Ever so seldom, a movie brings together “the whole equation,” in the phrase coined by film critic David Thomson. Sight, sound, story, and acting, along with innumerable other elements, come together to make not only a movie, but also a cultural watershed. The Graduate is one such film-it combines delightful comedy, avant garde cinematography, and thematic complexity to make it one of the most raucously fun of the “greatest films ever.”
If you have not seen The Graduate, you’ve no doubt heard the soundtrack from Simon and Garfunkel, with the classic song “Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson,” among others. It may be difficult to imagine the transgressive nature of Paul Simon’s folk songs now that they have become “classic” and thereby domesticated. Let it be said that The Graduate has surely one of the best movie soundtracks ever.
The same process of how something can go from revolutionary to institutionalized over time guides our viewing of the The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock has graduated college with honors and is turning 21 years old, but he is submerged under the pressures of his family’s suburban, upper-middle class expectations for his future. Anxious and self-conscious, he finds himself seduced by a middle-aged family friend, Mrs. Robinson. The flash-cut editing of this section of the film is still fresh and edgy, as is the taboo content of the story: grizzled alcoholic Mrs. Robinson has chosen a boytoy.
While his newfound sexual capacity gives him some sense of freedom, living at home and merely performing sex acts is not enough for Ben. In this coming-of-age story, he must also gain emotional maturity. The complication of an affair with a woman twice his age provides plenty of obstacles. When he finds himself smitten with Mrs. Robinson’s college-age daughter Elaine, he realizes that the pressure he feels is very real: the “square” community-Ben’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, the job world of “plastics”-has been projecting their dreams onto their children and stealing Ben and Elaine’s potential to make up for their own inadequacies. Ben’s search for freedom coincides with helping Elaine escape the selfsame social expectations.
Recall the counterculture spirit of the 1960s, and you’ll see why The Graduate created “the whole equation.” The latter section of the movie occurs right in the heart of the hippie movement-San Francisco-Berkeley, where his landlord fears Ben because he might be an “agitator.” The Robinsons fear that Ben could make public their truly hypocritical private life.
Even if cultural watersheds like The Graduate seem to become neutered by history, watching the film shows us that a wide-ranging artistic statement lives on. The Graduate is a great film whose raucous delight and social critique lives forever in the now. The insight of the film lives on-in the final shot, Ben and Elaine sit in a bus, ostensibly freed from the social constraints of the adult world. But they look on wearily; their successful moment of revolt has made them the adults now. With its complexity of ideas and creativity of style, The Graduate is the coming-of-age movie.