A classic that deserves its iconic status, The Graduate is the cinematic equivalent of the Simon and Garfunkel songs that make up the soundtrack — gently subversive, wistful, not explicitly political but still very much part of the countercultural ’60s. The film is saved from being a one-sided attack on suburbia (so influential on subsequent treatments like American Beauty) by its humor and the humanity of its characters.
Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson is unpleasant and manipulative, but vulnerable — a perfect portrayal. Her seduction of the young graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), threatens to mire him in his parents’ plastic suburban life, until he escapes with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). Ross gives the otherwise poised Elaine some of Bancroft’s mannerisms, but Elaine is stronger and more honest (and on the other side of the huge generation gap) so hopefully she can have a happier life.
Mike Nichols won the film’s only Oscar for Best Director though honestly, if The Graduate has a flaw, it’s that Nichols added too many draggy Claude Lelouch-like sequences of Hoffman driving the coast in his Alfa Romeo. (The Simon and Garfunkel songs, played over and over, take the place of the vacuous Man and a Woman theme.) One more Buck Henry-written comic routine like the first hotel tryst — with Hoffman’s hilarious (and widely imitated) deadpan delivery — would have been a much better use of screen time.
But when he wasn’t trying to be French, Nichols’ direction is brilliant, inventing famous shots (like the immortal frame of Hoffman seen beneath Bancroft’s bent knee) and letting the cast break new ground. And the screenplay has some of the sharpest dialogue in film history — especially the pathetic bedroom conversation between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in which he demands, ‘We’re going to do this thing — we’re going to have a conversation.’ During their brief, unsuccessful attempt to find a common interest besides sex, Bancroft conveys her character’s emptiness.
Hoffman’s Benjamin is the wrong kind of Romantic hero — an unemployed, bored rich kid with only vague life plans — but he gets Elaine anyway, after dragging her away from the nastiness of the Robinsons and her frat boy fiancé. This sets up the classic ending — the wordless close-ups of Hoffman and Ross on the bus as the credits roll (supposedly improvised, as the actors were given no direction but told not to break character). We watch the characters as they seem to gain maturity at the moment that life in the real world starts for them… and for the ’60s generation — which would soon face the same question of what happens when romance and rebellion segue into real life.
A new 40th anniversary edition DVD offers two audio commentaries, featurettes about the film and its making, plus a CD soundtrack of four Simon and Garfunkel songs from the film.