Anchor Staff Writer
Benjamin Braddock is fresh out of college, not knowing what his future holds. As he searches for a purpose, his parents pressure him to take the next steps in life. It’s the stress of starting life that drives him to start having an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Robinson.
On the first watching of “The Graduate,” I perceived nothing more than a perverse, melancholy narrative. I’ll admit that I initially failed to understand the real conflict occurring within the awkward protagonist, Ben (Dustin Hoffman). As I creep towards the reality of becoming a graduate myself, these fears and pressures become much more relevant. Now, this does not mean that having sexual relations with older women is a proper coping mechanism for handling these fears. Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) affair shouldn’t even be the prominent source of the film’s conflict. What I see now as the genius of “The Graduate” is the way that an uncertain Benjamin Braddock fumbles through his life decisions, not to propel his future but to discover what he really desires.
Adults feverishly swarm the college graduate hounding him with future expectations. The problem is not in the advice these adults give, but in their demand for Ben to already have a plan for his life. Pressure and embarrassment are constantly being thrust upon him from his parents, leading Ben to shut himself away in multiple ways.
Benjamin lacks interaction with people his own age, sometimes finding his happiest place to be at the quiet floor of his six-foot swimming pool. For months the only relationship he has is with Mrs. Robinson. Although the film portrays Robinson as being twice Ben’s age, it is somewhat consoling to know that Hoffman and Bancroft were only six years apart. Their characters are stark contrasts to each other yet share the same desperation to fill their empty lives. Ben struggles to find life’s purpose while Mrs. Robinson has already made difficult life choices long ago. However, as each regrettable year passes with her boring marriage and destructive alcoholism, she requires a new young spark to make her feel alive. I don’t see Mrs. Robinson as a villain or groomer. Both her and Ben used each other in selfish ways to find a purpose.
Their affair becomes more problematic when Ben falls for the Robinson daughter Elaine, stripping away that lively spark from the mother. Honestly, Elaine isn’t that exciting of a character, and doesn’t offer much interest for the viewer. She is, however, a much more appropriate match for the twenty-one-year-old Ben, at least more so than her mother. But Elaine fails to ignite the story in the way that the seductive Mrs. Robinson does. She lacks much depth, surfacing as a flower of a person, awaiting the now-corrupted Ben to come and sweep her secure future away. The second act of the film is completely devoted to the journey Ben takes to win over Elaine after she discovers he slept with her mother. During this time, the emotionally damaged Mrs. Robinson seems to disappear into the bourbon bottles on her sun porch.
Ben’s youthful vigor finally drives him to attain his goal of fulfillment in the second act. He travels to the farthest reaches of Santa Barbara to crash poor Elaine’s wedding, fending off the rest of the enraged Robinson family with an oversized crucifix. It made for an entertaining finale, but was definitely Benjamin’s most selfish and destructive choice. Elaine and Ben’s daring escape begins another uncertain future together, which they immediately regret right before the credits start to roll.
Although the second half of “The Graduate” travels at a slower pace, the sharp comedy and complex themes are consistent. Anne Bancroft’s Robinson deserved a more forgiving ending, but was brushed over to focus on Ben’s character arc. He’s introduced as quirky, unmotivated, still a virgin, and appearing as if uncomfortable in his own skin. By the climax, he shifts into fifth making erratic decisions frowned upon by his Eisenhower-Era elders, fully encapsulating the rebellious attitude of American youth in the late sixties.
After the credits rolled, I pondered the film’s most important take-away for a graduate as I will soon be. Should us twenty-somethings simply “sow some wild oats and throw a few flings” as Mr. Robinson suggested? Should we get into the plastics industry? Should we run off and marry on a whim? Whatever lies ahead, keep in mind that the weight of the world is not on your shoulders. You will make both good and bad choices. You will have regrets. But no matter what, find what brings you liveliness and enjoy it. Benjamin’s decisions leave the film’s ending wide open, as life is. “The Graduate” does not provide answers on how to handle the fears of starting life, but it proves that these fears are natural and we should try to understand ourselves before strictly planning our future. In the end, I can see how “The Graduate” is still relevant while also remaining a relic of the turbulent sixties.