Having recently moved back home after graduating from University, the themes articulated in Mike Nichols’ 1967 sophomore feature The Graduate are beginning to seem horrendously pertinent. Not in a I’m-going-to-break-up-a-wedding-to-the-tune-of-Simon-and-Garfunkel type of way; more in the nuances of Dustin Hoffman’s performance, an incredibly visionary piece of acting that still resonates to this day, from one graduate to another, 52 years on.
The Graduate sees 20-year-old Ben Braddock (Hoffman) return home from three years at University to his suburban Los Angeles home, where his parents and their friends are keen to get answers from him about what he plans to do next. Understandably, and relatably, all he wants to do is retreat, and the oppressive LA sun and the quick-fire questions are all too much after the freedom and lightness of his East Coast studies. Vulnerable, angsty and confused, he’s coerced into having an affair with a married woman despite the fact his true affections lie with her daughter.
Obviously, the film is most famous for its perennial one-liner: “are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?” – and the subsequent regret-filled, lustful, shameful affair that occurs between Ben and his parent’s friend, the older, glamorous Mrs. Robinson. Despite this scene’s understandable fame, for me the true feeling of The Graduate is not one of passion, but a lack thereof. Although now the overly meme-ified lines “hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again” don’t ring with quite the same melancholic seriousness, Simon & Garfunkel’s sweetly sad and melodic score is the perfect accompaniment to the film, swinging between the natural pendulums one feels in an uncertain chapter – joy, sadness, loneliness, promise.
Whereas contemporary coming-of-age narratives use the trope of the swimming pool as something liberating and freeing, the scuba scene from The Graduate is the complete opposite. Ben’s father gifts him a scuba suit for this birthday, and when he puts this on and enters the pool, a heaviness of expectation presses down on him; a too-wide fish-eye lens expands his view when all he wants to do is focus; he’s submerged, cut off, and surrounded only by his own breathing; he’s trapped, by parental expectation and his own lack of affect. In line with the hangover from the early Swinging Sixties, Ben has too much choice about where his life should lead.
There’s a certain lethargic stillness, an energy that’s been concentrated down into dullness in Dustin Hoffman’s performance. As relatives constantly probe Ben on his future plans, it’s such a relatable experience: flinches of my own experience of I don’t knows, we’ll see’s and I’m tryings. In the film’s iconic ending, Ben begins to laugh and smile excitedly about an enormous, reckless decision he’s just made – but then, slowly, his facial expression becomes uncertain. Subtly, he falters, the bus speeds away, and the film cuts to black. Are we always questioning the decisions we make at this odd turning point in our freshly adult lives? What will the future hold? Will I be seduced by a Mrs Robinson-type figure in my hapless navigation between graduation and employment? Only time will tell.
Words by Steph Green