Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where The Graduate (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”
What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Nichols stays on top of his material. He never pauses to make sure we’re getting the point. He never explains for the slow-witted. He never apologizes. His only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes. Otherwise, The Graduate is a success and Benjamin’s acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times
“The Graduate, released in 1967, contains no flower children, no hippies, no dope, no rock music, no political manifestos and no danger. It is a movie about a tiresome bore and his well-meaning parents. The only character in the movie who is alive–who can see through situations, understand motives, and dare to seek her own happiness–is Mrs. Robinson. Seen today, The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter. […] When the movie was first released, I wrote of the ‘instantly forgettable’ songs by Simon and Garfunkel. History has proven me wrong. They are not forgettable. But what are they telling us? The liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack (‘The Sound of Music’ plays on Muzak at one crucial point). The S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe. They even accommodate the action, halting their lyrics and providing guitar chords to underline key moments. This is Benjamin’s music; Mrs. Robinson, alone with her vodka, would twist the radio dial looking for the Beatles or Chuck Berry.” – from his 1997 review at the time of the film’s 30th Anniversary
The reputation of the New Hollywood staple The Graduate has changed drastically over the years as our culture has evolved slightly in its gender politics, while the film has obviously remained static as its own. I assumed when reading Ebert’s inclusion of the title among the most exciting films of his early career as a critic that this might be the first lesson in this series where we’d have drastically different takes on a film’s merits (as opposed to my minor quibbles with his emphatic takes on stuff like Apocalypse Now and Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Indeed, Ebert’s 1967 review of The Graduate is the exact glowing, enthusiastic celebration of the film’s minor rebellions I expected. It’s a reading that experiences the film’s central conflict through the eyes of its protagonist, Benjamin (a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman). On my most recent rewatch of The Graduate I didn’t sympathize with Benjamin at all, but rather with his infamous seductress Mrs. Robinson (the smokily poised Anne Bancroft), a character the film often tosses aside & vilifies despite her having the moral high ground. Ebert, in his admirable life-long pursuit of humility & empathy, had of course reached this conclusion decades before I did, when he revisited this landmark work for its restoration in 1997. In his second review he kicks himself for not recognizing how much of a heartless ass Benjamin had been to the tragic Mrs. Robinson. It’s a revelation that might only come with age & maturity, both for the individual viewer and for the audience as a culture.
The Graduate opens by heavily leaning into Benjamin’s personal crisis of early 20s ennui. Freshly finished with his college degree & unsure of how best to utilize his overabundance of idle time, Benjamin is turned off by every opportunity offered by his parents & their colleagues. When viewed as a young audience, this refusal to play along can feel like an existential dedication to anti-establishment principles, a sort of small scale protest through deliberate inaction. As an adult, watching Benjamin float around a pool & pound cheap beer looks like a lazy, bratty waste of unearned privilege. In the midst of this directionless drift, Benjamin is seduced unapologetically by the much older wife of his dad’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Bored, ignored, and underappreciated, Mrs. Robinson is similarly idle in her untapped potential, but it’s a life imposed on her rather than a deliberate choice. She sleeps with Benjamin, whom she watched grow up, over a summer-long affair in an attempt to shake the cobwebs, enacting agency in her own search for pleasure in a way she’s often not allowed. The film’s central conflict, besides Ben’s annoyed desire to be treated like an adult instead of a sex toy, arrises when his parents & her husband pressure the directionless bum to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter (the beautiful, big-eyed Katherine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson forbids him to sleep with her daughter, Ben is offended that she doesn’t think he’s good enough for her progeny, only serviceable as an older woman’s plaything. His brattiness spirals out from there, causing the two former lovers to inflict vicious harm upon one another as often as they can, ending with Ben stealing his mistress’s daughter away from the altar at a marriage much less . . . complicated in its central dynamics.
If there’s any room for me to disagree with Ebert’s ultimate assessment of The Graduate, which has widely become the critical consensus, it’s in the intent of that final scene, the disrupted wedding. In his 1997 reassessment, Ebert was confused that he had ever celebrated the film’s conclusion, writing “As Benjamin and Elaine escaped in that bus at the end of The Graduate, I cheered, the first time I saw the movie. What was I thinking of? What did the scene celebrate? ‘Doing your own thing,’ I suppose.” My only question about that confusion is whether or not director Mike Nichols ever intended for that scene to be played as celebratory in the first place. As soon as the excitement of escaping the wedding settles & the new fugitive couple settle in the back of the bus to the oft-repeated soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” The Graduate loops back to the young brat ennui that opens its narrative. The characters are stone-faced, visibly scared about what they’re going to do with themselves. This is exactly why Mrs. Robinson has a point about Ben’s unworthiness to court her daughter (despite the obvious gross-out factor of having slept with her first). It’s possible to argue that, as the adult, she was wrong for pressuring a young man into sleeping with her despite his initial unease. However, she does say to Ben, “If you won’t sleep with me this time, you could call me whenever you want.” Mrs. Robinson vulnerably offers her body to Benjamin for a shared pleasure, a proposition he eventually accepts of his own free will. After a prolonged affair, she learns how directionless & selfishly cruel the overgrown child truly is, which means she’s a pretty great judge of whether or not he’s prepared to be a good suitor for her only child (not that their own shared sex life isn’t enough to shut that down outright). The worst thing Mrs. Robinson does to prevent that doomed coupling is claiming that Benjamin had raped her, which is a lie fittingly portrayed like a cruel betrayal. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s any more cruel than Ben describing the affair with Mrs. Robinson to her face as “the sickest, most perverse thing that’s ever happened” to him. I’m also not convinced that the movie wasn’t aware of that cruelty on both sides, despite it taking most audiences a few decades to catch up to the full implications of its thematic minefield.
The Graduate is far from the masterpiece of auteurist anti-establishment storytelling it was initially misunderstood to be, but it’s still a well-made, memorable film. Its Simon & Garfunkel-soundtracked ennui commands an intentionally minor look & tone that suggests maybe a life played by the rules isn’t the most ideal path for personal fulfillment. When you’re young it’s tempting to seek that lesson in Benjamin’s directionless, impulsive narrative, but if you can learn to empathize with Mrs. Robinson’s tragically unfulfilled character instead, the film is a whole lot more satisfying. I like to think that aspect of The Graduate was its initial intent, but it’s easy to see why Ebert & so many others would disagree, especially since as a collective audience misread the film’s central romantic dynamic so boneheadedly wrong for such a long time.
Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)
Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)
Next Lesson: Hellfighters (1968)