Adapted from Charles Webb’s comic novel by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry—with a mighty assist from Nichols, a visually gifted theater director-turned-filmmaker who wanted to communicate through images—it told the discomforting story of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a former track star who comes home for the summer after graduation and falls into despair. The exact sources of Ben’s discontent are never spelled out—neither Ben nor his relatives or neighbors are much for introspection, much less philosophizing—but it’s clear from the way Nichols presents his gloomy withdrawal that American life bears much of the blame. The crass flaunting of real estate, clothes, automobiles, and consumer goods (including the scuba gear Ben’s dad buys him as a graduation present and forces him to try on for guests) fills up the space where empathy and connection ought to reside. Every time Ben turns around, somebody asks him if he’s thought about his future or offers bland, unhelpful suggestions (“plastics”). The unspoken assumption is that Ben’s going to follow in the footsteps of his parents. Ben' can't wait to get out of there. He doesn't want to be like them. And so he begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson.
Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is the mother of Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), a college-bound high school senior that Ben somewhat fancies. Brilliantly written and acted, Mrs. Robinson is equal parts film noir seductress and hard-boiled screwball dame, smirking through a haze of cigarette smoke. Alone among the major characters, she is allowed to look directly into the lens; when this happens, it's Ben's point-of-view, but it feels like she's sharing a dark secret with the audience. Bancroft's knowing performance makes her seem like the only person in the movie who can stand outside of herself and take stock in what she’s become. She doesn't like what she sees. She ensnares the eager Ben partly out of boredom and partly, it seems, to divert him from latching onto her daughter.
Mrs. Robinson, too, fears history repeating itself—but her obsession is more self-flagellating. She was art history major in college. She wanted an interesting life. She numbs her malaise with booze, sex, and nihilism. Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees capture the affair, its aftermath, and the jolting midpoint entrance of Elaine in a series of impeccably composed, dynamically fluid Panavision images that turn wealthy Vietnam-era Los Angeles into a white collar (and just plain white) prison whose denizens have no idea how intellectually and emotionally limited they are. It’s like the zoo that Ben and Elaine visit in Berkeley, filled with bored mammals gazing into the distance like Ben drifting on a raft in his parents’ pool. Featuring one of the great pop soundtracks of all time, by Simon & Garfunkel, "The Graduate" is an ecstatically inventive portrait of the miserable rich, on par with anything produced by 1960s European Art Cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni with jokes.
More than one critic has observed that the film's cultural indestructibility comes from its detached way of letting us identify with whatever main character suits our world view at that point in time. Roger Ebert's original 1967 review identified with Benjamin, but his revisitation thirty years later switched to Mrs. Robinson. "Today, looking at 'The Graduate,' I see Benjamin not as an admirable rebel, but as a self-centered creep whose put-downs of adults are tiresome. Mrs. Robinson is the only person in the movie who is not playing old tapes. She is bored by a drone of a husband, she drinks too much, she seduces Benjamin not out of lust but out of kindness or desperation."
My own relationship with the film has passed through three stages. When I first watched it as a high school student in the 1980s, I identified with Ben. Later, as a young parent in my thirties, I identified with Mrs. Robinson, not because her experience mirrored mine in any significant way (thank God) but because Bancroft's performance captured a bruised quality that I understood, having been kicked around by life a bit.
Now, to my surprise, I identify with Elaine, the least compromised of the three major characters. It's not so much that I've reverted to a state of innocence and perpetual becoming; more so than I recognize in Elaine the seeds of all disappointment, and every mistake. The film's third act maneuvers her into a predicament that puts her at risk of repeating her mother's life-altering errors. Ben, meanwhile, falls into a frenzied, manic, stalker-ish pattern while trying to "rescue" her from that. One of the things that makes the end of the film so powerful (still!) is the hint that all this exercise of free will, all this dramatic posturing and rushing about, only ends up depositing Ben and Elaine in much the same situation that Mrs. Robinson illuminated in her pillow-talk with Benjamin earlier in the film.
Do we make decisions, or do decisions make us? Can we even know the difference? What if the moments that we think of as pivotal moments in self-determination, for better or worse, are merely instances of our psychology and social conditioning locking into place, guiding our hands and heads like a puppeteer working a marionette's strings? What if "The Graduate" is not so much a satire as a horror film without blood and guts? Nichols and co-screenwriter Buck Henry have both somewhat flippantly summed the film up as a story of how children become their parents. If I owned a movie theater, I'd put this film on a double-bill with "The Shining." We were always the caretaker.