AFInity: The Graduate
By Kim Hollis
November 20, 2009

Come on. I told you I was Greek. It comes with the territory.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#17: The Graduate

Last week in this space, I wrote about Chinatown and its director Roman Polanski, a man whose notoriety for a long ago crime consistently overshadows the fact that he is a survivor of World War II Poland, where his mother perished in a concentration camp. The director of this week's subject, The Graduate, also fled from the Nazis, though it's unlikely he experienced the same horrors as Polanski as his family came to the United States earlier in Hitler's reign of terror. Even so, it's a bit of a fascinating study to see the disparate paths that Polanski and Mike Nichols took in their careers. While Polanski wrapped himself in the serious and weighty side of human frailty, Nichols has had a more genre-spanning filmography, from drama to black comedy, horror to a semi-musical.

I've only recently become aware of Nichols' directorial style, though I saw his first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, many, many years ago, and Carnal Knowledge not long after that. No, it was the director's 2004 release, Closer, that made me sit up and take notice of the man's work. Initially, I watched the first half hour of the film and turned it off, thinking it wasn't my kind of thing. But then I couldn't stop thinking about it, and watched the entire movie. I'd count it as one of the finest films of the decade. And Nichols' follow-up, Charlie Wilson's War, is an outstanding piece of cinema in its own right.

The common thread between all the films I mention above is their examination of flawed characters and their desire for some ideal something – a child, a lover, a better world. The Graduate has a similar "questing" character in Benjamin Braddock, and even if he's disaffected in the process, his story is as relatable and engaging as Nichols' other filmic personalities.

I'd never seen The Graduate before watching it for the AFInity project. Despite my awareness of Mrs. Robinson and the memorable closing scene, it was one of those movies I always intended to get around to, but just never quite found the motivation to watch. Once again, I've uncovered a new (to me) treasure.

The film is a dramedy that revolves around the aforementioned Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who has returned to the Pasadena, California home of his affluent parents. When they throw him a big party to celebrate his bachelor's degree, he's incredibly uncomfortable. People ask him what he wants to do next, but he's feeling aimless and uncertain. His discomfort only increases when his father's law partner, Mrs. Robinson, asks Benjamin to drive her home. He makes excuses as to why he can't, but eventually, they head to her house in his brand new convertible, a graduation gift.

I'm pretty confident that I'm not spoiling anything when I say that Mrs. Robinson, who has a daughter close to Benjamin's age, attempts to seduce him at her house. Although he resists during that first encounter, he later reconsiders and meets her for regular sexual encounters at a hotel. Later, under pressure from his parents, Benjamin takes Mrs. Robinson's daughter on a date, even though Mrs. Robinson has explicitly forbidden Benjamin to do so. He realizes he genuinely likes the young woman, named Elaine, and complications naturally ensue.

In 2009, such a movie would probably come through the indie studio system, which is to say that The Graduate is offbeat enough that its unconventional romance and cynical characters simply would seem more in keeping with an art-house audience than the masses who embrace explosions and formula. And it's easy to see the influence of the movie on such directors as Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, and Zach Braff (it forcefully reminded me of Garden State on occasion), though I'd argue that even Risky Business takes a page from The Graduate's book.

I love Dustin Hoffman in the Benjamin Braddock role, even if I was a bit aware from time to time that he was too old for the part (the wrinkles around his eyes reveal that he was closer to 30 than 20 during the filming of the movie). Certainly he was the correct choice over the likes of Robert Redford, or, God forbid, Burt Ward, who both were in the running at some point or another. For Benjamin to be relatable, the character needs to be awkward and unsure of himself. The viewer should see him as a guy who might have trouble expressing himself with a girl – or with society in general, really.

Anne Bancroft is also a revelation as Mrs. Robinson. The character's emotional weaknesses are revealed slowly, meaning that we don't see the full picture of the woman until much later in the film. There's a lot of subtle nuance in the performance, and even if Mrs. Robinson is unlikable, she does seem to be distinctly representative of a class and an era.

Nichols does a number of interesting things in the film, from subliminal shots of Mrs. Robinson's breasts to womb imagery that has Benjamin returning again and again to a swimming pool. There are also some unique camera shots that show Benjamin going "the wrong way", which reflects the lack of direction the young man has in life. Additionally, Nichols' use of musical tracks by Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack does cause the film to be a snapshot of its era, even as the story itself is timeless and enduring.

All of these elements combine for a neat little film that is funny and intelligent, challenging the viewer all the way to a final shot that is enigmatic and open-ended. Like George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge, Charlie in Charlie Wilson's War and all four of the characters in Closer, Benjamin is searching for a superlative. After experiencing a jaded and loveless relationship, he idealizes his lover's daughter and takes all measure of risk to be with her. I think we can all relate to such burning desire, whether it is for another human being or simply an all-encompassing goal. A simple story concept illustrates a complex emotion brilliantly, and there's plenty to admire about that.

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