Sunday, 21 August 2011
I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, aged thirty in a comical case of Dawson Casting), has recently graduated from university and returned home to his affluent parents and their dreary friends, who are inexplicably enamoured with him (and want to recruit him for tedious careers). Plagued by ennui he begins an affair with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner. Things take a dramatic turn, however, when Benjamin is forced by his parents to date the Robinsons' daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), and ends up falling for her, much to Mrs Robinson's chagrin.
Let's get this out of the way first: no, The Graduate is not a universal tale of young people's disaffection. Benjamin, unlike most twentysomethings, is filthy rich and, even near the end of the post-war era of prosperity, spoilt for choice among high-flying careers. (As Roger Ebert remarked, 'I wonder how long it took him to get into plastics'.) It's a story of the horror of a life of luxury mapped out for you from birth: a dystopia, I suspect, that many would gladly trade for their less glamorous lives.
So yes, it's a self-indulgent story of privilege. What's more, it is curiously free of any of the struggles of the 1960s: no race conflict, no Vietnam War, no drugs, no real rebellion, in fact, at all: just a curious sense of being adrift. Perhaps the sanitised world the Braddocks inhabit was shielded from these tremors; perhaps that's not what Mike Nichols was interested in.
Ah yes, director Mike Nichols! For I referred to the fact that The Graduate is a funny comedy, and the inspired direction has a lot to do with that. The most famous image from the film is, of course, that of Mrs Robinson putting on her stockings while seducing Benjamin, embodying their lazy objectification of each other; another well-known sequence, Benjamin driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, was later to be lovingly ripped off by Cruel Intentions. The editing absolutely needs to be mentioned: my favourite moment is a cut from the protagonist lunging forwards in the swimming pool to a scene I dare not spoil.
All this with a whip-smart comedy script, full of hilarious lines ('Are you here for an affair?' can hardly be bettered, and the subsequent scene of Benjamin being accidentally introduced to various strangers is priceless), although the later turn into drama is not handled as well as it might have been. While The Graduate is clearly a product of its age, it remains mercifully free of the mustiness that can afflict some pre-1970 films.
That leaves us with the performances. To be frank, neither Hoffman nor Ross are exactly brilliant; both struggle with underwritten characters, and Hoffman shows few signs of the actor we know & love. But Bancroft shines as Mrs Robinson, dominating every scene she's in, although the script serves her ill during the third act. Not a timeless masterpiece, perhaps, but an excellent comedy well worth treasuring in our depraved age.