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The Graduate turns 54: How Dustin Hoffman’s drama subverts lofty ideals of youth and romance

As The Graduate turns a year older, here’s a deep dive into what made Dustin Hoffman’s film a seminal mouthpiece of its times.

  • Shreya Paul

  • OTTplay

Last Updated: 11.02 AM, Dec 22, 2021

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Adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from a Charles Webb novel, The Graduate tells a story of youth that is confronted with a sense of ennui when on the cusp of adulthood.

Benjamin Braddock (Ben, played by an inimitable Dustin Hoffman) is shown as the protagonist who continuously exists in a state of stasis, even though he is an embodiment of young potential energy. He belongs to an erudite, ‘well-bred’ class and is shown as adequately polite and comfortable with the baggage of expectations from his enterprising parents.

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Mike Nichols’ camera captures Hoffman’s physical discomfort and awkward movements in a perfect way so as to push the story into comedic spaces. Ben’s stoic expressions and blank stares are the perfect canvas for a straight-face humour marathon. Nichols’ sense of bringing out the most unpredictable oddities in human nature is the perfect tool required for The Graduate to shine in moments. 

In a particularly hilarious and bizarre scene, a considerably enthused wellwisher, Mr McGuire, pulls Ben away from a pretentious and congested party to advise him on future planning and life. He simply looks at Ben with conviction before blurting, “Plastics.” Nothing more, nothing less. Ben nods profusely, evidently confused and clueless about the seemingly precious pearls of wisdom.

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The Graduate was precisely about such matter-of-fact bonds that get forged between the most unexpected people. It’s clear that Nichols’ outlook towards the high-flying society creepers with ostentatious ways of living found a conduit in Ben’s parents. Ben’s complete rejection of their vacuous lives is proof of that. 

Hence, his ‘transgression’ (so to speak) with Mrs Robinson is even more blasphemous. Yet, the filmmaker chose to depict Ben’s sexual liaisons with Mrs Robinson as mere gawky dealings, immediately reducing his rebellion to a desperate need to do something different.

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Unlike most reading of the film, Mrs Robinson’s character (played by Anne Bancroft) possibly stands out as the sole one with an authoritative agency over her own self. Her methods to scheme, plot and cause havoc do not meet with any form of redemption, almost as if she were unabashed about it. Unapologetic of her sexual desires and need to express them, Mrs Robinson is simply a speaker of truth. 

She reminds her family and friends that her daughter is in fact a result of her continual sacrifices to an ever-egotistical husband. Nichols’ bold move to depict her as the sexy cougar in animal print clothing is a vision of confidence. She effortlessly manipulates Ben’s tactlessness and need to stand out with her counter need to receive sexual validation.

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In fact, Mrs Robinson was possibly more relatable, considering she was wholly human, with a fair share of her insecurities and flaws, a frustrated soul who was a result of thwarted dreams.

Her refusal to stand back and watch her useless husband rule the narrative is worthy of note. She is not comfortable just being the trophy wife and leading life on her insensitive husband’s terms and hence, charts a commentary on the idea of wifehood. She breaks out of the American mould of the ideal housewife and instead chooses to be a whole person.

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But The Graduate’s highest marker as a good film is in the way the makers chose to treat the young love that developed between Ben and the petite Elaine (Katharine Ross). Almost merciless in his depiction of the romance, Nichols subverts the fairy tale ending into an anticlimactic finale.

The film hence transcends its status as just cinema and becomes more of a commentary of its times, filled with hollow promises for young generations whose spark is bound to dampen under petty social rules and bureaucratic principles.

Watch the film here


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