AFI Top 100 Discussion: The Graduate

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AFI Top 100 Discussion is a series of posts dedicated to dialogues concerning the best of American Cinema as designated by the American Film Institute. Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey and I have been picking our way through the list since 2014, having covered seven films so far. Today we are discussing the 1967 classic: The Graduate.

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1967 was a groundbreaking year for American cinema, and today we’re discussing one of the films that made it that way. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate tells the story of a young man, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), so trapped and uncertain about his future that he has an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but then runs away with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Famous for its launch of Hoffman’s career, its iconic soundtrack, its dynamic editing, and its mixing up the year 1967 with its portrayal of youthful malaise, AFI gave The Graduate the seventeenth spot on its Top 100. For those following along at home, the film is available to stream on Hulu plus.   

Hunter: So I’ve seen The Graduate a couple of times but not recently. What struck me this time around was how good the film was in the beginning. By the end (or really, once Elaine comes into the picture), the characters seem to make really nonsensical decisions and the film runs off the rails a bit. Did you sense this imbalance at all, where the first half is really good at showing how trapped Benjamin is after graduating and such, and the second half is just really crazy?

Jon: You know what Hunter, I’m glad you mentioned this because upon my first viewing of the film I didn’t like the film overall because of this imbalance.. I felt the first half ran a little too long and that the latter half had more excitement and sort of a destination for his character arc. Although now I fancy both parts of the film and do agree it’s imbalanced but I prefer the shift in change because any longer for either of those two halves wouldn’t have made for as great of a movie. I’m not to sure what Nichols had in mind for the second half though, Benjamin essentially became a stalker & obsessive over Elaine which perhaps tends to him trying to not feel trapped and find a purpose through a relationship with her?

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Hunter: That’s funny, because I had the exact opposite reaction. I always liked the first half better as just a depiction of how trapped and bored they both feel, and the only thing they can do to combat it is have an affair. I feel like Benjamin first does it only because Mr. Robinson suggests he date a lot of women, so he just acts on what an authority figure tells him without really thinking about it. And with Elaine, he does become very single minded in his pursuit of her, so much so that now (and I feel like it should have been then) his behavior would be considered stalking and Elaine should have called the police instead of talking to him. His dating Elaine comes at the suggestion of his parents in the first place, so in a way he is still following the advice of others trying to find purpose in his life. With Elaine, he can fulfill the expectations of his parents and society while at the same time rebelling against society because he stole her away from that frat guy. In the end, it neither of these things give him purpose though, as you can see in the final shot of the both of them looking lost on the bus.

Jon: I never really looked at it from that perspective that he is essentially following the advice of others throughout the whole film. I can see why this film is still relatable and probably will always be, a great majority of students and/or people in general feel like they are trapped and not too certain what they will be doing in life. Additionally looking for love or a person to give you a purpose is what a lot of people in their young adult lives and it’s not healthy. As you mentioned you see it in that last shot. If you don’t figure out who you are and have an idea of what you want in life, how can you possibly find it within yourself to balance that as well as bringing a second being into the fold. That has always been the biggest aspect of the film that keeps me coming back. Have you ever looked at how they portray women in this film? Not saying it’s bad or anything however you could draw arguments based off the behavior they have towards Benjamin, who to be fair doesn’t treat either of them with much respect either.

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Hunter: One of my favorite scenes in the film is actually when Elaine’s name first comes up. It’s the closest thing Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson have to an actual conversation and you see that Mrs. Robinson is probably very sad and unfilled in her own life. Anne Bancroft does such a good job in that scene giving an unlikable and cold character a lot of humanity, and it’s so sad to see what the movie does to her in the second half. From the time the film switches focus to Elaine Mrs. Robinson becomes something of a cartoonish villain rather than a person who is trapped in a life she doesn’t want (similar to Benjamin). Furthermore, her motivations in keeping Elaine and Benjamin apart are not really sympathetic, it just seems like she doesn’t want her daughter to have anything that she has. In regards to Elaine, I don’t think her character makes sense at all (how she is even interested in Benjamin after how he behaves is mystifying), but I do like Katharine Ross in the role. I don’t think the women come off looking very well, but in the end Benjamin doesn’t either.

Jon: That’s about how I see it as well. It’s a shame because that scene when they have the discussion about Elaine and the mistakes Mrs. Robinson made when she was younger was completely engrossing. It’s puzzling how they completely shifted the tone with the introduction of Elaine, makes you wonder if they simply didn’t have enough time to flesh out that character arc. Keeping in mind that the film was released while the production code was still in effect; there was a lot of great cuts & shots in this film. The famous one of Mrs. Robinson revealing herself to Ben was great and shows the Nichols’ creativity. Apart from that there is a lot of great shots and cuts that I don’t remember seeing too often in other films before this release. From the match cuts, zooms, and lense choice; it made for a real eye pleasing watch. Considering the fact we are both cinematographers in the works, did anything on a technical aspect strike your attention?

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Hunter: I’m glad you brought up my favorite subject, the production code and its downfall. Nichols’ previous film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dealt a serious blow to the code with keeping much of the profanity from the original play intact when bringing it to the screen. By the next year when The Graduate premiered the production code was basically dead and buried because audiences couldn’t be bothered with their recommendations anymore. Nevertheless, if it were made today I’m sure there would be way more sex scenes in it, but the quick flashes of nudity are so much more mortifying. For anybody who gets second-hand embarrassment from watching films this one is really tough to watch at times.    

This film does have a lot of iconic shots and cuts, from Benjamin starting to climb on his raft in the pool and then actually climbing into bed with Mrs. Robinson, all the shots of Mrs. Robinson’s leg in the foreground, and the visual motif throughout the film of Benjamin beings shot through glass or water (like the fish tank in his room) to show his alienation from the rest of his surroundings, Benjamin in profile flattened against the wall behind the moving walkway at the beginning…. There are so many iconic shots I could go on all day.

I was just reading Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris (highly recommend) which goes into details of the making and cultural impact of the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967, of which The Graduate was one. It was interesting to read about the cinematography in each of them; studio veteran Robert Surtees did both The Graduate and Dr. Doolittle which were polar opposites in terms of what they represented in the downfall of the studio system that was occurring around that time. Apparently Surtees has been around since the silent era and found it somewhat difficult to adapt to this more dynamic style that Nichols wanted, but realized he had to because the world around him was quickly changing.      

Each time around I not only find more thematic richness in the film and appreciate the technique behind it, but I find myself laughing at more and more of the jokes. The script by Buck Henry is not laugh out loud funny most of the time, just filled with a lot awkwardness that ends up being hilarious if you are able to detach yourself enough from what is happening to Benjamin. Did the humor end up working for you on this watch?

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Jon: I agree with you so much about the quick flashes of nudity being more mortifying. I feel like tons of sex scenes would have lessened the film a little bit. No doubt it’d still be a classic though but what we were given was the perfect amount.

Spot on, I’m sure we could have a whole discussion solely on the shots of the this film. There are a few that I took into particular liking this time around. The reflection shot off the table of Mrs Robinson arriving to the hotel was great and the camera tilted upwards as she sat down. On a more technical level, I always love the beginning when Ben is coming down the staircase with his parents and they are so tight in the frame, and then all these different people start coming into this already tight from essentially barging into Ben’s personal space physically and metaphorically. Lastly my friend pointed out to me being I live in California, when he’s driving on the Bay Bridge to Berkeley from presumably Los Angeles? The road only has a few cars on it during the afternoon, which in 2016 is something you’ll never see. While writing that I just discovered a little goof. When his car comes out of the tunnel onto the bridge, that’s going into San Francisco…meaning he drove right past Berkeley. I suppose back in the late 60s not everybody knew the proper locations of places, just how they cleverly used UCLA’s campus in place of UC Berkeley haha

That is incredibly interesting, I think I might have to pick up that book because I want to hear more about how he adapted to everything because the camerawork or well filmmaking in general was and still is always changing drastically but more so between the 20s to 60s.

Yeah the humor works for me that way too. Each time I watch it, I find myself laughing more than the previous watch. On these two most recent watch I showed my friends the film for the first time & I watched it in a theater full of students. They were laughing out loud for a majority of the film but as you pointed out all the awkwardness of Ben was the real selling point for humor. Every time he did the little whimpers myself and everybody else were in tears.

Something I found interesting in terms of the soundtrack is that people seeing it for the first time associate the whole “hello darkness my old friend” with Ben Affleck and the whole Batman v Superman video, which had the class laughing out loud even more so that was interesting to see the film breathing even more of a new life over time. Overall I know the soundtrack has songs that repeat often, I believe Simon & Garfunkel what do you make of the soundtrack and its relation with the overall thematic elements?

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Hunter: I read somewhere (either that book or imdb) that he is driving the wrong way on the Golden Gate and it’s the most famous goof in the film, though only having been to San Francisco once when I was a kid I would have never noticed.

I have always loved the soundtrack to this film, mostly because it matches up with my taste in music anyway but I also think it places the film in its time perfectly and makes it just that much more iconic. It matches up so well because it doesn’t match a normal film soundtrack; the songs aren’t used diegetically so it creates a sense of detachment that at once clues you into Benjamin’s state of mind without seeming manipulative like an old Hollywood orchestral score might have. Of course “Mrs. Robinson” became an iconic song outside of the film, since the lyrics weren’t even finished by the time the film was so it sounds very empty in comparison to the finished version that we all know. That adds to its effect, as the whole film is about Benjamin’s lack of purpose.

Like listing off my favorite shots, I could go on and on about this film but it’s time to wrap it up. AFI placed it at #17 on the list, between Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Buster Keaton’s The General. I definitely think it deserves its place on the list, and number seventeen seems a pretty decent place to be.

Jon: I had no idea it was so high on the list. Though I want to say maybe it shouldn’t be in a top 20 list, more so a top 40; it definitely earns its place on this list. There are an abundance of great shots & funny moments, but also it resonated well with the youth of that time, and still continues to capture the interest of future generations to date.

Well there you have it folks, we both liked The Graduate. There is still a lot about this film to be discussed, so feel free to check out the extra reading and we would definitely recommend watching it. If you have seen it, please comment below and let us know what you think about the movie or anything we discussed. Stay tuned for another AFI Top 100 Discussion, which will happen at some point… on some other AFI film we haven’t discussed yet! Thanks for reading everyone!

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“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert Review 
The New York Times review
Criterion essay

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