The Graduate

The Graduate ★★★★★

“Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.” “Oh, it’s not. It’s completely baked."

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is half-baked. He exists at that uneasy convergence of adulthood and adolescence, communicating inarticulately, careening between sullenness and exuberance. He is us at our most dangerously naïve, at that insufferable early-twenty-something phase when we believe we suffer no naïveté. Most of all, he does not want to become his parents—who does? But in his ignorance and spitefulness, he enmeshes himself in his parents’ world with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft).

Mrs. Robinson is completely baked, and then some. She is sardonic, intelligent, and world-weary. She is disappointed by the life she has made for herself, but not content to reside in her disappointment. She reaches for ephemeral distraction with Benjamin but wants more for her lovely but insipid daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross)—certainly more than the unmoored dope with whom she’s had a summer fling.

It is the great achievement of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate that its nominal villain, Mrs. Robinson, is the only character with whom one would want to hold a conversation. The audience’s alliances are always uneasy. We root for Benjamin to break free from the shackles of his ennui and for he and Elaine to be together—but not wholeheartedly, our enthusiasm tempered by their vacuity. We are wary of Mrs. Robinson and her latent (and then patent) anger—but while she may have “seduced” Benjamin, we know she didn’t take advantage of him.

Ushering in the second “Golden Age” of Hollywood together with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate was an enormous hit, speaking to a generation that saw a chasm between itself and its forebears. That it was insightful enough to recognize the real-life complexity its protagonists could not grasp maintains its relevance today.

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