Twice, in Mike Nichols’s motion picture, The Graduate, its young and fashionably unheroic central character, Benjamin, is shown driving to Berkeley across the familiar, still magnificent Bay Bridge. As most readers will know by now Benjamin, who has just graduated from an Eastern college, lives in one of the more expensive neighborhoods of the Los Angeles area; and the transition to Northern California is treated in the film as if it were a passage from a region of unalloyed cruelty and egocentric sham to one of ambiguous but decisively human beauty. Northern California is shown as more real even though not always nice—a little like Paris in old René Clair movies. Accordingly, Benjamin soars toward Berkeley on the upper deck of the bridge in his graduation present: a little red sports car, gay and promising against the superb blue sky and the distant skyline.
Unfortunately for Mr. Nichols’s purposes each deck of the Bay Bridge is one-way; and, in fact, traffic to Berkeley travels on the prosaic lower deck from which no picturesque view is possible. They don’t close the Bay Bridge to facilitate such Southern Californian activities as movie-making. The distant, alluring skyline Benjamin is driving toward proves, on scrutiny, to be not that of the East Bay but the industrial skyline of San Francisco south of the bridge—the familiar landmarks like Telegraph Hill and Alcatraz that might have given the trick away are all north of it and out of sight. Benjamin, of course, is presented throughout the movie as a disoriented youth with confused goals, and it would be quite in character for him to try to drive to Berkeley on the top deck; after the initial shock I thought this was going to turn out to be the point and prepared myself for a Keystone-type chase. But no, this is just a bit of artistic license for the sake of the scenery. Benjamin has no trouble on the bridge; it is about the only place in the whole film where he knows how to handle himself. He gets to Berkeley both times, though he has trouble enough there.
In a more obviously conventional picture this little gimmick would not be worth mentioning, and would in any case be well within the director’s rights as a way of establishing place, mood, and atmosphere. But from the very beginning The Graduate is cutely literal and pseudo-documentary. The picture opens with a scene in the coach-cabin of a westbound jet in which the Captain is announcing, in the conventional liturgy, that the aircraft is beginning its descent into the Los Angeles area. Then the idiosyncratic details are thrust on the viewer: as the credits are shown, Benjamin rides through the tunnel on an underground sidewalk linking the satellites where aircraft land in Los Angeles to the central baggage area—a feature, fortunately, shared by no other airport. There is a closeup of the baggage tag LAX; and when he finally comes out of the terminal building there is heard the familiar recorded chant warning drivers that parking in this area is limited to three minutes and not to leave their cars unattended. It is all designed to give a thrill of recognition and to assure the viewer that he is there; and this mood is so well sustained that the business with the bridge seems a breach of the director’s self-imposed rules.
THIS LITERALNESS is the film’s most striking feature; it provides some unforgettable scenes as well as a plethora of sight gags. Nichols, working in widescreen and color, goes far beyond the character touches that used to distinguish Bolting Brothers comedies, with their picturesque British faces and snatches of gaggy dialogue. The Graduate is not very subtle, but it certainly portrays what it wants to portray. In one great scene, a group of a dozen or so rich old people push Benjamin aside as they stream into the lobby of an old-fashioned luxury hotel in which he is trying to work up the courage to make arrangements for the affair which Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner and old enough, though not otherwise qualified, to be his mother, has forced him into. These old Birchers come on like the very essence of senile corruption; Nichols says as much in this one scene as Wilde did in the whole of Dorian Gray—not, to be sure, a story of great moral complexity. They constitute not a sight gag but a tragic epigram without words. Other scenes, though more contrived, are equally telling. Benjamin, imprisoned in a black rubber-wet-suit with complete SCUBA apparatus and spear gun, for his parents to show off in their swimming pool, is quite unbelievable but by no means irrelevant, as the film shows the grimacing aggression of his parents through his face mask behind which they are, finally, inaudible.
The good but ineffectual young man, who is portrayed by Dustin Hoffman as small, dark, and homely, in this scene looks like Gregor Samsa, after his metamorphosis—a water beetle. In sharp contrast, a later scene in the Berkeley fraternity house Benjamin visits searching for the blonde beast Mrs. Robinson’s daughter is about to marry instead of him is just as striking. It takes place in a shower-room full of handsome, exuberant giants any one of whom might have been nicknamed Apuleius by his friends had Berkeley given a more classical education. They are not good guys, and are callous and rude to Benjamin when he tries to find out from them where the wedding is being held; for they mistakenly assume that he shares their vicarious and lewd anticipation of their brother’s sexual triumphs. But they tell him; and, barely restraining himself from responding to their insults, he rushes off to Santa Barbara—400 miles south again in his little red car—to interrupt the wedding. He is seconds too late, in a scene whose Chaplinesque tragicomedy was marred for me by the knowledge that it takes seven or eight hours to drive from Berkeley to Santa Barbara and about an hour to fly, which is cheaper. Two airlines, United and Pacific, provide frequent service.
This scene in the fraternity house comes, of course, near the end of the movie, which closes as Benjamin and his girl—now, awkwardly, just married to his rival—flee from the church in which he has managed to imprison the wedding guests by wedging a crucifix in the door. I had been watching the film with mounting but uncomprehending dissatisfaction until the scene between Benjamin and the boys in the shower-room; and, at that point, I began to understand my dissatisfaction. The difficulties stem, I think, from the fact that The Graduate is so realistic in its detail—not just its visual detail but bits of characterization as well—that the falsity and frivolity of its premises become more annoying than they would be in a less brilliant movie.
THE CENTRAL RELATIONSHIP of the movie is that between Benjamin and the middle-aged Mrs. Robinson, whom Anne Bancroft portrays as a more sophisticated, bitchier Medea. This begins when Mrs. Robinson comes into his bedroom where he is trying to hide away from the noisy, demanding guests his parents have invited to celebrate his graduation. She tricks him into driving her home and tries to seduce him without even really trying to deceive him as to her purpose; her candor and open sexual aggression are shown, explicitly, as forms of contempt. But the first attempt fails because his dithering delays the action till the sounds of Mr. Robinson returning home are heard. Benjamin rushes downstairs in time to avoid detection—Mr. Robinson is too uninterested in his wife to require that he avoid suspicion—and the scene is aborted into a maudlin conversation between the two men. Later, bored and oppressed by his silly and domineering parents, Benjamin telephones her and reopens the situation. The central crisis of the movie occurs when the Robinson’s daughter comes home from Berkeley and Mrs. Robinson demands, and receives, a promise that Benjamin will have nothing to do with her. At this point, not unpredictably, Medea takes on overtones of Oedipus Rex and Romeo and Juliet, done in contemporary style by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Mrs. Robinson is portrayed throughout as cruel, exigent, openly contemptuous of everyone she knows but especially of Benjamin and herself, and incapable of the least concern for the welfare of any human being. She is also ugly and, though suave, quite without dignity. Benjamin’s involvement with her is therefore explicable only as an expression of his own self-hatred and contempt; and on this basis the picture makes a great deal of sense. But on this basis the broad comedy style also becomes incongruous; The Graduate cannot be, simultaneously, a realistic study of a young man who is so sick that he cannot say no to save his life and a wacky, homely satire about the emptiness of life among the managerial class in Beverly Hills.
Benjamin, as an individual, is a pathetic figure who would be tragic if he had any hubris at all. He becomes comical only if taken as general, as every-middle-class-boy; and this, I infer, is the conventional response to the film. Benjamin’s lack of pride and selfhood on which to mount his feelings is just the point; middle-class life in America—and Southern California is America, America, is it not?—makes us all like those loveless people and their pathetic victims, surely. So Simon and Garfunkel inform us in the movie’s sound track; “The Sounds of Silence” reminds us over and over that people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, are Benjamin’s problem, and ours.
Indeed, yes; and besides, movies are meant to entertain, and what is more enjoyable than elegant self-mockery? But here Mr. Nichols’s love for realistic detail—Benjamin even drinks a West Coast brand of beer—betrays his intention to generalize. In a nightclub or TV sketch, telling detail helps the viewer to fill in the character for himself. But—as McLuhan suggests—in a movie, so much detail particularizes and rigidifies the scenes and characters; they become so specific that the viewer may find that they no longer yield anything to his experience. Never having known anybody like Mrs. Robinson, I was able to go along with Benjamin’s acceptance of her evil dominion over him because I am familiar with the American convention that sexual attraction, like Communism, is omnipotent and transcendent, even in situations in which it is obvious to all those involved that it can lead only to ruin and slavery—I hadn’t expected The Graduate to be so much like Dr. Zhivago, but it was naïve of me not to.
The moment of truth came for me as I watched the scene in the fraternity shower-room. The big, golden boys were presented as vicious, hostile, and aggressive, too; only poor, ineffectual Benjamin was accorded any real human feeling. But they looked so real frolicking in the steam that they reminded me that I already knew what they were like, just as I knew from personal experience which way traffic moves on the Bay Bridge, and that they were just not so bad as this. Such young men, typically—they vary, too—are very narcissistic and often exploitive, yes. They do, indeed, think they’re God’s gift to women—as they may well be—Who else could have made them, and for what other purpose? But they are also usually very good-humored about it; they mean no blasphemy and admire and respect His taste and His handiwork, which is more than Benjamin does.
This scene also reminded me how different Mrs. Robinson would have looked if Renoir had painted her among his Baigneuses. Her costume is not the issue; Nichols shows her bare enough in several scenes. But he uses her in the film as the embodiment of empty and exploitive evil. She is too inhuman even to talk about herself, as Benjamin occasionally tries to make her do; his efforts to reach her only arouse her contempt. Miss Bancroft tries to show by her facial expression that inwardly Mrs. Robinson is ravaged by guilt and despair, but it doesn’t go with what she says and does. I could as easily believe it of Chancellor Roger Heyns; but Mrs. Robinson is not supposed to be an administrative official. She is just a mother. Except for the young couple, all the characters in the movie are shown as empty ruins incapable even of ambivalence. And this raises a question about why they are all so bad.
“THE GRADUATE” presents itself as chic, comic social commentary. The social commentary is expressed as it would be in a nightclub sketch, almost entirely through exaggerated characterization. This works very well for the short bits. Benjamin’s landlord in Berkeley, for example, is a classic cartoon of a paranoid, lower-middle-class type which, in this particular form at least, seems to be California’s peculiar nemesis. He is suspicious that Benjamin, who admits when questioned that he is not a student, is “one of those outside agitators”; and turns viciously hostile after a visit by a furious Mr. Robinson convinces him that Benjamin is a “degenerate.” Nichols tapes him perfectly; but he, like Mr. Robinson, comes off simply as one of the Furies who pursue Benjamin. They are the social commentary; there is no hint in the movie of why they are like that, or that they are factors in any social conflict occurring in California. This simplicity makes the landlord a stroke of genius; but it hardly suffices for the Robinsons or Benjamin’s parents, whom we spend enough time with to become curious about, especially since they are done in such detail.
But it is waxwork detail which the audience is expected to admire and marvel at. And a waxwork is precisely not social commentary because the realism is supposed to take the place of historical or political insight; it is enough to say “it must have looked exactly like that” instead of asking what is really happening. This is why, even though it captures the look and sound of much of the contemporary California scene so skillfully, The Graduate seems to me basically a copout.
All the symptoms of alienation on which this movie dwells with such Schadenfreude are, after all, expressions of a social and political dynamic that leads people to behave as they do, partly by affecting their personality—this is what The Graduate implies—but also by affecting their consciousness, their choices, and their relationship to the market and the supermarket. I am not suggesting that Mr. Turman had any obligation to produce a political tract or even a genuine documentary; he didn’t. But an honest movie about human disaster—even a comedy—must place that disaster in its cultural setting as well as make witty comments about it. Benjamin is not a solitary victim; and his problems are as much a consequence of his objective place in society as they are of his feeble personality. He keeps muttering inarticulately that he is “worried about his future”; but nobody in the picture mentions the draft or the war; dissent in Berkeley is symbolized only by a hippy-looking couple leaving a jewelry store and by the landlord’s hostility. These are enough to show that The Graduate is an “in” movie; but the realism doesn’t extend to burning draft cards or smoldering police. In this movie there are no issues, only scenes.
But the scene in California is full of issues and completely different in mood from what The Graduate suggests: wilder, angrier, more uncertain, less decadent. The plastic is a lot tougher than the movie admits; but there is real blood under it. Mr. Nichols is not obliged to put this in his picture; but he ought, at least, to have indicated the space where it might have been—and, in fact, is. Alienation is not Benjamin’s only possible future. With a little more gumption and resourcefulness, he could be indicted.
March 28, 1968