The Cinematical Movie Club is a new weekly feature where we pick a film, watch it and then discuss it. Feel free to read our introduction for more info.
What makes a classic? When I think back upon the myriad of films that get tossed into the category, there is a prevalent trend of relatability. No matter how simple or grand the story is, whether it's detailing everyday mob violence, finding the meaning of Rosebud, or taking an epic journey through Arabia, there's something that's familiar. It might be a character you can relate to, a quest you find emotionally inspiring, or a masterful story that makes you feel like the fiction is real.
And then there's The Graduate. An interesting piece of beloved cinema, it toes the line between mainstream society and tabloid iniquity, being at once both insanely engaging and charismatic, and quite troublesome and questionable. At its simplest, this is the story the poor choices a young man makes when he's suffering from the angst-filled limbo between youth and adulthood. But it's also one of the least desirable romantic triangles that Hollywood has given us -- the young man, his hard and forlorn older lover, and her optimistic and innocent young daughter.
This is not the sort of tale that usually gets labeled a classic, or moreover, gets loved by the mainstream masses. If you rip through the beautiful cinematography and editing, the charismatic leads, and the wry humor, what's left is a truly sad and troubling story. Ben is innocent and trying to follow his heart, sure, but he's also fallen for the daughter of his isolated and bitter lover, Mrs. Robinson. To avoid discomfort, he ignores her only wish to not date her daughter. It's a reasonable request, and not just because a mother/daughter triangle is not the most socially acceptable scenario for romance. Elaine is, essentially, a young Mrs. Robinson, idealistic and full of hope before life makes her hard and bitter. Nevertheless, Ben does go out with Elaine, and he falls in love.
Ben's not really one for thinking beyond his own self-interests. Without the slightest hesitation, he dates Elaine, tossing his older lover aside and ignoring her steely glare. And even after the truth comes to light, and Elaine finds out that the boy she's fallen for has broken her idyllic ideal of family and marriage, he still wants her and chases after her. The scenario gets worse and worse as Mr. Robinson finds out, and in the most terribly flawed rationale -- Elaine will marry a random macho Ken doll to put the matter to rest.
Mrs. Robinson admits that she doesn't think Ben is good enough. She'd rather have her daughter throw away her life too, and follow down her path, with anyone but Ben. In fact, she insists on it. That young art student, barely visible in the hard shell formed during years of an unhappy and directionless marriage, no longer cares if her daughter gets what she didn't. She just doesn't want her with Ben. Is this because she chose him as a lover? Or does she simply loathe herself so much that she was sleeping with a young man she has no respect for?
Elaine gets married, and although she pushed him away time and time again, now that she's facing a very set future, she cannot bear the thought. She runs off with Ben, leaving her new husband and choosing to be with her mother's lover. But their smiles quickly fade to solemness as they start to really think about what they've done and what that means.
However, it's not simply that little nod at the end that makes the film's questionable storyline palpable. It's the entire delivery. Mike Nichols and his crew were able to make the story almost seem okay. If you don't really think about what's going on, it becomes a fun and quote-worthy romance of laughter, rather than the dark and troublesome Requiem for a Dream sort of tale it could so easily become.
Dustin Hoffman plays Ben as clueless as can be, and it's essential to make this story work. (Luckily, Nichols realized this, and was able to tell Robert Redford that his inability to strike out, or even understand what that means, made him the wrong person for the role when Ben was being cast.) Anne Bancroft, meanwhile, put a million levels into Mrs. Robinson -- being firm to hide her fears, harsh to hide her softness, and cruelly indifferent to show just how damaged this woman had become. At one moment, you want to fall for her, let yourself be seduced by her, and the next -- she's the most alienating woman you can think of.
And it's all wrapped in a spoon full of sugar. A young energetic filmmaker, Nichols didn't shoot the film in a straightforward manner. Every moment was explored to find a unique and appropriate way to film the scene, whether it's seeing a character in a reflection, or that iconic shot of Ben Braddock through the curve of Mrs. Robinson's knee. In my favorite piece of cinematic editing, and perhaps my favorite cinematic montage, Nichols and editor Sam O'Steen merge Hoffman's pool lounging with the affair, even to go so far as to join sliding onto the raft with sliding onto his lover. Wrapping it all up in the melodic voices of Simon and Garfunkel, it all seems sort of funny and sweet. It's all sugar to make the hard pill of questionable romance easy to swallow.
- Does the sugar work? Do the flairs and soundtrack allow you to forget the film's seedier aspects?
- Charles Webb, who wrote the novel, was originally upset that Ben breaks up the wedding after the vows. He said: "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 someone else. In the film version it makes little different whether he gets there in time or not."* Should Nichols have gotten Ben there earlier? What does it mean that he didn't?
- What were Mrs. Robinson's motivations? As I asked earlier - were her motivations based on the affair, or previous opinions of Benjamin? What was she trying to accomplish with all of her poor choices?
- In his review back in 1967, Roger Ebert wrote: "His [Nichols] only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes." Do you think they help the film, as I do, or come off as limp flaws?
What's next? With Meryl Streep having her 16th Oscar nomination, let's go back to her first -- the days when Robert De Niro wasn't doing crappy comedy, and Christopher Walken wasn't yet typecast.
Next Week's Film: The Deer Hunter | Add it to your Netflix queue
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Last Week's Film: Heathers
*The quote comes from Pictures at a Revolution, which details The Graduate along with other famous films of the time.