The Graduate‘s reputation is pretty impressive. The film – starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross – is seen as one of the defining movies of its generation. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock represents the kind of disaffected alienation. Benjamin is a recent college graduate and is facing an insecure future, and isn’t sure what to do with his life. His family’s social circle is populated by folks who prize external shows of affluence and social mobility. Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson, a beautiful but destructive older woman whose aborted dreams and stultifying life has left her desolate and world-weary.
Benjamin is the cinematic incarnation of Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye. He doesn’t see the world in the same way as those around him – instead of a world of opportunities and choices, he sees banality and triviality. He’s often seen in the film, drifting about, lazily in his family’s pool, his glazed eyes hidden behind sunglasses. His indulgent parents chase after him to use their connections to ensure his professional and social future – something that Benjamin doesn’t seem to care much about.
At his party he runs across Mrs. Robinson. She’s brittle and unhappy with her life. Before long, the two start an affair – for both, this injects much-needed life in their respective existences. Instead of being fulfilling, though, their trysts don’t offer the succor that they are seeking: Ben is looking for meaning and purpose, and Mrs. Robinson is seeking excitement and youth – and both are left disappointed because obviously, their relationship cannot provide anything other than physical satisfaction.
In The Graduate, Hoffman’s performance is star-making. He perfectly encapsulates the indifference and alienation of young people in the late 1960s. The values that were held dear to their parents no longer felt relevant. And as Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft is wonderful – sad, depressing and infuriating. It’s easy to see why Benjamin would be initially drawn to the flirty and worldly Mrs. Robinson. Unlike the other adults in his life, Mrs. Robinson doesn’t spout glib bits of advice, nor does she seem to value what her peers value in life. Their affair becomes strained when Benjamin is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s lovely daughter, Elaine (Ross). Ross is the only disappointment in the film – her lightweight presence and her cipher-like position in The Graduate causes a bit of a rip in the film’s unwavering and unflinching look at disaffection among the characters. While she’s lovely, she seems a bit two-dimensional when compared to the full-bodied performances of Hoffman and Bancroft.
The Graduate is far from perfect. Aspects of the film date pretty badly; also the heralded Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack is good, but sort of tacked onto the film. Also the ending and resolution includes an action sequence in the church that climaxes with Benjamin brandishing a large cross to fend off a marauding mob, intent on beating him up; but the filmmakers thankfully reign things in before they get too ridiculous and the film ends with the iconic bus ride where Elaine and Ben sit next to each other, initially collapsing in laughter, before they fad into pensive, thoughtful stares.