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"The Graduate" Makes Out

Through its appeal to young viewers, a film that violates all
hit rules has become one of the most successful ever made.

Hollis Alpert

Theater crowd
rom a window of my apartment I have a view of a movie house on Manhattan's East Side, where, ever since last December, The Graduate has attracted long lines of patrons. During some of the coldest winter weekends, the lines extended around the corner all the way down the block, much like those at the Radio City Music during holiday periods -- except that the people waiting for the next showing were not family groups but mostly young people in their teens and early twenties. One night when it was eight degrees outside I passed the line and noticed how little they seemed to be bothered by the weather; they stomped their feet, they made cheerful chatter; it was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them. There were other cinemas nearby, but no one waited outside in the cold. The Graduate was the film to see.

It still is, although now, with the warm weather, I notice that older people have begun to intermix with the young crowd. Either The Graduate has begun to reach deep into that amorphous audience that makes the large hits, or the elders have become curious about the movie their offspring have been going to see again and again. For that is what has been happening. The Graduate is not merely a success; it has become a phenomenon of multiple attendance by young people.

Letters from youthful admirers of the movie have been pouring in on Dustin Hoffman, the talented thirty-year-old actor who plays the unprepossessing twenty-one-year-old Benjamin Braddock. A strong theme of identification with Benjamin's particular parental and societal hang-ups runs through these letters, as it also does in the letters to Mike Nichols, the director with an uncanny knack for forging hits. They've even been writing to Joseph E. Levine, who backed and has been presenting the film. One boy from Dallas wrote Levine, bragging that he had seen The Graduate more than any of his friends, no less than fifteen times.

I have seen The Graduate three times -- once at a preview, twice with audiences -- thus satisfying, I hope, the Columbia graduate student who questioned my qualifications to assess the film after only one viewing. "But you must see it at least three times," she told me at a brunch given by her literature professor. "You see, it has meanings and nuances you don't get on just one viewing." She and many others in her age group cultishly attach all sorts of significance to the most minor of details. In the film's opening moments, for example, Benjamin is seen in the cabin of a huge jet blank-faced among rows of blank faces. "Ladies and gentlemen," the captain's voice announces, "we are about to begin our descent into Los Angeles." My graduate student interpreted this as symbolic of Benjamin's arrival in his purgatory. Close to the end of the film, Benjamin is seen in an antiseptic church, outlined against a glass partition, his arms spread out. Many have interpreted this as suggesting a crucifixion theme, an interpretation, I have it on good authority, that was far from the minds of Mr. Nichols and Mr. Hoffman.

iewers have made much of the symbolic use of glass and water in the film, signifying Benjamin's inability to get through, to communicate with the generation that has produced him. He peers through the glass of a tank at captive fish. At poolside, and in the pool, he looks out at his parents and their friends through the glass mask of a diving suit. At other times it is through sunglasses that he sees a home environment grown somewhat strange. Surely, Benjamin is alienated, but what is so odd here is that the generation-gappers who love the film regard this sense of estrangement as natural and normal, given the times and the middle-class values espoused by Benjamin's family and friends.

Hollywood has made strenuous attempts to appeal to the young film audience in the past, from Andy Hardy to Elvis Presley. There have been bikini beach parties, rock'n'roll orgies, Annette Funicello, and Peter Fonda on LSD, but the coin taken in from these usually cheap and sleazy quickies has been but a pittance compared to the returns from The Graduate. I need cite only the fact that The Graduate has already taken in more than $35,000,000 at the box office after playing in only 350 of this country's theaters. Marlon Brando, the revered James Dean, and Presley never came near doing that. But this film, without the so-called stars for security, has now done better, financially speaking, than all but a dozen films of the past, and it still has thousands of drive-ins to play throughout the summer; it has yet to open anywhere abroad; and there are still those lines in front of the theater I see through my window. It is quite possible that The Graduate will become one of the three or four most profitable pictures ever made, perhaps as profitable as The Sound of Music, which has done so sensationally well that some critics renamed it The Sound of Money.

But how can these two industry landmarks by equated? The Graduate would appear to be squarely attacking all that The Sound of Music affirms so prettily: sugary sentiment, the sanctity of vows, whether religious or marital, the righteous rearing of children, melody over the mountains. The one has the well-scrubbed Julie Andrews and a dozen or so cute kids, all of them singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein lush gush as though it were the equal of Handel's Messiah. The other has the appealing but unhandsome Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft playing a dissatisfied, alcoholic bitch of a wife, and a musical score by Paul Simon (performed by Simon and Garfunkel) that, contrasted with The Sound of Music's sentimental reverence, chants: "And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made..." Yet, a somewhat similar pattern of attendance has been noted about both films. The young audiences go to see The Graduate again and again. Housewives, matrons, women's clubbers went to see The Sound of Music again and again. We must hypothesize, then, that in this period of selective film-going there are at least two huge American audiences, there for the right picture, one made up of the seventeens to the twenty-fives, the other over thirty-five. The Motion Picture Association now advertises its more adult fare as "suggested for mature audiences," but one wonders which is the more mature.

Dustin HoffmanI have encountered some members of my generation -- let us loosely call it the over-forties -- who haven't liked The Graduate. More than that, it made them angry. It was almost as though they felt themselves personally attacked, and it has occurred to me that their reaction is less objective and critical than emotional and, possibly, subliminal. These friends do worry about their children, they have brought them up well, given them opportunities of education and esthetic development, and they are quite certain they have managed to establish communication with their young. Their wives don't drink or seduce the neighbor's son. What's all this business about honesty and truth in The Graduate? The cards have been stacked against the middle-class parent and in favor of the rebellious "now" generation. They darkly hint at the commercial motives of Levine, Nichols, and company, who, it's true, hoped to come through at the box office, but had not the faintest notion they would come through so handsomely.

But The Graduate was not meant as an attack on a generation; it merely tells a story, as effectively as the makers knew how to do it. To understand the story it is necessary, however, to understand that Benjamin Braddock belongs to a milieu that has been termed the affluent society. He has never known financial insecurity -- he has grown up among gadgets, among cars and swimming pools -- and this he has taken so much for granted that it literally has no meaning for him. His parents, on the other hand, had presumably known hard times; they knew the value, for them, of money, of material success, of things. When Benjamin comes of age, literally and symbolically, he finds himself vaguely rejecting all that his parents hold so dear. He finds himself a kind of object, the proud result of proper rearing, a reward of his parents' struggle in his behalf. Somehow, he feels, this is wrong, but he doesn't yet know what is right. What guides and counselors does he have? "Ben, I want to say one word to you, just one word," a friend of the family breathes in his ear at a welcome-home party. Benjamin awaits the word, among clinking glasses holding machine-made ice and good bourbon and scotch. "Plastics," the fellow says, imparting the great secret to success in our time. "There is a great future in plastics." The young audiences how, at least they did when I was there, and they're on the side of Benjamin and the movie, which pokes fun at the plastic society and those who believe in it.

It is also interesting that while Benjamin tunes out for a while, he doesn't turn on. He neither joins nor identifies with the hippies, the yippies, or the weirdies; he is still thoroughly middle class, affluent variety. As he lazes purposelessly in the California sun his thoughts turn heavily to those of sex with Mrs. Robinson, whose frustrating marriage has borne her only one good result, her lovely daughter, Elaine. Elaine will soon have the benefits of her young womanhood, while the mother will sink into her bitter middle age. Unconscious envy on Mrs. Robinson's part turns into willful discrimination, and she reveals herself in her nudity to Benjamin's unwilling gaze. He first runs from her as from the very devil; after all, there are the properties, not to mention the taboos.

But then, he backs into the affair with Mrs. Robinson, who uses him for the sex she doesn't get from Mr. Robinson. In only one moment does she allow Benjamin to reach her; their intimacy is, literally, skin deep. When Benjamin stupidly assumes that affection is necessary in a furtive affair, the surprised Mrs. Robinson expels cigarette smoke into his mouth. She, too, is aware of and insistent on the taboos; Benjamin is never, ever to take Elaine out, for she assumes that by her actions she has cheapened both Benjamin and herself.

nd, of course, he does, forced into it by his unaware parents. Some critics have felt that the film breaks in two around this point, that the first half is a "seriocomedy" and the second a kind of campus romance with a chase finale. But this criticism seems to overlook the unifying fact of its all being viewed and experienced through Benjamin, who is in a process of muddle, change, and development. He is a truth-seeker, trying to cut through to some acceptable level of meaning. He even tells the truth to the outraged Mr. Robinson about the affair with Mrs. Robinson: "We got into bed with each other. But it was nothing. It was nothing at all. We might -- we might have just as well been holding hands."

One of the great appeals of the film to the young, and to the young in heart of all ages, is Benjamin's honesty. The most important thing in common between Elaine and Benjamin is that they share the urge to see honestly and clearly. But Elaine's emotions are still unstable. She allows herself to be rushed into marriage with the first credible suitor, appropriately enough a medical student, a candidate for surgeondom.

Anne BancroftIt is the ending of the film that has annoyed some, and delighted many others. If it were not for the ending, I doubt that The Graduate would have aroused as much enthusiastic favor as it has among the somewhat inchoately rebellious young. The distraught Benjamin, madly seeking his lost Elaine -- the pure, the good, the holy -- manages to reach the church, but not (as is invariably the case in a Doris Day movie) in time, upon which his hoarse, despairing appeal causes Elaine to leave her newly wedded groom, the assemble relatives, and to take a bus to nowhere in particular with Benjamin. To hold off the outraged parents, the attendants, and the minister, Benjamin grabs a large, golden cross and swings it menacingly, then uses it as a makeshift padlock on the church doors.

Curiously enough, the writer of the novel on which the film is based, Charles Webb, was disturbed by the changed ending. Webb, who was not much more than Benjamin's age at the time of writing, wrote a letter to The New Republic, complaining about critic Stanley Kauffmann's laudatory interpretation of the film, and particularly by what Kauffmann had approvingly termed the "film's moral stance." "As a moral person," Webb wrote, "he [Benjamin] does not disrespect the institution of marriage. In the book the strength of the climax is that his moral attitudes make it necessary for him to reach the girl before she becomes the wife of somebody else, which he does. In the film version it makes no difference whether he gets there in time or not. As such, there is little difference between his relationship to Mrs. Robinson and his relationship to Elaine, both of them being essentially immoral."

However, it does make a great deal of difference that in the film he does not get there in time, and the audiences have taken delight in just that fact. This film-bred, film-loving generation has seen television offer its own version of reality, in which it felt it necessary to approve only the sexual love that occurs during marriage, and that, up until only a decade ago, took place in twin beds with at least one foot of the man on the floor.

ot only does Mr. Webb, in the letter, equate morality with marriage licenses, but he overlooks the fact even in his novel. Elaine would almost have taken out a marriage license by the time Benjamin reached her. And it is a thing called consummation. Nichols' ending (relatively little other tampering was done otherwise) is a stroke that is not only effective but gives the story more meaning. We now see clearly Mrs. Robinson's tragedy, that she was unable to break out of the life of formality, the prosperous smothering surface of her own marriage. "It's too late," she screams at her daughter who is about to head for Benjamin. To which Elaine, seeing it all clearly for the first time, screams triumphantly, "Not for me."

But if that old Production Code had been forsaken, if Doris Day has almost been soundly spanked for her virginal sins, hasn't morality triumphed after all? Of course it has. Mike Nichols, perhaps without fully realizing it, has lined up old Hollywood with avant-garde Hollywood. He has contrived a truly real ending, and a most positive one at that. Honesty wins the day. Sex without love has been put in its place. Ancient taboos have been struck down. Material values have been shown to be hollow. As uninhibited and refreshing as The Graduate is, we are still left in a fantasy land. "Most of us," a friend of mine ruefully commented, "still miss the bus."

On the other hand, perhaps the reason this newly mature generation has taken so to The Graduate is that it thinks, it assumes, imagines it can make the bus. Mike Nichols told of meeting, recently, one of the leaders of the Columbia University rebellion. The student had loved The Graduate, as had his associate in the rebellion. "In a way," he told Nichols, "it was what the strike was all about. Those kids had the nerve, they felt a necessity, to break the rules."

The Graduate represents a breakthrough of sorts in the Hollywood scheme of things, aside from its fine acting, its technical accomplishment, and vastly entertaining qualities. For it has taken aim, satirically, at the very establishment that produces most of our moralities, mocked the morals and values it has long lived by. It is a final irony that it has thereby gained the large young audience it has been seeking and has been rewarded by a shower of gold.

-Saturday Review, July 6, 1968.