Sometimes we choose the films we watch, but the most important ones seem to choose us. And so it was with “The Graduate,” one of those timeless classics I kept meaning to see but never did. This always seemed a grave error in judgment, waiting so long to meet Benjamin Braddock. Then “The Graduate” finally cycled up from its lowly queue ranking, I watched it, at age 28, and I knew. I saw this movie at precisely the right time.
Oops. Was that too crunchy, maybe too reflective? Absolutely. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) would hate it. He’s not that reflective, lives mostly inside his mind. So why should I wax all philosophical? Refer back to “precisely the right time.” Bittersweet and poignant, “The Graduate” is a film best enjoyed after the angst of the early 20s — OK, the whole of one’s 20s — has passed. In those youthful moments where The Future and all its infinite possibilities are terrifying, perspective doesn’t exist. All that does is fear, the kind that doesn’t go away until you stop feeding it and it wanders away.
In Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” we don’t get to see that transition for Benjamin. Right on. Benjamin, in Hoffman’s estimation, is the listless owner of some unnamed of bachelor’s degree and one of those real-world useless fellowship accolades with a name no one can keep straight. Back in his parents’ California home, he’s forced into one party after another in his honor, and each one makes him more and more uncomfortable. Everyone has big opinions about what Benjamin should do with his life (one word: “Plastics”), but he hasn’t the slightest clue. All his frustrations — “I’m worried about my future” he says pointedly — are ignored, and this only magnifies his anxiety.
Then comes the summer-long Affair Heard ‘Round the World (it lives on in infamy through Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”) with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a confident, attractive, overtly sexual friend of Benjamin’s parents. In a dumber film, Mrs. Robinson would play teacher and impart scads of life lessons to the shy, inexperienced Benjamin, who’d gobble them up and grow into a mature, successful businessman. But who wants to see that movie? Certainly not Nichols; thus, the affair serves mostly to exacerbate Benjamin’s confusion, mixes up the concepts of dreams and sexual desires in his brain. Not good for a regular 20something guy, let alone one who’s as rudderless as Benjamin. Then things get worse: He falls for Mrs. Robinson’s young daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). This is an odd plot point, one that could be a little soap opera-esque without Nichols’ knack for finding the right pitch (helped along by Simon and Garfunkel’s deceptively peppy score).
So the web of Benjamin’s world is, ahem, decidedly tangled. Sex tends to do that, particularly if it happens with the best looking of all your parents’ friends. (Eek.) Yet these entanglements don’t matter nearly as much as the way they affect Benjamin. “The Graduate” is first and foremost a coming-of-age film, for though Benjamin’s technically an adult his emotional development hasn’t come close to catching up with his age. And the strange escapades in his life don’t produce the effects we might predict. To a degree, his affair with Mrs. Robinson does enlighten him — he taps into his sexuality in a way he hasn’t yet. But Benjamin thinks his affair with Mrs. Robinson will mean something. She’s bored and wants sex. (Bancroft does a wonderful job of not backing away from Mrs. Robinson’s palpable sexuality.) Then he believes his love — however misplaced and desperate — for Elaine will give him purpose. We get the idea that Benjamin’s seeking the right things; he’s just looking in the wrong places.
This much becomes clear in the ending (one of the best in cinematic history), and in Hoffman’s distracted performance. Hoffman closes down his face and shrinks his shoulders to play Benjamin, who’s separated himself from reality. He’s spinning around with no sense of direction until the end. Even then, when he’s learned something, he doesn’t seem to know what. Neither do we … and that’s just as it should be.