At the time of The Graduate’s (dir. Mike Nichols, 1967) release, the film was held up as a portrait of the youth of the time. John Mahoney, The Hollywood Reporter film reviewer at the time, called the film “a brutally funny look at contemporary youth” while Life critic Richard Schickel said it “starts out to satirize the alienated spirit of modern youth, does so with uncommon brilliance for its first half”. Nichols’ film has remained in the cultural consciousness since its theatrical release more than 50 years ago, but it may be more relevant now than it has been since release. In fact, we may be actually living in the most literal interpretation of The Graduate’s themes ever.
The Graduate of course follows Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and his sexual exploits with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and budding relationship with her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), but it is really about his post-college malaise and his uncertainty about his life moving forward. We see this through camera tricks that make Benjamin look like he is running, but making little ground or the constant motif of him being underwater. It helps us square away the kind of person he is in that moment and why he does the things he does.
This expression of cinematic language has always been effective, the film would not be considered the classic it is today if it wasn’t, but it has never been as easily sympathetic as it is in this current moment. It is difficult to think of a time where an entire graduating class was thrown into a sense of collective malaise as it has been with the class of 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People who had plans had to either pause them or immediately be thrown into an alienating style of work. People who didn’t have plans were not able to seek out new opportunities. I am sure that most graduates probably didn’t replace this uncertainty with a torrid sexual affair with a parent’s friend, but it has been easier than ever to understand Ben Braddock. I know, for myself, it has been much easier to identify with Ben because I didn’t know where my life was headed at that point in time.
That’s the beauty of classic film and how we interact with it over time. When time passes and events happen the timely becomes timeless and the outdated can become present. Art does not completely belong to the era it was created in because the feelings it makes us feel can never become antiquated. In the end, Benjamin Braddock is me just as much as he was someone who saw the film in 1967.
The Graduate is currently streaming on HBO MAX.