As Blu-ray moves further into its lifespan more and more classics are finally making it to the format. Organisations such as the AFI and the BFI are releasing their classics, Criterion are embracing the format and Optimum are also releasing a wide range of films to the format. The latest range of Optimum releases is the usual satisfying series of films – from classics to the finest of more recent releases. Pleasingly, one of the new discs to hit retail is Mike Nichols' The Graduate a late sixties movie which still has much to offer a modern audience beyond mere nostalgia.
Dustin Hoffman, who was then 30 years old, plays Benjamin Braddock a recent graduate who is unsure of which direction his life should take. Riding a wave of ennui, he returns to the bosom of his parents to consider his options. In those days recent graduates were not the brash, self confident people we know today. Benjamin is not wise to the ways of the world. He is charmingly naïve, and views the world with a kind of bemused attachment which is very attractive. Or it certainly is to the predatory Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft in an iconic role) who proceeds to chase Ben for the carnal pleasure that he offers. In a memorable scene she eventually succeeds in getting him to sleep with him and their affair carries on. A fly in the ointment soon arrives when Elaine (Katherine Ross) gets back from college. Elaine is Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and both Mr. Robinson and Ben’s parents pressure him to ask her out. This he does, and then to his horror he finds himself falling for her.
Of course, dirty secrets have a habit of rearing their ugly head and eventually Ben has to reveal exactly what has been going on and the results of this are, unsurprisingly, devastating.
A film such as this does not achieve such iconic status without having much to offer, and The Graduate really is a stunning film. The setting may be the sixties but the film has an awful lot to offer viewers of today – dealing as it does with universal themes. Braddock is dealing with the ennui that many of us feel – the lack of control over his own life that he experiences. There are scenes of amazing metaphor throughout the first half of the film. Braddock is literally drifting through life without any long term plans – a condition which is represented by the swimming pool in his back yard. He spends long lazy days just drifting on a li-lo on the surface of the water, and at one stage he demonstrates a graduation present – a new set of scuba gear. The camera POV is brilliantly done, filming through the mask that Benjamin is wearing. You can almost feel the desperation as the adult world (represented by his father) pushes down on him from above, submerging him beneath the surface. Poignantly, he just stands on the bottom of the pool – motionless, as the adults gaze down on him from above the surface. The only sound – the sound of the bubbles exiting his breathing apparatus.
But there is a lot more than the heavy symbolism presented in the earlier scenes. The relationship between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson is just beautifully observed. The way that the two interact during the original seduction scene is absolutely perfect – and however many times I watch it I still find myself cringing and sometimes laughing out loud in embarrassment. The sheer contrast between the characters is beautifully observed – Mrs. Robinson the predator, spotting something she wants and manipulating the object of her desire until she gets what she wants. Ben is the poor naïve boy who cups her breast like it is a cupcake and is totally confused between his desire and his moral code.
But as the affair continues, so Ben perceptibly changes. He becomes more confident, more sure of himself – even to the extent of asserting his own personality within the relationship. The performance by Dustin Hoffman is beautifully observed. He manages to change (in terms of the time on screen) quite quickly – but never does the character development seem forced or unreal. It is a fantastic portrayal, Ben’s new attitude simply conveyed through a slight change in vocal tone or body posture. It is a masterpiece of acting subtlety and really marked him out as an actor to watch. Just as impressive is Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson who in real life was only six years Hoffman’s senior. It is to the film (and the actor’s) credit that the age gap between the characters is always so believable, considering this situation. Bancroft relishes the role of the bored, sexually frustrated housewife and really seems to be enjoying the thrill of corrupting young Ben. As the film goes on, and she begins to realise exactly what the consequences are – she unravels believably, and shows us a woman who is completely unable to control her jealousy. Although there are supporting actors – the film concentrates on these two, making it seem almost like a play at some moments. Every moment of the two performances is an absolute joy and go a long way to making the film the success that it is.
These two powerhouse performances are martialled brilliantly by Mike Nicholls, the director. He laces the story with subtext and metaphor, and allows each scene enough room to really breathe and to show its importance. He also demonstrates an innovative eye for camera angles. One brilliant shot during the seduction scene shows Ben framed between Mrs. Robinson’s stocking clad legs – both captivated and caught by them at the same time. Later on, the swimming pool scene – shot from Ben’s point of view, shows him separated from adult society through a mask. If I was to criticise his style it would be that he does include rather too many long scenes of Ben driving his car to another destination – but this would be churlish considering the sheer style he brings to the whole film.
Another important part of the film is the use of music, and in particular the Simon and Garfunkel songs. That the duo has become synonymous with this movie is almost ironic as only four songs are actually used. But even here, the director shows his vision – using April, Come She Will to soundtrack a key scene that shows the transformation from Ben’s youth to the corrupt adult world represented by his lover.
The Graduate is one of those rare films that manages to define a decade whilst at the same time managing to remain timeless. It is as relevant today, 40 years later, as it was way back at the end of the sixties. Although the modern audience may find gauche Ben’s early naivety a little bit unbelievable in these days of “underage and pregnant”, the reality is that maybe the knowing attitude of media savvy teens today is not as prevalent as we might imagine. Underneath the brash confident exterior it is not that much of a stretch to imagine that the first coupling is as excruciatingly embarrassing for today’s youngsters as it is for Ben. For anyone who shows any interest in fine filmmaking The Graduate really is an essential watch – and if you haven’t ever seen it then I highly recommend you rectify that. Sometimes films seem to gain a rather undeserved reputation as a classic – but in this case it is fully deserved. The Graduate is a film that has truly endured – and is one that has plenty of rewatch value.
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