And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson
The Graduate is, of course, one of the most important films in American cinema, paving the way for a more auteur-driven, tonally ambivalent “New Hollywood” in tandem with Bonnie and Clyde from the same year. Plenty of important films are dreck, but I’m very pleased with how well this holds up. This was my first time watching since reading Pictures at a Revolution, which is a must-read for movie lovers and really increased my appreciation for the film.
Even a half century later, so much of the filmmaking by Mike Nichols in this is breathtaking and ravishing. In the first act in particular, there is one brilliant and iconic shot after another. So many scenes that are standalone mini-masterpieces. The outstanding editing pivots from hypnotically rhythmic to jarringly arrhythmic in a moment’s notice, always keeping us in Benjamin’s unsteady headspace.
The story covers Benjamin’s affair with the older Mrs. Robinson as he falls in love with her daughter, Elaine. But it’s much more than that, only barely under the surface: a full-on generational war of a “greatest generation” poisoning the aimless baby boomers they birthed. (It’s as good a reminder as any how cyclic generational angst is — if this movie was made today, boomers would be the bad guys.)
Simon and Garfunkel are so intertwined with the tone and energy of the movie that it’s tough to even imagine the film without it, like Star Wars without John Williams. Even the much maligned repetition of “Scarborough Fair” serves a purpose, highlighting the monotonous focus of Benjamin’s obsession with Elaine as the second act shifts to the third.
Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite balanced enough to let this rise to masterpiece territory. There’s really two major problems, and they are related. The first is that Benjamin isn’t all that likable. I know his bad behavior and lack of clear morality are part of the point, but my utter disdain for Benjamin really kept me at a distance.
The second problem is that Elaine is too much of a closed book. It’s tough to know whether this ugly love triangle is tragic, or romantic, or hilarious, or somewhere in between, because we know so little of what drives Elaine as compared to Benjamin or Mrs. Robinson.
On the other hand, ambiguity, both moral and narrative, is part of the point of this movie that is so clearly about rejecting norms and easy answers. Rebellion and young adult ennui are timeless phenomena, making the film feel ageless even though it’s so clearly a product of the late ’60s.
The Graduate is not a perfect film despite Nichols’ best effort. But it is both a great one and a hugely influential one, and one I unquestionably treasure. It also has one of the greatest last shots in cinema history (shhh… I know it’s not actually the last shot, but let me have this one).
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100