"The Graduate"

You may have been a randy, spiteful old drunk, but at least you didn't wind up like your lover-boy -- as the '60s generation's most embarrassingly Oedipal symbol.

Published March 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

to anyone seeing it for the first time, "The Graduate" must seem as dated as "Stagecoach." A boy, a Mrs. Robinson, something about plastics. Dustin Hoffman's unlined face. The cloyingly sweet Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. What did these musty hieroglyphics once signify?

For viewers who remember it as part of their upbringing, "The Graduate" presents an entirely different problem. Now that it's hit its 30th birthday, the film throws our '60s shortsightedness in our face. How sheepish one feels, realizing the movie is no work of genius. In fact, what was once an all-important signpost to adulthood is really little more than a simple romantic comedy whose "countercultural" message, insofar as it has one, is decidedly retrograde.

Or perhaps "The Graduate" is really a tragedy, considering that what we thought we were watching was something altogether different than what's actually on the film. (Women, in particular, may be disappointed to rediscover that Ben's coming of age requires them to participate from the wrong side of the bed sheet.)

Never mind that "The Sound of Silence" may be the most laughable musical backdrop for a seduction ever recorded. Or that Anne Bancroft, cast as a middle-aged parent, is a mere six years older than Dustin Hoffman, who's supposed to be 20. Or that from the vantage point of '90s adulthood, Ben's "alienation" seems downright dreamy.

What's alarming is that the film, which so perfectly captured its era, seems to have turned on us. No longer a blueprint for liberation, it's practically an anthem to conformity.

That's remarkable, considering that if you were picking through today's cultural altar, you'd have to take the entire "Brady Bunch" oeuvre, and throw in Kurt Cobain, to come close to conjuring up the equivalent of "The Graduate" as a zeitgeist land mine. Released in 1967, "The Graduate" made the third highest box-office profit of any American film up to that time. The film unleashed Dustin Hoffman upon the world (it was actually his third movie) and got Mike Nichols an Oscar for directing (the best-movie Oscar went to "In the Heat of the Night"). All things considered, it's had a pretty amazing shelf life -- a good 15 years or so of near-deserved cultdom before its mustiness began to show.

Passively misogynistic and emotionally muddled, the story is about a young man who has an affair with an older woman and then, growing tired of her, becomes determined to marry her virginal daughter. Only she, it seems, can rescue him from the sordid experience of having slept with her mother.

Well, that's a pretty odd fable to seed a fresh, radicalized youth movement with, to feed a generation needing to replace its parents' status-conscious, material-based dogma for living. Indeed, the film's view of marriage, sexuality and the suburbs is closer to stodgy old John Updike than Erica Jong. What gave "The Graduate" its long-standing appeal was that it proffered a chance for Ben and his real-life contemporaries to literally fuck the parent images in his life, destroy them and -- having seemingly earned the moral upper hand -- step into their shoes. Alas, to our naive '60s eyes, this seemed revolutionary.

Today "The Graduate's" most remembered phrase has lost its irony. (We're all in plastics now, aren't we?) Ben's parents, rather than hypocrites and conformists, just seem like people who came a few minutes too late to the New Frontier. As for you, Mrs. Robinson, it's clear that Bancroft outclassed not only her own hateful role but pretty much the whole film.

Even now the movie is not without its charms. For my money, the scene in which Ben appears at his parents' barbecue, decked out from head to foot in scuba gear like a mute space explorer, is one of the best evocations of alienation -- youthful or otherwise -- ever captured on film.

Of course, Ben is an explorer from another planet -- the planet of teenagers -- let loose among the strange culture of adults. It's because of this that he struck a chord with viewers for so long. Nichols places him underwater a lot, as though he really were a creature who literally can't breathe the earth's atmosphere.

Indeed, the power of Ben's career claustrophobia, the horror he feels as people keep asking what his plans are, may last another 30 years. "Do you know what you're going to do?" they say, as though he has to choose one thing -- folding a piece of paper, bouncing a ball -- and then do that one thing over and over for the rest of his life.

In "The Graduate" we remember, Ben rebels against that model of the world, racing to steal Elaine away from the altar, beating off her family and her would-be future (and his) with a crucifix he pulls off the wall of the church. One of the first '60s movie characters to say "Fuck You" to the Establishment, Ben lives in our memory as a rebel who hijacked his own awful fate.

On actual celluloid, it's a different story.

You don't need Nichols' one moment of supreme, painful insight, that awful, final glimpse of the couple "escaping" at the back of the bus, barely able to look each other in the eye, to see that nothing Ben does is particularly heroic. Rather than striking a blow for self-determination, he ends up with the exact girl his parents have picked out for him.

He barely knows her, but he pursues her because she's everything her mother isn't: respectable, safe, ready to forgive him for having no vision at all.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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