Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Graduate - what was all the fuss about?

I had seen snippets of The Graduate and in fact thought I’d seen the entire movie. But just to make sure I turned on TCM Sunday during the network’s Summer Under the Stars tribute that day to Dustin Hoffman. Turns out I hadn’t seen the movie in its entirely – not by a long shot. And now that I have, I have to ask - and sit down and write - what was all the fuss about? For this was the iconic coming of age film about an alienated generation confronting their parents’ “establishment” values and materialistic society in which they had grown up. (The movie is based on the book by Charles Webb and its main character effuses the same desultory sullenness as J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, though at least Caulfield critiqued the world around him.) Perhaps its fame comes from being released exactly at the right time - the late 1960s and no more profound a year than 1967, symbolized by the “generation gap” and the Hippie and counterculture movements. In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role) is the estranged (and affluent) college graduate, returning home from the east. His parents are the proverbial squares, with they and their friends’ flashy cocktail parties, vapid talk and careerist expectations, epitomized when Benjamin is buttonholed by one of them and told: “One word – plastics.” Okay, we get it. But Benjamin, as a character, is as lame as they come. He’s quiet to a fault, dim-witted, sultry and a bit of an awkward jerk. Nevertheless, neighbor Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft – perfect for the role) seduces him, but to his great reluctance. Why? We just don’t know – Benjamin never talks! Then, just as strangely, he comes around and takes her up on her offer. It’s never explained why. For her part Mrs. Robinson is the ice queen extraordinaire. Eventually – surprise! - Benjamin opens-up and tries to break her down but is only partly successful. Later, out of the blue, an unknowing Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) suggests Benjamin date their daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross – also a perfect choice for the role when there was so much competition). Benjamin resists – again, why? Then he takes her out on a horrible date. Finally, our misfit confused boy comes around and even begins stalking Elaine. The denouement comes at Elaine’s wedding in Santa Barbara, when Benjamin seeks to rescue his would be paramour. Alas, we'll never - ever!, par for the course for this story - know the reason why. The movie is now considered one of America’s most significant films. But it was made in 1967 and who knows what people were smoking then.

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