was always a tad dodgy. When the film re-entered his orbit on its thirtieth anniversary, his new three-star review was less charitable, but for my money it was more on the mark: “Is ‘The Graduate’ a bad movie? Not at all. It is a good topical movie whose time has passed, leaving it stranded in an earlier age. I give it three stars out of delight for the material it contains; to watch it today is like opening a time capsule. To know that the movie once spoke strongly to a generation is to understand how deep the generation gap ran during that extraordinary time in the late 1960s.”

Seeing “The Graduate” on its fiftieth anniversary is a bit like experiencing the film’s iconic final scene from the point of view of Ben and Elaine. Here I sit, in somewhat awkward silence, with a film I thought I knew but really didn’t, wondering precisely how I got here.