June 19, 2017
The Graduate–Remember Plastics: All about Growing up in The Fifties and Sixties
By Jacob R. Brackman
“We thought we had a commercial picture here, but we didn’t know what we had,” an Embassy Pictures official said to me. He was marvelling at the success of “The Graduate.” Joseph E. Levine, who is the president of Embassy Pictures, and who was in a large financial hole before “The Graduate” started paying off, marvelled, too, in a press release of this spring: “It’s absolutely incredible. There’s no way to describe it. It’s like an explosion, a dam bursting. The business just grows and grows and grows. Wherever we’ve played it, whatever the weather, it’s a sell-out attraction. And people have been coming back two and three times to see it again. I haven’t seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been in the business. . . .” So far, “The Graduate” has been shown in some nine hundred and fifty theatres, in almost as many cities of the United States and Canada, and from early figures the experts can now accurately project the degree of a movie’s long-term success. “The Graduate” has broken house records in about forty per cent of its engagements. In New York, in its first week it broke the house record at each of the two theatres it played in—the Coronet and the Lincoln Art. In its sixth and seventh weeks, it broke both records again. In its first six months, it grossed more than thirty-five million dollars in the nine hundred and fifty theatres—more than two million of it in New York. Whereas most films taper off after an initial spurt, its business continues to swell, just as Mr. Levine indicated; the receipts still haven’t peaked. From its performance thus far, Levine predicts that “The Graduate” will become the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history. Howard Taubman, of the Times, agrees that it will outgross even “The Sound of Music.”
Of course, box-office isn’t the only measure of a motion picture’s success. Like the Beatles, “The Graduate” has met with favor from every level of brow. Critically, it hasn’t been a controversial movie—like, say, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Two or three reviewers greeted it with mild enthusiasm; the rest, even hard-to-please critics, were wild about it. Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic, “ ‘The Graduate’ gives some substance to the contention that American films are coming of age—of our age. . . . [It is] a milestone in American film history.” It was included in the Ten Best lists of Newsweek, the Saturday Review, Cue, the National Board of Review, and a score of newspapers, including the Times. It won five of the seven Golden Globe Awards (Best Comedy, Best Director, Best Actress in a Comedy, and Best Male and Female Newcomers), was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won the Oscar for Best Director. It was the subject of an essay question, on pre-marital sex, in a final exam at an Eastern women’s college. Its theme song—“Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon and Garfunkel—reached No. 1 on pop charts. And, as Variety says, the word-of-mouth is fabulous. “The Graduate” seems to have, in the Embassy official’s words, “a very special appeal, on both sides of the generation gap.” Indeed, it seems to have become something of a cultural phenomenon—a nearly mandatory movie experience, which can be discussed in gatherings that cross the boundaries of age and class. It also seems to be one of those propitious works of art which support the theory that we are no longer necessarily two publics—the undiscerning and the demanding—for whom separate kinds of entertainment must be provided. Its sensational profits suggest that Hollywood can have both its cake and its art. Filmmakers of lofty aspirations have long protested that enormous production expenses make it impossible to finance “really good, strong stuff,” because it won’t appeal to enough people to pay for itself. “The Graduate” seems to be telling us that the public has been underrated. Due weight having been given to such factors as economic achievement, popularity at different age and social levels, and critical reception by mass and élite media, it is clearly the biggest success in the history of the movies. Whatever is authentic or meretricious in “The Graduate” must reflect what is authentic or meretricious in our sentiment about its themes, and perhaps even in America’s current conceptions of itself. To some people, this statement will sound absurdly hyperbolic (after all, why set out to go on so about a film comedy?), but my feeling is that we are living in a time when the uses of a Brillo box can be as telling as a State of the Union Message, and that a uniquely celebrated movie may be worth a pretty close look.
I like reading both about movies I’ve seen and about movies I haven’t seen, but I often find myself irritated in the first case by superfluous chunks of expository briefing sprinkled through a text and in the second case by having to pick out and piece together the rudiments of the plot from clues, usually nonsequential, that are buried here and there amid the writer’s own reflections. So, although it’s not necessarily an ideal scheme, I’ll set down here most of what happens in “The Graduate.” Since its television trailer gave away the dénouement, I can include even that with an easy conscience.
The graduate is a young man named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who returns home to suburban Los Angeles from an Eastern college for the summer, loaded with credentials of glory, and at loose ends about what to do next. The evening after evening Benjamin’s arrival, his wealthy parents throw a party for their friends, more or less in his honor. Wishing to be left alone with his confusion, Benjamin tries to hide out in his room, away from the verbal cheek-pinching. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s partner, eventually corners him, and tricks and bullies him into driving her home, escorting her inside, having a drink, and engaging in a disconcertingly intimate conversation. She inveigles him up to her absent daughter’s bedroom, where she takes off her clothes and makes him a standing offer of herself. Benjamin, first miserable and then perfectly frantic through these stampeding events, is saved only by the arrival of Mr. Robinson. The two men have a nightcap together. Mr. Robinson, kindly paternal to the point of senility, urges Benjamin to take out his daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), who is now away at Berkeley. Some time later (after we have seen a bit more of Benjamin’s aimlessness and of the amiable obtuseness of his parents and their set), Benjamin telephones Mrs. Robinson. During and after the call, many minutes of comical footage illustrate Benjamin’s halfheartedness, awkwardness, sexual ingenuousness, and, of course, agony. There’s a painful meeting with Mrs. R. in a hotel bar; a long sequence in which Benjamin engages a room under a false name from a clerk who he imagines suspects his designs; a furtive pay-phone call to cement arrangements with Mrs. R.; more funny business underscoring Benjamin’s nervousness as he waits in the trysting room; and, at length, a remarkably unpleasant interview with Mrs. R. when she arrives, obviously intent upon getting down to business without amenities. Benjamin tries to back out at the last minute. Mrs. R. goads him on by suggesting that he is a virgin and is sexually inadequate. In a spirit of defensive anger, he comes across.
For the next few weeks, Benjamin hangs around his house by day—sunning, floating on an air mattress in the back-yard pool, avoiding his father’s questions about plans—and, by night, meets Mrs. R. at the hotel, where they conduct a tense, conversationless affair. Mr. Robinson has meanwhile enlisted Mr. Braddock in his campaign to get Benjamin together with his daughter. Benjamin jokingly brings the subject up with Mrs. R., and she makes him swear never to see Elaine. After Elaine arrives on vacation, however, parental pressure for a friendly date increases, and at last, in order to avoid a threatened Braddock-Robinson soirée, Benjamin does ask her out. Mrs. R. is livid. Elaine appears: the classy embodiment of a college man’s most extravagant fantasies. Benjamin, consummately rude, takes her to a cheap strip joint for a drink. After trying to be pleasant for both of them, Elaine rushes out in tears. Benjamin catches up to her, explains that the date was his parents’ idea, and apologizes. In the next scene, they are eating at a teen-agers’ drive-in, relaxed and chatty. When he drives her home, much later than he had expected to, neither wants to end the evening. The only place around that is still open turns out to be the hotel that Benjamin has been using for his assignations with Mrs. R., and he becomes flustered into a hasty exit when various attendants greet him as Mr. Gladstone. Back in the car, Elaine asks him if he is having an affair with someone. He acknowledges an involvement with a married woman (“with a son”) but says it is decidedly a thing of the past.
The next day, Benjamin drives up to the Robinsons’ house in the rain to pick up Elaine, as they had arranged, but Mrs. R. hops into his car and orders him to drive around the block. When he demurs at her demand that he never see Elaine again, she threatens to tell all. Benjamin stops the car and races back to the Robinsons’ through driving rain. He runs up the stairs and barges into Elaine’s bedroom, and as he begins to tell her how that married woman he’d been having an affair with wasn’t just any married woman, Mrs. Robinson, drenched and haggard-looking, appears in the doorway behind him. Elaine gets the picture and shrieks at him to get out.
Benjamin keeps an eye on her from a distance until she goes back to school, then stews around home for a couple of weeks longer. One day, he announces to his parents that he has decided to marry Elaine, and drives up to Berkeley, where he takes a furnished room and continues to shadow her. After days of espionage, he accosts her on a bus, pretending, with no particular conviction, that he has run into her by accident. Elaine, who is on her way to meet a date at the zoo, converses with him icily . Benjamin doggedly tags along until her date, a blond medical student named Carl Smith, gives him the old brushoff. Shortly thereafter, Elaine shows up unannounced in Benjamin’s room, demanding to know what he is doing in Berkeley after raping her mother. Benjamin tries inarticulately to straighten her out; she screams him down. Late that night, she appears again, and asks for a kiss. Benjamin proposes marriage. After several days of indecision, she tentatively agrees. Then Mr. Robinson, having learned of his family’s plight, shows up at Benjamin’s room, promises to put him behind bars if he ever comes near his wife or his daughter again, and leaves hollering that Benjamin is filth, scum, a degenerate. Too much shouting. The landlord, who took Benjamin for an agitator from the start, orders him out. Elaine has disappeared from her dormitory.
Benjamin drives back to Los Angeles and goes straight to the Robinsons’ house, entering unannounced. Mrs. R. informs him, with glacial cordiality, that Elaine is getting married to Carl Smith, and calls the police to have him arrested as a robber. Benjamin takes off, and embarks upon a three-day mad dash to intercept Elaine at the altar—posing first, in a fraternity-house dining hall and locker room, as a friend of Carl’s, and then, over a pay phone in Santa Barbara, as Carl’s minister uncle. On his way to the church, he runs out of gas. He races the remaining distance on foot, and reaches a glass-enclosed balcony of the church just as the young Smiths are completing their vows. At the moment when the couple kiss, Benjamin begins banging on the glass and crying Elaine’s name. She sees him and, for a protracted moment, walks blankly up the aisle toward him. Then she cries out to him, and everyone springs into action. Benjamin gallops down the stairs, Mr. Robinson runs to the rear of the church to head him off, Elaine fights her way through the crowd, everybody starts screaming. In the melee that ensues, Benjamin elbows Mr. R. in the ribs, knocks him down, and then grabs a cross from the wall and swings it like a mace to ward off the attacking horde. Mrs. R. slaps Elaine across the face, screaming “It’s too late!” Elaine shouts “Not for me!” and runs out with Benjamin. He bars the door with the cross, locking the entire wedding party inside. The two of them—Benjamin grubby from his three-day chase, Elaine immaculate in her bridal gown—run, grinning wildly, across the broad church lawn and hail a passing bus. The last shots show them sitting exhausted and expressionless in the rear seat, oblivious of the stares of their fellow-passengers.
The tensions of the first third of the movie—ending with Benjamin’s phone call to Mrs. Robinson—arise from the question: What is Benjamin going to do with himself? Mike Nichols, the director, handles its exposition boldly, and we are given every reason to expect that what the movie will try to do is answer it. In more general terms, the first part of the film seems to be asking what it means to be a promising young man in America today. What does it add up to now, in this country, to be twenty-one, with a high-quality education behind you and a brilliant future ahead of you? Naturally gifted, with a family of wealth and position to back him up, an impressive degree, a fellowship award, the ability to excel in almost any career he might choose, Benjamin exists, as the film opens, in that condition of voluptuous potentiality which is supposed to define young men. The condition fills him with anguish and confusion. And this is fine material for a story, because what was once a predicament confined to the sons of a tiny élite has become a mass predicament in middle-class America. The shared assumptions about what one will do with oneself no longer hold together. Not only is Benjamin interesting to us because of the predicament he is in; he could not be interesting, and perhaps not even recognizable as a youth, if he weren’t in it. We could no longer be taken with a young man who stood smiling confidently upon the threshold of his future as a doctor or a businessman. Benjamin’s parents and their friends struggled, we can assume, to achieve what hard times had denied their parents. For Benjamin to make their youthful hopes his own would be preposterous. A son can pursue ambitions that his parents cherished and failed to fulfill but not ambitions that they fulfilled and then found wanting. From Benjamin’s vantage point, his parents and their friends exist in a world of murmuring emptiness. Upon his arrival home, he finds himself surrounded by fawning adults who have, in a way that escapes them, made a mess of their lives. He sees himself on the threshold only of making a mess of his own life. In the first segment of the film, Nichols himself occupies this limited vantage point so thoroughly as to make Benjamin’s perceptions his own, and the audience’s. He has managed to translate Benjamin’s vision of adult grotesquerie into such striking cinematic terms that even the most conventional moviegoers are hard pressed to see through Benjamin’s problem along such lines as “Spoiled brat, what’s he bellyaching about? My kid should have it so good!” Nichols’ conception, early in the film, is uncompromisingly anti-adult—perhaps the most anti-adult ever to come out of Hollywood. In the party scene, he uses huge, smothering closeups to impose Benjamin’s claustrophobia on the audience when his parents seek to show him off as part of their panoply of success. Even though Benjamin is in a position to accomplish no more, really, than they have accomplished, the guests claw at him hungrily. A tippler promises Benjamin the single word that will unlock the riddle of his future, draws him out onto the patio, and whispers portentously, “Plastics.” Benjamin seems momentarily stunned. Even, or precisely, through our laughter, something inside us cries out, with him, “No, that cannot be the word! That must be the opposite of the word!” But Benjamin can’t escape the clutches of the people who seem to live by it—except by standing at the dark bottom of his parents’ pool, breathing from a scuba tank.
A quick survey of parents who have seen “The Graduate” has turned up only a few who fancied Benjamin the villain of the piece. (For these, his mother and father were “bad” only insofar as they’d “spoiled” him.) Most, if they didn’t exactly identify themselves with Benjamin, were at least on his side, in an avuncular way. They managed to feel this sympathy by seeing Benjamin’s parents as terribly extreme. Parents who are in life as intellectually vulgar as the Braddocks urged their children to go to the movie and see how lucky they were. (“We aren’t that bad, are we, Andy?”) Actually, Mr. Braddock is a more reasonable figure than the usual suburban stereotype, that Hollywood blending of Jewish and wasp garishness—say, the father from Darien in “Auntie Mame,” who could be ridiculed because of his bigotry. There is some boldness to the disparagement of Braddock’s fatherhood. Braddock stands for nothing readily impugnable; he simply fails to stand for anything worthy of respect. The film condemns him because he is not a fit model, and because his ambitions for his son are misguided. Indeed, no one gives Benjamin any sense of direction, much less inspiration. Had there been a single great teacher—or, for that matter, a great hanger-on—back at his nameless Eastern college, he would not be quite so mopily lost. His adulthood looks bleak largely because his environment offers no decent ideal of adulthood—not even a clue to what that ideal might be.
The question posed in the middle third of the film, which ends when Benjamin realizes he’s in love with Elaine, is: How is he going to get out of his affair with Mrs. Robinson? We know that an entanglement with a married woman—especially one so awful—can come to no good end, and that the movie, in order to resolve itself, is going to have to get Benjamin out of it and into something else. More important, we understand that the whole Robinson episode is but a distraction from the problem of Benjamin’s future—worse than a distraction, though, for it helps make up the very syndrome Benjamin wants no part of. Mechanical sex—a bitchy adultery—is as indispensable to the vacuous suburban scene as a few tall, cool ones hoisted over the hibachi. Mrs. Robinson might be his emblem for the plastic world. Benjamin knows he can devote no attention to mapping out his life as long as he has her to deal with. We feel that “The Graduate” will have to return to its initial theme, which the affair has futilely tried to evade.
The question we expect the final third to answer is something like: Will Benjamin find his way back to his initial dilemma, come to terms with it at last, and resolve it? Or, at least, we would expect such a question if we could halt the progress of the film until we were ready to proceed, the way we lay a book down on our lap to mull over what has happened and anticipate what is to come. Luckily for “The Graduate,” film affords no opportunity for immediate reflection, except at the risk of missing out on the ongoing action. For this reason, we must replay movies (or their most interesting parts, anyway) in our minds, and judge them largely in retrospect. We do watch movies in our minds rather as we read books: slow the pace at will to get into a particular scene, or even stop the action to get into a single frame; pause to take stock of what the author is doing to us; turn backward to reëxamine something that we didn’t realize would become important. (Marshall McLuhan might dismiss all this as clinging to linear-text methodologies, but I think most people go over movies this way. A number of film critics, one gathers, try to perform the same mental operations while they are actually watching a film. Not only can they not do it; they keep missing more. They go back mentally to retrieve something, only to discover that they hadn’t fully caught it the first time around.) Many films mellow in leisurely recollection; perhaps a fine film must. But “The Graduate,” although it is terrific fun to watch, begins to fall apart under reflection. The final third, in which the best scenes occur, is able to preoccupy us only as long as light is still flickering on the screen. Just when we have greeted Elaine as the catalytic agent to extricate Benjamin from his distracting entanglement with her mother, just when we have braced ourselves for a renewed confrontation with his future, the film, hurtling relentlessly onward, places terrible obstacles between Benjamin and Elaine. Soon it loses sight of its initial problem entirely The winning of Elaine, which we might properly have regarded as a preliminary step on Benjamin’s road to deliverance, supplants the very question of deliverance. As we watch him driving up to Berkeley from Los Angeles, his Alfa Romeo gliding swiftly across the Bay Bridge, he is changing inside. Suddenly, we see him behaving like a man of absolute purpose—a man who knows what he wants and fights for it. Suddenly, he is overflowing with energy and sense of direction. After moping aimlessly through two-thirds of the picture, he is transformed, through his pursuit of Elaine, into the conventional man, resolved upon his chase. On these terms, his success is assured. Once you really know what you’re after, in the movies, it’s mostly a question of going out and getting it.
Despite its bizarre antecedents, the last few hundred feet of the film have a healthy American quality: Benjamin and his girl racing across a green lawn, he in his chinos and stained windbreaker, weary with work well done, and she in her lovely white wedding dress, looking so pure. And she is pure, as far as we know—the first pure flesh amid the plastic. However unnatural what led up to it may have been, they will have a proper wedding night! The clambering onto the bus filled with good common folk. Off on their honeymoon! “What crazy things happen in—well, America!” Somehow, the elation of the scene is almost untainted by any residue of Benjamin’s confusion, or by the “bad” implications of the relationship. The unseen bourgeois, looking very much like the man who spoke the single word “Plastics,” puts his arm fraternally around our shoulder: “See—the kid just needed a sweet little woman to straighten him out.” And we, perhaps clinging to a last-ditch reservation, ask, “But what about his marrying the daughter on the basis of nothing, after he’d been sleeping with the mother, the wife of his father’s partner, who looks so much like his own mother?” And the voice replies, “Are you talking about these two lovely American kids? Sitting in the bus there? Are you going to try and make something nasty out of that?” “For once,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann, “a happy ending makes us feel happy.”
“The Graduate” engages its audience almost exclusively at the level of events until the grandly satisfying conclusion, when its problems (Benjamin’s problems) seem to arrive at a happy solution. The pace of the film is swift and smooth, but its emotional progress—its movement toward resolution—is deeply illogical. The ending does answer the question: How will Benjamin get to marry Elaine, whom he loves? But this union—indeed, the entire boy-meets-loses-gets-girl theme—shapes into a line of resolution only after “The Graduate” is two-thirds over. At one level, the film proceeds awkwardly, deceptively, through a series of less and less interesting problems, sidestepping difficulties of its own authorship, until it can solve only the least interesting of them. All that remains when the bus drives Benjamin and Elaine off into a presumably roseate adulthood is the bare convention of young love triumphant. The trials that Benjamin seemed to forget once he had fixed upon getting the girl, we, too, are encouraged to forget.
Benjamin’s acquisition of Elaine is not an apt resolution of Charles Webb’s novel “The Graduate,” either—the book from which the movie was adapted—but then Webb doesn’t try to pass it off as one. The book is peculiarly spare for a long piece of fiction, reading more like a scenario treatment than a novel. In the manner of a scenario, Webb’s book tries to float its meanings on the surface of events—on easily visible changes in attitude and setting, and on what characters say rather than on what they think and feel.
In the book, Benjamin’s sudden infatuation with Elaine seems purposely unmotivated. Nothing about her presents a good reason for his falling in love with her. The novel, in dialogue that is omitted from the film, makes this abundantly clear at a number of points. For example:
He nodded. “So,” he said, taking her hand. “We’re getting married then.”
“But Benjamin?” she said.
“I can’t see why I’m so attractive to you.”
“You just are.”
“You just are, I said. You’re reasonably intelligent. You’re striking looking.”
“My ears are too prominent to be striking looking.”
Benjamin frowned at her ears. “They’re all right,” he said.
What was, then, an artful point in the novel is wholly lost in the movie: the fact that Benjamin’s precipitate and (one wants to say “therefore”) consuming love for Elaine makes very little sense. We find ourselves sucked in by a cinematic convention: That’s how people fall in love in the movies; it doesn’t have to make sense. Katharine Ross’s scrumptiousness becomes a more than sufficient cause. Yet because the romance has now grown crucial to the scheme of Benjamin’s life, because we are encouraged to imagine Elaine as the light at the end of his darkness, the film seems suddenly top-heavy. The affair—the preliminary relationship—has been pictured in endless detail; now the love that promises salvation is treated skimpily.
In the film, when Elaine tells Benjamin she doesn’t want him to leave Berkeley until he has “some definite plan,” we appreciate only her coy desire for him to stay—a certain bubble-headed righteousness that Miss Ross makes adorable. In the book, we never overcome the anxiety created in us by Benjamin’s planlessness. Elaine perpetually reminds him, and us, that she is a distraction: “ ‘Well, I just think you’re wasting your time sitting around in this room,’ she said. ‘Or sitting around in a room with me if we got married.’ ” Webb can permit such revealing lines because although he lets his protagonist escape from the essential, he isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. Nichols could not have included Elaine’s keen remark; it is fundamental to his upbeat resolution of the movie that we do not stop to reconsider Elaine’s relation to Benjamin’s anguish about his life. Nichols cannot let us leave the theatre feeling that nothing has changed, so he gives us what he thinks we want by packing the last thirty minutes with passages of tremendous emotional power. The passages begin when Benjamin finds Mr. Robinson waiting in his room (Hoffman’s terrified scream is perfect), and keep coming, all but torrentially, until the final hundred feet of film. Their tension has to do with the horror of confronting brute, implacable stupidity—wrongheadedness—in others. With the over-obvious exception of Benjamin, people all appear to see the world so wackily that, like Benjamin, we have no idea what would be involved in getting them to see it straight. The adults will sacrifice him, and sacrifice Elaine, too. There is no reasoning with them. They cannot “win” (Elaine will obviously get an annulment; the couple can no longer be kept apart), but they will still destroy Benjamin, pointlessly, if they can. If he doesn’t escape with his girl, they’ll crack his head against a pew and have him thrown in jail.
Like Benjamin’s graduation party, the wedding guests are all middle-aged and elderly people. (Don’t kids in California ever get to invite any of their friends?) Benjamin’s creators have thus provided him with an absolutely sound reason for a thinly disguised orgy of parricide—or plain adulticide. If he lit into the congregation without the perfect rationale of self-defense, the scene would appear vengeful, even sadistic. But because the adults’ mindless attack seems to leave him no alternative his aggression seems fitting. The scene takes on overtones of Jesus driving the moneylenders from the temple. An author must manipulate his plot skillfully to legitimize so impermissible a release. Webb swung into his most dramatic pose:
Mr. Robinson drove in toward him and grabbed him around the waist. Benjamin twisted away, but before he could reach Elaine he felt Mr. Robinson grabbing at his neck and then grabbing at the collar of his shirt and pulling him backward and ripping the shirt down his back. He spun around and slammed his fist into Mr. Robinson’s face. Mr. Robinson reeled backward and crumpled into a corner.
Nichols has muted the smash to the face into an elbow to the solar plexus, but Mr. Robinson still lands senseless on the floor, and the scene begins to build to an Oedipal jubilee. If Benjamin could have handled the situation in any other way, or if he had really injured Mr. Robinson (or had killed him), Nichols might have led his young audiences to feel the guilt that lies just beyond, and sometimes mingles with, triumph. But “The Graduate”’s solution aims at gratifying not our understanding of its problems but our insecurities about them. Snatching away the bride at the altar—a pleasing fantasy that has turned up in movies often, at least since “It Happened One Night” and “The Philadelphia Story”—is regenerated by an inspired directorial stroke. Benjamin arrives after—instead of, as in the novel and in previous films, before—the ceremony is over. Benjamin’s crying out to Elaine before the vows would mean simply “Don’t marry him! Marry me!” After the sacramental kiss, his cry means “It doesn’t matter that you married him—or that I slept with your mother! We know what is real!” The chase to the altar puts us in a familiar frame of mind: we forget that the vows are only a ritual; the chase assumes a conventional urgency—maybe he will be too late! Then Nichols craftily steps outside the convention.
The wedding finale has been compared, largely because of its disruptiveness, with the wedding scene in “Morgan!” Yet there was no chance that Morgan would “get” Vanessa Redgrave; his busting up the post-wedding party meant simply that he’d gone over the brink, fallen victim to his unbalanced fantasies. Where Morgan hurts and humiliates no one but himself, Benjamin, like an Ivy League Douglas Fairbanks, outmaneuvers and routs the hostile wedding party. Anyone who has seen “The Graduate” when a fair number of young people were in the audience can have had no doubt about what was happening. Benjamin’s contemporaries aren’t apprehensive about his escaping safely; they stomp and hoot and cheer when he plows into the cluster of parents. And when he starts swinging the cross like a battle-axe they go wild. Hip Negro audiences respond the same way when Sidney Poitier returns the Southern patrician’s genteel slap in “In the Heat of the Night,” or when Jimmy Brown gets to slug a couple of white men—enemy soldiers—in “The Dirty Dozen.” Kids at “The Graduate” can let go because Benjamin kicks hell out of a whole entourage of parents—and with an unassailable motive. As far as I know, no movie has ever shown a black man beating up a white man outside a war setting (though in life it’s not uncommon)—not even in a situation that favors the white man. But one can imagine a screenplay with sufficient art to justify a Negro’s physically humiliating a crowd of dreadful whites. Like Benjamin, he would have to have no choice but the ordinarily forbidden.
Benjamin’s battle for Elaine is so sudden and ferocious that we involve ourselves in it completely. When they finally escape their tormentors, and the tension of the chase is relaxed, our relief is consummate. To Nichols’ credit, he has not permitted “The Graduate” to fade front the screen on a shot of the couple in a clinch, or even on grins of idiotic triumph. They stare blankly ahead, because at last things have stopped happening at a preoccupying clip. Now they have a chance to consider the momentous consequences of what they have done, and the difficulties that lie ahead. This final moment of thoughtfulness—Nichols has painstakingly established the use of full-screen expressionless faces to indicate thought and emotion—lessens only slightly the exuberant tone of his finale. But after the lights go on in the theatre we, for our part, have a chance to realize that Benjamin’s capture of Elaine was, at the outside, a secondary aim. What, after all, is Benjamin going to do with his life? Do we infer from the vigor of his pursuit, and from the conventionality of Elaine, that they will soon be discussing a mortgage on a split-level in Tarzana? That the whole “problem” upon which the film established itself was just a sort of “post-grad blues”—a phase that Benjamin simply had to be jolted out of? Or are these clues illusory? Will Benjamin now, with Elaine in tow, return to grapple with the confusions that unsettled him before the Robinson ladies turned up? These are crucial questions, and “The Graduate” has balked at them. Indeed, Nichols recently told a group of college-newspaper editors that as the movie ends, the real problems are just beginning (we must assume that Benjamin somehow needed Elaine before he could face them), and that the marriage would never work out. Nichols’ remarks were surprising, for none of their pertinent, even crucial extensions come across in his dénouement. The last third of the film implies either that “The Graduate” is about a boy passing through a difficult stage on his way to Normality or that Elaine represents, at best, Benjamin’s cowardly desire to simplify the complex issues of his life-to-be. (At worst, he has fixed upon her as a distraction, exactly as he fixed upon her mother.) The option is hardly satisfactory, so most of the critics have steadfastly ignored the evidence of the text and insisted that Benjamin’s long search for himself arrives at its payoff. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, typically, informed us that “The Graduate” is “rooted in the affirmative premise that the young can escape the traps of a society created by their parents.” And Glamour explained Benjamin’s barely controlled hysteria at the wedding by saying, “He doesn’t care what other people think because [now] he knows who he is. That’s growing up.”
The condition of being altogether lost may be unbearable; it is understandable that people usually take false roads out. The false roads don’t lead toward being found, exactly, or toward any particular wisdom, but at least they allow one a comforting feeling of movement, an illusion of progress—at least they consume energy. For an artist to detour onto such roads is also understandable, I suppose; in any event, it happens often enough. Resisting the lure of such detours and remaining still, in stark perplexity, to watch and listen is the nerviest course, in art as in life. The artist cannot afford to let himself get away with things; if he does, he cheats his characters and, consequently, his audience. If he cannot long maintain himself in the condition of being lost, he cannot long maintain his characters in that condition, either, because he has no sure sense of where it leads, or even of what its resolution might look like. He grows adept not at solving problems but at overcoming them—transmuting them, removing them, “settling” them, directing them toward false outcomes. The higher an artist’s distractibility is, the less tenaciously he clings to the essential, and the easier, and emptier, his aesthetic choices become.
Though we all identify European movies by naming their directors, film buffs who refer to American movies that way have seemed a little pedantic. Familiar though we are with the axiom that European auteurs produce unmistakably personal visions, we have seen Hollywood movies, even the movies of our most “distinctive” directors, as committee efforts. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was the Burton-Taylor movie or, in certain circles, the Albee movie. But “The Graduate” is, definitively, the Mike Nichols movie. In fact, it has given everybody the chance to be a movie buff; that is, to talk about the director. Even its actors, in interviews, have tried to turn attention away from the themselves toward Nichols. The critics—including some who usually scorn auteur notions—tended overwhelmingly to speak of “The Graduate”’s success in terms of Nichols’ success. Many of them called him a genius. The New York Film Critics and the Motion Picture Academy elected “In the Heat of the Night” Best Picture, but both groups chose Nichols over Norman Jewison (and Arthur Penn) as Best Director. The Directors’ Guild of America also gave Nichols its annual award. John Allen wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “The director . . . has [hereby] announced his candidacy for election to the upper chamber of filmmakers now occupied by Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, and others of their calibre. Mr. Nichols, as a director whose sure control shapes and colors every frame of film with a distinctive, recognizable style, is almost sure of election. . . . Mr. Nichols is everywhere, blending, coloring, illuminating. He gives to ‘The Graduate’ that special brilliance that occurs when all the right lights are filtered through the proper prism: his touch as a director is a veritable chandelier of finely cut crystal.” Will Jones wrote more or less the same thing in the Minneapolis Tribune.” Everybody asks why the Americans don’t make movies the way Europeans do, right? Okay, buddies, here’s European moviemaking done right in the heart of American movieville. Hey, there, Schlesinger, Richardson, Antonioni, Truffaut . . . can little Mikey Nichols come play with your gang? You bet.” Nichols said recently, rather as if biting the hands that had fed him so generously, “Critics are like eunuchs watching a gang-bang. They must truly be ignored.” The fact is that critical hungers have been working in Nichols’ favor. Americans want to feel good about what is being produced here. In the early nineteenth century, when Continental literati scoffed, “Who ever read an American book?,” our critics often fell into a similar aesthetic chauvinism; this or that new author was always promising to take his place beside the European masters. A century later, when American movie pioneers set the pace for the international field, the heirs of those critics were quick to claim cinema as a fully legitimate medium for art. But its rapid industrialization—the demand for “something for everyone,” to insure maximum returns on huge production investments—soon dictated a cinema not of truth or beauty but of wish fulfillment: of prosperity, romance, and moral simplicity. At least since the end of the Second World War, with the flourishing of Italian neo-realism and, later, the French nouvelle vague, American entertainment has been forced back into the shadow of European art. Our cultural insecurity vis-à-vis the Old World is at work again. Oppressed by the confusions of the times, we look for the film genius who will do for us what Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, and Olmi have done for the Italians. It is an immense task, granted, but we cannot afford to accept less from our first mid-century genius. He must give this frazzled country some feeling for itself, for its contradictions and despairs, even as it goes through changes that make the job almost impossible.
Not altogether unlike Benjamin, Nichols has long existed on the verge, in a portentous condition of promise. He had a way of shrugging off his unbroken string of successes (five stage and two Hollywood hits out of seven tries) which made them appear playful warmups for some grand feat of art. Because his mastery over “unworthy vehicles” seemed consummate—because, in other words, he had attempted nothing in the theatre that strained at the limits of his talent—people considered him “better” than anything he had done showed him to be. Nearly every artist secretly thinks of himself in this way, but Nichols’ recent public statements suggests that critical overestimations of “The Graduate” may have momentarily beguiled him into presuming that the quality we are willing to attribute to him can already be found in his work.
Nichols has provided his film with the texture, if not the substance, of contemporaneity. Like “Blow-Up,” and more than any other recent American film, “The Graduate” has the look of today. The Berkeley students look like Berkeley students—not like Berkeley students of a dozen years ago, or like a middle-aged conservative’s nightmare of Berkeley students, or like a pop huckster’s souped-up Berkeley students. (Nichols is reported to have salted his crowd with casting-agency hippies. He evidently has an exceptional eye for extras.) Similarly, his camera has captured the exact appearance of a contingent of senior citizens, a nouveau-riche poolside lawn party, a Berkeley student boarding house, an Ivy League-type locker room, a suburban Los Angeles den. The care that Nichols has devoted to surface reality infuses into familiar personalities and their backgrounds a recognizability uncommon in American films (and virtually nonexistent on television). There’s something thrilling in that accomplishment—something rather like the strange excitement of overhearing one’s name mentioned—but his ability to capture our surroundings gives him an authority he does not merit on the subject of the feelings we experience in them.
Nichols also seems determined to weaken the impact of his settings with an almost random series of cinematic tricks. Unusual ways of photographing the details of physical reality—the simple fact of things—are supposed to comment upon the camera’s objects, upon what is really there. Presumably, a director uses the perspectives of his camera (its lens distortions, its angle of vision, its filter coloration, its distance, the suddenness of its attention) to indicate the proper attitude toward the visual facts, more or less as a writer chooses between words to suggest his own viewpoint. The way it works out most often in movies, of course, is that a director tosses off variations in perspective in a spirit of arbitrary virtuosity, confusing us or distracting us from his text, in the manner of a poet whose rhyme and metre bear no more than an incidental relation to the sense they serve. Many critics and moviegoers imagine that intrusive alterations of perspective are the “mark” of a film director much as readers once believed that similes and conceits were the mark of a writer. We now understand that good writing can exist quite independent of such conventions—that, in fact, a careless, eclectic use of them results in bad writing. Nichols approaches his visual arrangements like a young writer stuffing incongruous stylisms of Dickens, Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway—and some good schtik from Salinger, Mailer, and Bruce Jay Friedman as well—into his prose. In reading, we have a clear view of how disastrously this subverts what reality of his own a writer manages to bring to his material, but we are not so wary of the non-integral perspectives of the motion-picture camera.
Nichols may be somewhat proud of his artful photography, for he has apparently authorized as the film’s advertising emblem a composition that he employs twice, ostentatiously, in the film: Benjamin (in the ad he is decked in ceremonial cap and gown) framed by the bare, curvaceous leg of Mrs. Robinson. Nichols goes in for this sort of camerawork throughout the movie. What’s the point?
“Well, to take this particular issue, the shot of Benjamin through Mrs. R.’s leg as she fiddles with her stockings is intended to fill our field of vision, like Benjamin’s, with brassy sexuality.”
Well, then, why are we looking through the leg at Benjamin, instead of at the leg as if through Benjamin’s eyes?”
“Well, this way we get to see Benjamin reacting as well as what he’s reacting to.”
“Well, why don’t they just show the leg from Benjamin’s shoulder and then right away show us him reacting in a closeup, because we get distracted from him by that leg in the foreground anyway.”
“Well, this way you get the whole idea instantaneously, in a single shot.” Clearly, the argument can continue on both sides, and over each jarring cinematic change: Is this new perspective justified at this moment by what is happening in the movie? Does it work here? Though unusual perspectives are often assumed to be self-justifying, they tend to make us aware of ourselves as an audience—to insist upon the urgency of our being entertained, or else to give us the uneasy feeling that the director is providing insights we aren’t absorbing. Like a child who has been given a great many presents at once, Nichols seems to have just discovered that the camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding. Now he has it crouching low to peer up into a dazzling blur of sunlight. Now staring wide-eyed in to the headlights of oncoming cars so that the beams bounce from the lens, creating floating discs in the night. Now jumping into a swimming pool to catch the swirly patterns of air bubbles in moving water. Now snuggling in a closet corner and ogling out past the hangers, now squinting through a fish tank, now gazing at reflections in a polished tabletop. Now it’s barrelling low along a bumpy highway, now jogging on some unseen shoulder, lending a “documentary” quality by cutting off the tops of people’s heads for cruel, open-pore closeups. Now its lens is foreshortening, now it is wide-angle, now telescopic, now looking to one side so that the main image is way off center. Nichols’ devices keep elbowing us nervously in the ribs, as if without them our attention might stray: anticipated-sound cuts, with dialogue from a new scene beginning while the image of the previous one still lingers on the screen; dizzyingly fast cutting back and forth between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson when she first offers herself to him, turning her naked body into a blur of flesh; a painful sequence photographed through the distorting glass of a scuba mask; a pullback to a bird’s-eye shot of Benjamin sitting in a deserted Berkeley plaza, which dissolves, to suggest the passage of time, into a shot of Benjamin in precisely the same posture but with the light brighter and the plaza filled with bustling students; a phantasmagoric series of cuts, beginning with the affair proper, that include shots of Benjamin being borne by his raft in the pool and by Mrs. Robinson’s body in bed, Benjamin having breakfast with his parents, then watching TV at home and watching TV in the hotel room.
Nichols’ cameraman, Robert Surtees, has been quoted as saying, “I needed everything I learned in the past thirty years to shoot ‘The Graduate,’ ” as if this were automatically to be taken as testimony to Nichols’ directorial brilliance. Ideally, of course, a director’s style should emerge organically from his over-all conception of the material. A cohesive point of view should lead to a legible plan that relates each shot to the film in its entirety—or, failing that, at least to the surrounding shots, to whole scenes. Nichols, fairly bursting with ambitious ideas, seems to have been squeamish about giving any of them up. His apparent compulsion to retain each distinct evidence of his “creativity” unhooks scenes from one another, and even produces a disjointed quality within individual scenes, as though he intended, instead of a narrative, a series of vignettes. Denied the cabaret option of discretionary blackouts, Nichols is frequently at a loss for some means of proceeding gracefully from one cut to the next. Often, he ducks out of his dilemma with facile irony. He caps a tense family scene at the breakfast table with a cheap guffaw: browned slices pop providentially from a toaster—punctuation of the sort that kept viewers chuckling over the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” When Elaine goes off with Carl at the San Francisco Zoo, Benjamin is left alone in front of the monkey cage. Nichols lingers on the inevitable mugging chimps, granting us also a glimpse of the over-appropriate sign “Do Not Tease.”
How are we to account for these lapses? Once a writer has embarked upon the act of composition, he must put all the fine prose he has read out of his mind, and I suspect that a filmmaker, at some juncture—if not while shooting, then in the cutting room—must do the same with all the movie footage he has viewed admiringly. Nichols seems to assume naïvely that shots that looked good in someone else’s movie will look good in his own. The framing thing, for example, used to be a fad in still photography—we recall the Armistice Day parade viewed through an amputee’s crutch and remaining leg, or the tennis player framed in the netting of his opponent’s racket—but since it failed to tell as much as it promised, its interest soon waned. So it goes with Nichols’ devices. They send us scurrying in search of absent meanings. To complicate matters, we recognize certain types of shots from other films, and tend to associate them with certain directors—to consider them, in fact, the substance of a particular director’s style. And a number of Nichols’ imitative shots are so strikingly reminiscent of their originals that they compound our distraction by calling us back into a previous film experience. The huge, beauty-parlored faces frozen in artificial hilarities which so impinge upon Benjamin’s fragile homecoming sensibilities dance before the camera just like party faces from “8 1/2” or “Juliet of the Spirits.” Fellini’s camera catches more of the truth about those who impose their presences upon the distraught Mastroianni: they are terrible harpies, but, even so, something is to be learned, not merely endured, from observing them. The startling zoom-back shot of Mrs. Robinson leaning rain-drenched against a blank wall—an image so drained of color as to appear virtually black-and-white—evokes a shot from Antonioni’s “La Notte.” Its main effect here, however, is unintended. It strikes us with the depths of Anne Bancroft’s sudden ugliness, and the image is affecting not because of what has befallen an unsavory character but because the spectacle of an unsparingly photographed woman star has an overwhelming poignance. In the face of Miss Bancroft’s professional courage, we are ashamed to have doubted the honesty of the enterprise for which she abases herself. Again the mind has been drawn in an undesirable direction. Astonishingly, Nichols seems to miss the point at times. Much of the business involved in Benjamin’s wait for Mrs. Robinson in the hotel room recalls a similar scene in Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin.” Here the effect of Benjamin’s flicking the trysting-room lights on and off is largely dissipated because the camera is so close in on him; we get little sense of Benjamin in the whole room as it flips between light and darkness.
When critics speak at all of this sort of directorial borrowing, they tend to talk, with absurd politeness, about “influence.” Thus, in his review of “The Graduate” Stanley Kauffmann writes, “In ‘Virginia Woolf’ I thought I saw some influence of Kurosawa; I think so again here,” or speaks of a “Godardian irony through objects.” (Irony is irony; Kauffmann means to draw our attention to specific methods that Godard has fathered—lingering on props to comment upon the action, or juxtaposing shots of characters with shots of things that supposedly illuminate character.) Again, in noticing the “aged, uncomprehending passengers” who turn to stare at Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, he writes, “One last reminder!—of Lester’s old-folks chorus in ‘The Knack.’ ” This critical approach implies that a director somehow absorbs the craft of his mentors, which gives his work additional resonance. But a conscious artist is rarely influenced in any such abstruse way. Nearly every great director, writer, composer, or painter plagiarizes his forebears’ craft—especially early in his career, before he has fully worked out his own thing. He learns, as Archibald MacLeish has put it, “the way a boy learns from an apple orchard—by stealing what he has a taste for and can carry off.” To speak of this imitation as “influence” falsely implies unawareness. Obviously, Nichols isn’t trying to sneak anything past us; he has sufficient ingenuity to disguise his borrowings better, if he cared to.
Nichols (and Webb before him) clearly aimed at that comedy which arises naturally out of a scrupulous observation of life—that vision of human frustration and inadequacy which is devastatingly true yet devoutly compassionate. This is probably the highest form of comedy and, at its most successful, the funniest. It is the comedy of Chekhov, of some Mark Twain stories and some of Chaplin’s movies, of Lenny Bruce, of Salinger—the wise laughter rising above apparent tragedy. Now, there can also be a certain condemnation in such laughter, but never so much as to overwhelm charity with contempt. The song that Simon and Garfunkel do on the sound track after Benjamin flees from Mrs. Robinson’s cops suggests its temper: “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.” Great comedy is naturally subversive, by virtue of its accuracy, but it is never venomous. It may give exquisite pleasure over long periods without making us laugh out loud. Then, when the side-splitters do come, they have a quality almost of spiritual purgation. Nichols would have liked, one imagines, to make “The Graduate” this sort of comedy, but he was trained in a theatre—cabaret and Broadway—where comedy’s success is meter-measured: How many in the audience laugh? How often and how loud? Nichols seems to care about getting the laughs, even easy ones; he doesn’t particularly care who it is he’s laughing at, and he apparently believes that a laugh is as good a way out of an artistic problem as any other.
An odd change occurs in Nichols’ point of view at the beginning of the middle section of the film (when Benjamin telephones Mrs. Robinson) and persists until the end of that section (when Benjamin realizes he loves Elaine): Benjamin himself becomes the butt of the jokes. In the first part of the film, adults seemed laughable, or pitiable, yet basically well intentioned. Here they seem wicked (Mrs. Robinson) or dangerously insensitive (Benjamin’s parents). Having become sinister, the grownups no longer seem fit objects for comedy. Nonetheless, this middle section of “The Graduate” is the most comically intended of the three, and, to judge by the reactions of the audience, it is the most comically successful. Benjamin turns into a victim here—not only a victim of Mrs. Robinson’s wiles but a victim of his own ineptitude. It is the second victim, in particular, that we are meant to laugh at. Nichols has filled the section with the sort of broad funny business he polished in staging Neil Simon’s comedies on Broadway. Benjamin should be uncomfortable with Mrs. Robinson partly because of his naïveté but more because he understands that she can have no real place in the scheme of his life. Nichols, however, exaggerates the naïveté until it becomes farcical. About fifteen minutes of running time elapses, for example, between the time Benjamin telephones Mrs. Robinson and the time they hit the hotel bed together—fifteen minutes of sight and sound gags on the theme of nervousness. Benjamin fumbles through the arrangements for their rendezvous—nodding maniacally, scratching, wheezing from deep in his throat, like a frightened animal—as though he expected a vice squad to descend on him at any instant. In some business with the room clerk that centers on his having no luggage, Benjamin loses his cool completely. The single, frenetic joke—the ninny doesn’t know what he’s doing—continues after Mrs. Robinson gets up to the bedroom: Benjamin kisses her just after she has inhaled smoke from a cigarette, so she must hold the smoke in until the kiss is over; Benjamin tries to bring her a wooden hanger for her dress, but it’s attached to the closet rod; and so forth. We quickly exhaust our ways of receiving the joke, and our laughter becomes similarly frenetic.
Critics have remarked that the excruciating exchanges between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are reminiscent of some of the bits that Nichols used to do with Elaine May. Their work together often portrayed men and women coming on with each other, and Nichols and May were particularly sharp at skewering common dishonesties, egotistical little games, and ulterior desperation. Yet the one scene in “The Graduate” in which Benjamin lets his hair down to Elaine (“I feel like I’m playing this game somebody else made up the rules to . . .”) is closer to a Nichols and May routine than any conversation with Mrs. Robinson—though heaven forbid we should laugh at it. Their comedy almost never took sides—one of them didn’t become the other’s butt. Nichols’ character was just as derisible as May’s, and neither used gag lines to make us laugh; instead, each tried to express himself with the utmost seriousness and wound up—partly to our embarrassment, because each said things that any of us might hear ourselves saying—fatuous. In “The Graduate,” Nichols treats as revelation the kind of material he would once have used for his comedy, and makes comedy out of the kind of material that would once have been beneath him. When Benjamin first arrives at the hotel, he does a double take when the clerk asks him, “Are you here for an affair?” Soon we are asked to laugh at every hint of his anguish. Mrs. Robinson becomes more than a domineering female. The traditional sexual roles are reversed: she clearly wants nothing more than a good time in bed, and Benjamin, like a Vassar girl, keeps working the conversation around to his misgivings about not having a “meaningful relationship.” Her frank, predatory sexuality begins to look like derision of Benjamin. His compliance begins to suggest that he must despise himself. Had Nichols made a more substantial case against Benjamin’s surroundings—had that issue survived the first third of the film—his self-degradation would have made sense, at least dramatically: he might have felt so sullied by his inability to break connections with society that he could not foresee ever feeling pride in himself.
After the surprising credibility of the first third, the tight structure of plot and character begin falling to pieces. We are assaulted by a series of unbelievable details. Presumably vital questions of plot become irrelevant, because of incredible elements within the plot. Is Benjamin a virgin or isn’t he? After the first hotel-room scene with Mrs. Robinson, we could equally well decide either way. Since Benjamin’s entire motivation in the scene hinges upon the “true” answer, we may assume that Nichols at least whispered it in Dustin Hoffman’s ear, and, without very much extra effort, could have tipped off the audience. If Benjamin is a virgin, we may chalk up most of his terrible distress to first-time jitters. (Many of the critics made exactly this assumption, and consequently took Benjamin’s sexual initiation, or “coming of age,” to be the major theme of the film.) If he is not, we must look for more interesting and disturbing causes. Having read the book, as John Lennon says, I can report that although the Benjamin of the film usually acts as though he’d never even seen Playboy, the Benjamin of the novel is not a virgin. Ten pages are devoted to his departure for and return from three weeks on the road, undertaken, after graduation, to relieve his metaphysical distress, and he informs his father afterward, “There were a few whores included in the tour.” Nor is there any indication that they were Benjamin’s first. Just as Nichols has declined to let us know about Benjamin’s previous sexual experience, he has left out the trip altogether, even though many of its incidents might have had tremendous cinematic potential. Benjamin tells his father of fighting a forest fire in Shasta country, of hitching rides from common folk, of sex in “a cow pasture, Dad,” going on to say of this, “It was about three in the morning and there was ice in the grass and cows walking around us.” And he asks, rhetorically, “Have you ever had a queer Indian approach you while you’re trying to keep your clothes from burning up?” The stuff a Dylan song is made of! Yet Nichols omits the whole diminished Bildungsroman, possibly because it so forcefully underscores the proper problem of “The Graduate;” it shows beyond doubt that Benjamin is desperately in earnest about trying to determine what sort of life he wants to construct for himself. By concealing Benjamin’s sexual experience from us, Nichols is able to get mileage out of the boy’s naïveté and ineptitude. We could not laugh in quite the same way if we knew that Benjamin had just returned from sleeping with prostitutes on the road; we would have to treat him more seriously. We would have to interpret his reluctance to embark upon an affair with Mrs. Robinson as more sensible and telling.
The virginity question is just one example of what happens as “The Graduate” veers from its early course. As soon as Nichols starts fudging on his material, he gets caught up in a web of implausibilities. First, we have the B.M.O.C. Benjamin—evidently head of the debating club, campus editor, captain of the cross-country team, social chairman of his house—transformed into a somnambulistic, clowny schlepp, and, again, into an aggressive tiger. It’s natural for a guy to manifest different aspects of his personality with different girls, but the “cool” Benjamin, in shades, who knows his way around tough Sunset Strip burlesque joints simply cannot be the shook-up fellow with the big-eyed stare who assures Mrs. Robinson as he prepares to grant her fondest wish, “I want you to know how much I appreciate this.” Next, Mrs. Robinson—a handsome, worldly, unhappily married woman—is transformed first into a businesslike mistress and then in to a hellhound. Nichols seems on the verge of making her human in the fight after Benjamin pleads, of their affair, “Couldn’t we liven this up with a little conversation?” For a moment, he allows us to realize that the young man has the position of strength in a liaison of this kind, and that the older woman—worn out, fearful about wrinkles and flab and her waning capacity for arousing desire or affection—is the one who is truly vulnerable. Just as we begin to feel some sympathy for this wretched woman, Nichols snaps the witch mask back on her. The remarkable thing is that there is not the slightest necessity for either of these sequences of transformation. Nothing essential to the story requires that Benjamin ever be less than bright and competent. Nor does anything demand Mrs. Robinson’s consummate villainy; the wooing of a girl after an affair with her mother would by itself present a hero with plenty of obstacles—especially once the father-husband found out. So Nichols has introduced these two distortions of personality as though to help captivate us away from our initial focus, and from them spring a litter of false bits. Benjamin would not continue to call Mrs. Robinson by her surname after they have been sleeping together for weeks. He would not make such an idiot of himself over retrieving his toothbrush from his car. He would not drive his car literally off the road at Elaine’s casual mention of the hotel where he and Mrs. Robinson have been trysting. Mrs. Robinson would not be so insanely touchy on the subject of her daughter. She would not perpetually address Benjamin in that excessively clear tone one reserves for small children. She would not lean over indifferently to rub out a smudge on her slip when Benjamin puts a hand on her brassiered breast—her hungers could not be so cold. She would not be so ready to tell Elaine of the affair, nor would Benjamin—they would not race each other home to break the news. She would not then invent a preposterous story about Benjamin’s getting her drunk and raping her—stab him in the back and then try to hang him on a concealed-weapons rap—and if she did, neither her daughter nor her husband would believe her, because they could not live twenty years with such a woman and know nothing of her treachery. Indeed, Mrs. Robinson becomes so impossible that her machinations have to take place offscreen for almost the last hour of the movie, except for a two-minute confrontation with Benjamin when he appears searching for Elaine, and a one-line appearance in the wedding finale. With Mrs. Robinson out of the way, Elaine must share the burden of uncertain characterization. She falls for the rape story completely and dismisses Benjamin for good, then immediately believes his denial and falls in love with him. We might make allowances for that much, but suddenly she becomes inexplicably flighty; her feelings seem to be serving some unfathomable higher demands—the director’s, we cannot help suspecting. Precisely when the course of the film hinges upon her response to Benjamin, she grows so wildly fickle that even the conventions of “femininity” will not excuse her. For no apparent reason, she shatters our picture of the obstacles arising from a misguided adult world.
Much of the excitement surrounding “The Graduate” has stemmed from the proposition that, in Glamour’s words, it “gets to the very heart of what youth is about,” and is also a superbly “adult” movie. (Very few children’s movies come out of Hollywood anymore, but producers still reserve the term “adult” for films they regard as uncommonly truthful.) Critics who previously had only scorn for film renderings of Youth hail “The Graduate” as the first American motion picture to deal authentically with today’s much discussed generation gap. Yet in representing the gap between contemporary adults and youth the film unwittingly calls urgent attention to the gap between the America of today and the America of ten years ago, from which its generational vision might more credibly have emerged.
“The Graduate” hinges upon Benjamin’s interestingness, and it is an interestingness not so much portrayed as established by a tautological convention: People who don’t say much and who look pained in frequent closeups are deep and interesting because why else would they be pictured that way? Carl Smith is introduced and limned to underscore our impression of Benjamin. Carl is the Lane Coutell figure—tweedy, suave, “giving the impression of having at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.” His fraternity brothers, naturally, refer to him as “the make-out king.” But what, after all, does the contrast between Carl and Benjamin amount to? I asked a number of people who saw the movie. Most of them, in fascinating departures from the text, immediately replied that the two were as different as Jacob and Esau, and went on to paint subjective portraits of Carl as an unfeeling square and Benjamin as a sort of radical-hippie—a logical extension of his “interestingness.” But an interesting young man of the late fifties transplanted into the America of 1968 would be barely conscious. Ten years ago, a primitive rejection of adult emptiness and hypocrisy was a sufficient condition for interestingness. Today, by itself, it isn’t nearly enough. It may not even be necessary.
On the basis of all we can learn directly from the film, the differences between Carl and Benjamin are these: Benjamin is the sloppier dresser, the more awkward, the more sour, the more confused, and—almost logically—the more interesting. But isn’t he, really, awfully straight arrow? Poor Carl, like the President, is condemned for his idiom. (He proposes to Elaine by saying, “I think we’d make a pretty good team.”) He sees the course of his life stretching clearly ahead of him and prepares to traverse it without ambivalence, confident in the relevance of his past (primarily, we assume, his studies) to his business in the world. He carries himself in a way that suggests he envisions not so much a future as a beneficent destiny. Benjamin, on the contrary, lacks the pleasant conviction of progress. By common definitions, he has already proved he can succeed, but he is unable to gain any satisfaction from that excellence. He finds himself unexpectedly disenchanted with award-winning and aunt-kissing, and he regards his education as useless, but nothing that looks like an option has presented itself to him. Webb’s novel continually emphasizes these points:
“ . . . I’m finished with schools, Dad.” A section of grapefruit fell off his spoon and onto the table. “I never want to see another school again. I never want to see another educated person again in my life.”
“Come on, Ben.”
“Come on!” Benjamin said, standing up. “Now I have wasted twenty-one years of my life. As of yesterday. And that is a hell of a lot to waste.”
“Dad,” Benjamin said, “for twenty-one years I have been shuffling back and forth between classrooms and libraries. Now you tell me what the hell it’s got me.”
“A damn fine education.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You call me educated?”
“Well, I don’t,” Benjamin said, sitting down again. “Because if that’s what it means to be educated then the hell with it.”
“Ben?” his mother said. “What are you talking about.”
“I am trying to tell you,” Benjamin said, “I’m trying to tell you that I am through with all this.”
“All this!” he said, holding his arms out beside him. “I don’t know what it is but I’m sick of it. I want something else.”
“What do you want.”
“I don’t know.”
Now, for a man to be twenty-one years old in America today, for a man to have grown up around Los Angeles and have been through four years at the nerve center of an Eastern college, and for him suddenly to wrestle with dissatisfactions so unfamiliar to him that their articulation is as primitive as this—and it is more primitive in the movie—can only be a sign of some serious retardation. Such a man is “interesting” only insofar as we might marvel at how soundly he has slept through the life that was going on around him, at how thoroughly he has managed to avoid exposure to a dozen explanations for his malaise. Yet the movies importance rests upon our assumption that Benjamin represents the best, the vanguard, of his generation. Nichols cannot be permitted the line of defense divined by those polls that are forever showing comfortable majorities of students supporting the war, abhorring drugs, and so forth—polls that never point out that at Harvard, for example, six per cent of the students support the war, a quarter have indicated they will go into exile or prison rather than submit to the draft, and fewer than half have never turned on. Benjamin is not supposed to be a “typical” collegian. (He doesn’t wear a “state” sweater.) He is supposed to be pointing toward the future—showing us which way the wind is blowing. Even in the late fifties, any harbinger would have had much clearer ideas about what he was rejecting. (There were beatniks then, after all, issuing position papers on American society.) The true Benjamin of Eisenhower America would have spoken to his father more in this vein: “Dad, you’re worried about my ‘negative attitude.’ But I can’t see keeping on with the scramble anymore. Don’t take this personally, but you and your friends look dead to me. The system is a trap, huh? It whooshes you along in frantic, meaningless patterns—college, mixers, grad school. And then the whole Good Life in America syndrome—career, tony wife, kids in good schools, Martinis, intelligent friends, two-week vacations, Newsweek . . . No adventure, no honesty, no _break_through. Well, I see how impoverished my ambitions have been so far.” Vanguard youth went on like that in the fifties; they accepted the seriousness of their parents’ beliefs and life styles, and could therefore address themselves to adult society in the manner of prosecuting attorneys. In the sixties, a paradigmatic father-and-son conversation would begin just where Webb’s conversation ends:
“What do you want.”
“I don’t know.”
And that would probably be the whole of the conversation, because one or both of them would then get up and leave the room, weary of preaching to the wind, racked (or delighted) by the impossibility of saving the other, no longer caring. When the Benjamin of the fifties finally said “I don’t know,” he had run out of ways to explain himself but he still believed in the possibility of explanation, if he were but a little more articulate, his parents a little more sensitive. The Benjamin of today would say “I don’t know” right at the start because he wouldn’t consider explanation pertinent, or even feasible. The very language given him by the adult world, he would feel, leads perniciously, inexorably back into that world. “So you’ve got no respect!” a father accuses, and as soon as the son tries to redefine the word his case is lost. Instead of the old heated philosophical debates, almost grown children now simply attempt to humor or manipulate their parents—ideally, creating the impression that they are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Indeed, many young people have made this faculty a criterion of being grown: When you finally understand where it’s at, you abandon fruitless argument.
Twenty-year-olds today can dismiss their parents’ vision without a lot of agonizing partly because they have the sense of being into much that their parents can’t even know about. Some adults continue to maintain that Blind Youth always suffers from this delusion: “You’ll look back in ten years and realize how right I was.” But those who have paid closer attention to their children perhaps have felt more deeply put down than any generation of parents in history. For the first time, parents have taken to heart the feedback they got from their kids, have come to suspect they may be leading pointless lives and have thereby been rendered unable to take pride in what they have achieved. Properly, the Braddocks display no such defensive doubts in relation to their son: Benjamin cannot even begin to formulate precisely what it is that’s wrong. More critically, his “rebellion” seems to arise, unprompted, from a tabula rasa of experience; he sees into less, not more, than his parents, and he has little appreciation of their needs and binds. He is unable to lie to them, let alone manipulate them. He gives the impression of having investigated little and “been through” even less. Has Benjamin already checked out psychedelics, heavy sex, solitude, S.D.S., mysticism, and so on? Unaccountably, a number of people I spoke with guessed that he had, even though there is no evidence for it in the film, nor does anything in his personality, as it comes across on the screen, give the “feel” of such experience. Eisenhower America: In the late fifties, a young man could leap directly from a normal middle-class scene into this paralyzing condition of being altogether lost The culture had not prepared him for the violence of his disillusionment, nor had it offered him a series of seductive alternate routes. “The Graduate” is largely the work of people who experienced some version of this dilemma a decade ago. They’ve now apparently decided that America is ready to be told—told not that her very best youth despairs for her but that some eccentric few are having unspecified “misgivings.”
The people at Embassy Pictures suggested that I might like to accompany Dustin Hoffman on trips around Long Island and to Washington, D.C., where he was to address “bodies of educators” on the subject of Youth Today. I thanked them and declined. The movies co-opt our intelligences; remarkably, we look to them for truths that stalk us every day. Mr. Hoffman, who has received a quarter of a million dollars for his second movie, is over thirty and has been a professional actor for a dozen years. He has been quoted as saying that Benjamin is like an exaggeration of himself ten years ago, and although he has made the part eminently “his own”—the charming gestures, mannerisms, and postures of this kid in the movie surely reflect as much Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock—one still gets the feeling that a youthful-looking thirty-year-old is playing an ironic memory of himself at twenty-one. I asked a man at Embassy Pictures what, besides a movie role, qualified Hoffman as an expert on Youth Today. “A lot of the young people are turning to him,” the man replied.
“The Graduate” appears to be a most “liberal” film. It sympathizes with Benjamin’s disgust at adult things; it seem, to condone some fairly taboo sexual behavior; it makes one feel “good” about this younger generation everyone has been fretting about. In fact, it is a kind of propaganda of desperation. Sophisticated movie audiences fall prey to its snow jobs no less than unsophisticated ones. The latter don’t yearn for “honesty” and so don’t search for traces of it; the former react too hungrily when traces reveal themselves. “The Graduate” concedes that upper-middle-class life is not as golden as Hollywood once cracked it up to be, and even so slight an admission leaves moviegoers breathless with surprise and gratitude. Mike Nichols has claimed as a theme “the Los Angelesization of the world . . . in which things take over a person’s life.” Yet shortly after he suggests this theme, he begins, as if he had quickly discovered that it wasn’t all that compelling, to shrug it off.
In admitting the Eisenhower secret, “The Graduate” obfuscates the truth about Johnson America, which is that hardly any of its most interesting young men look forward to “making it” in our present society. Popular art has helped us sustain a preposterous myth about how it feels to grow up in this country. A young man who tries to reject the cant and depersonalization that threaten to drain him is generally—as he appears to us in films, television, and magazine articles—a problem-ridden case. He may, of course, engage our sympathy with his basic goodness, his sensitivity, or his personal charm, but the central point about him remains his maladjustment—he needs “straightening out.” We still seem willing to believe that adjustment is the proper object of growth—that the closer one comes to “being adjusted,” the more mature one is. Naturally, the definition acts as a defense for all that is most repressive in society. When the protagonist of a film is a murderous young hoodlum, for example, the deep social problems he may represent become subordinate to the film’s theme—society’s inexorable crusade to get hold of the kid and “rehabilitate” him, or, at least, eliminate him from the scene by imprisoning or killing him.
Moviegoers are desperately starved for cinematic truth about what it is like to live in America at this moment in history. Twenty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote a piece about gangster movies in which he talked of maintaining public morale as the principal responsibility of mass culture: “At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot.” The anxiety of the populace has by now grown so acute that even responsible statesmen have voiced warnings of an internal crisis to match the Civil War or the Great Depression—a kind of national nervous breakdown. And by now the organs of mass culture—especially the movies—have been forced to develop more sophisticated techniques of allaying, or disguising, our trauma. The whole idea of maladjustment, for one, has become a nice vehicle for dealing with confused or unhappy protagonists. (Movies are not, of course, the only contemporary art that uses “dealing with” to mean “getting rid of the problem of.”) In this period, when the “sensitive” individual is supposed to feel so profoundly helpless to alter horrible trends, American movies are insisting more strongly than ever upon the power of a single fine person to transform an entire bad scene. Two of the most successful films of the past year—“To Sir, with Love” and “Up the Down Staircase”—left us with this optimistic moral. People dimly sensed that “Bonnie and Clyde” suggests more about our present lives than most pictures with contemporary settings do. They talked on about our sense of ambient violence, and so forth (several Village Voice readers who responded to a Ten Best Movies poll pencilled “Why are we in Vietnam?” next to their votes for “Bonnie and Clyde”), but its relevance perhaps has more to do with the doom that stalks its two central characters relentlessly from the beginning. Both are beings with no possibility of anything but drab, impoverished lives The thematic force of the movie lies in our understanding that their fate is never substantially altered; they are simply doomed to a more precipitate and compelling bad end. We are protected from the metaphor of their hopeless lives by distance and by disguise. They lived in a bad place during a bad time. And gangsters can’t make it. We have not yet made our move. We are still lying low, figuring the angles, plotting our breakthrough. Yet we suspect that our distinction between legal and criminal is a quibble, that any shortcut toward making it will be seen as an aggression: you cannot bust magnificently out of the game. “Bonnie and Clyde” seems to argue, with Bob Dylan, that we live “Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden . . . Where black is the color, where none is the number,” where kamikaze assault is the only alternative to diminished existence. Despite the largely fixed, nearly classic dramatic patterns of “Bonnie and Clyde,” its hard authenticities draw us close to the transgressor-victims, and lay claim to our feelings of desperation and inescapable failure.
“The Graduate” also progresses through the traditional patterns of a classic genre—the initiation story with romantic triangle—and also goes further than previous films of its genre toward making “alienation” understandable. But movies like “The Graduate,” however much they “criticize” society, must ultimately affirm the possibility of Individual liberation. The tragic conception of American life has found expression in films that are—almost without exception—about criminals. We have had a tradition of “serious” movies, too, which have shown that success isn’t that easy—have seemed to cry out against a too cheerful Americanism. Yet even the suffering, failure, and deaths in these movies have led us toward an irresistible, transcendent optimism; since they make concessions to a bleak conception of our lives along the way, they give us fewer grounds for finally rejecting their overriding vision. Still, American directors cannot be said to have done their affirming in bad faith. If the sailor’s girl in “The Best Years of Our Lives” had found that she could not, after all, spend her life with a man who had hooks instead of hands, and if Brando in “On the Waterfront” had been thrown unconscious into the river after being beaten by Lee J. Cobb’s thugs Instead of rising to lead the magically rebellious longshoremen back to work, neither movie would have been satisfying emotionally—or artistically. Movies have created for themselves a peremptory demand—that criminals never succeed or good Americans fail. If twenty adults had laid hands on Benjamin in the church and held him for the paddy wagon while Elaine drove off with Carl for their honeymoon (as would probably have happened in life), we would leave the theatre feeling cheated and lied to. The thoughtful moment on the bus, the absence of a clinch at the curtain—this is the maximum pessimism we can bear, though I noticed that most of the audience, anticipating the extent of Nichols’ seriousness, got up to leave the theatre as soon as Benjamin and Elaine climb aboard the bus. Should the “optimism” of the ending be undercut by what we have already glimpsed of society? Benjamin’s slipping away without ever adequately defining his relation to it makes the question unanswerable. From time to time, Nichols breaks out of the affirmative mood, but he is forever reintegrating his material into protective conventions: misunderstood youth, love conquering obstacles, vigor and persistence rewarded.
Since it is so hard to end an American movie with the defeat of a good man, directors inform their work with seriousness by being “negative” along the way—by acknowledging that problems do exist. Some war veterans face difficulties of readjustment; some union leaders exploit and intimidate workers; some parents threaten the happiness of their children. Mindless optimism having become nearly a convention of the American cinema, a little pessimism—even if it is no better thought through, and therefore no truer, than the buoyant vision it is meant to supplant—goes a long way in advancing the director’s reputation. The more negative his vision appears to be, short of causing him to neglect his civic duty—the closer he can “cut it”—the more likely an educated audience is to call him a genius. Because American films straggle so far behind literature and European films in reflecting the actual quality of modern life, rudimentary negativism can easily be taken for truthfulness, and a decade-old vision can appear to be “ahead of its time.”
To the extent that we learn about the life around us through art, we are often learning what life was like ten or more years ago. The literature of generation gap that has abounded in the last year or so, particularly on and off Broadway, has been conceived either from an adult point of view, which implicitly regards the generation gap as a comfortably perennial problem, or, in the more significant instances, from youth’s point of view—at least, as well as it can be recollected—which vaguely senses an unprecedentedly wide breach. Since the authors of these pieces are now, at the youngest, pushing thirty, the general public has only lately become conscious of a species of generation gap—dolled up with a contemporary vocabulary and milieu—that existed in the fifties, when cool Berkeley coeds could get engaged to guys like Carl, and vague mutterings of discontent still had a radical ring.
One of “The Graduate”’s falsehoods in the light of contemporary experience arises from the supposed “strangeness” of Benjamin’s condition. Isolating him so (isolating him by his vision of things, for in his outward aspect he is the perfect teacher’s pet) seems meant to frighten potential malcontents into adjustment. In life, of course, Benjamin would have met hundreds of his peers—heads, revolutionaries, and some who would not fall so easily into categories—who shared his sense of America’s disorder, and he would have already begun to work with them on new conceptions of community, and of sanity. At the very least, he would have had a friend who felt as he did. Likewise, if he were a real boy returning home, none of the people around him would be totally surprised at his behavior; they would quickly understand him in terms of what they had already learned of alienated youth. “Thinking of dropping out, Benjamin?” his father would ask, with a nervous chuckle, as he passed his son in the pool for the sixteenth straight afternoon. “Benjamin’s starting to act like a hippie or something,” Mrs. Braddock would complain. Their friends and neighbors might still clutch at him, but it would be because here he was, practically the only great kid around not yet acting all crazy about his future and the lives of his elders. And then, when Benjamin started to exhibit his malaise more openly, or when they caught on to his new feelings, they might not understand the whole thing but they would recognize the symptoms. And not of some rare disease but of an epidemic. A friend might come over and say, “Braddock, my kid in law school wrote me the same kind of nutty stuff last week, and my fifteen-year-old daughter is threatening to run away to some damn commune in Big Sur. What the hell is going on, Braddock?”
Responsive parents have come to realize that something more momentous than the perennial rift between children and the adult world is now in the air. The rebellious youth of the fifties—of which Benjamin may be considered a not particularly precocious example—rejected a number of life styles within the system but never deeply questioned the necessity of the system itself. Like Benjamin, they didn’t know what they wanted to do—only that they didn’t want to punch a clock, or spend Saturday afternoon with a beer and a ball game. Yet even their negations orbited in one or another epicycle of the adults’ neat Ptolemaic system. They believed in intelligent compromise Whereas Eisenhower youths were forever finding poignant contradictions in the lives of their parents, Johnson youths have found mostly irrelevance. Eisenhower youths tried to reëducate their families, sometimes at a traumatic cost—to get them to understand. Johnson youths, in the realization that only those who have ears to hear will hear, have tried to minimize hassle. Young people no longer simply inherit attitudes; many of them have tuned in to the outside world. Parents are hard pressed to believe that, beyond an early age, they no longer play terribly important roles in their children’s psychic lives. Permissiveness, far from being responsible for youth’s new attitudes, may be the most genuine and most fitting response to them. It takes seriously the feeling that significant points of alignment have vanished. For a time, parents appeal to all sorts of motives that they feel must reside within their kid—his desire, for example, to live up to their expectations, to “make something of himself.” But these motives derive from their vision of the world, and reside, ipso facto, only within that vision. Permissiveness, when it is practiced, testifies to the uselessness of traditional devices. The kid is not rebelling; he hasn’t oriented himself in relation to his parents’ lives at all. Therefore, nothing they can say or do will bring him into line.
Benjamin’s malaise is so impossibly vague, then, that the Braddock family’s generation gap can be no more than a convention. What meaning it has arises not from anything that Benjamin says or does but from the artful observation that Nichols lavishes upon the moral ugliness of an environment. His fidelity of observation, however, awakens our appetite for further honesties. Because he has given us the visual reality, we expect some measure of reality beneath the surface. If the whole suburban scene had been pictured by the usual Hollywood camera—if it had been a Saturday Evening Post suburb, or the Anderson suburb of television’s “Father Knows Best”—then it would never have occurred to us that the “problem” of the movie might be larger than Benjamin’s problem of adjustment. His “identity crisis” would have seemed to have nothing to do with the times; he would have been merely a talented young man who must, upon graduation, abandon his fantasy of limitless possibilities—who must realize that he could not be a lawyer and a scientist and an artist all at once. His paralysis would have suggested a young adult’s agony of decision over what he must give up. But the perspectives of Nichols’ camera are so slanted toward Benjamin’s vision as to warrant his malaise. If things look generally good to us, Benjamin’s course of resolution is clear: he just has to work things out (in his own head) and get on with it. This is the perspective we would expect from his parents. If things look bad to us, however, the entire message of the film is transformed: Benjamin’s problem is objective and terrible, the course of its resolution not at all apparent. If things look bad, it means that Benjamin is the only person in the movie who has any idea what is happening; everybody else’s life is delusion. His anomie becomes reasonable, and his “brilliant future” an empty concept. If Nichols had only carried this insight through to its conclusion, it would scarcely matter that Benjamin is not haunted, as so many of his peers are, by the war, the blacks, the poor—mysteriously, not even by the draft. We would need no apocalyptic consciousness from him, no sense of a culture unravelling. Born to the “best” that American society can offer, Benjamin could represent—simply by his decent, tormented stolidity—something of the difficulty of living in America at this time. Benjamin is at loose ends. Perhaps he is not strong enough to forge a new life style. But he will never pursue his parents’ kind of life, or, if he does, he will never be free from inner agitation. Our understanding should not be that next week he will settle on law school or the Peace Corps and everything will be right. His ends must be looser, and deeper, than that.
Dropping out is not so much an activity as a sensibility. One directly engages the relevant, but one cannot rebel against an irrelevance; one drops out of it. Underground propaganda has made us think of dropping out as a rather bold, active stroke. It is more often a paralyzed sabbatical that spontaneously interrupts an “upward climb” with doubts so urgent as to short-circuit away all energy. Abulia, a total failure of alternatives that makes all courses of “positive action” appear equal evasions, is attacking not simply the crazies who spring to mind at the label “dropout” but alarming proportions of our most splendid young men. We have come to think of them with a certain shame, partly because their example seems to express too much disapproval of America but more because their failure of direction, their shiftless gloom or joy, itself seems somehow un-American. The media, whose understanding of alienation is rooted in the fifties, have used “dropping out” to describe something that hippies do—something exploratory, and, in that sense, temporary, traditional, and safe. Even comparatively young writers speak anachronistically of things like “hippies’ condemnation of middle-class society.” Beatniks condemned things, defined themselves as opposite to “the square world,” and derived their meaning from acts of flouting. Dropping out, in whatever costume, happens inside one’s head and may be, to an important degree, irrevocable. And what else is all Benjamin’s “drifting” about?
A few transformative years witnessed—not fortuitously—dramatic shifts in the administration of government (from Eisenhower to Kennedy and then to Johnson), a new consciousness of domestic deprivation, the beginnings of racial militancy, a new obsession with international morality, and the advent of psychedelic substances and the intense eclectic spiritualism that grew up around them. The direction of American youth during the past decade has been bound to politics and to drugs as the sub-generations got shot at in Mississippi, organized for student power and for the grape strikers at Berkeley, and grooved to the Airplane at the Avalon Ballroom on a thousand Owsley micrograms. During the four and a half years between the Kennedy assassinations, unprecedented numbers of young people awakened to the proportions of America’s imperfection. Those to whom John Kennedy held out a promise had graduated when the Johnson mandate began to sour. But the postwar babies didn’t feel betrayed. They had never known the promise—the strong pride in America. They doubted if it was ever more than a dream. Many of them grew up hard and cynical, or simply aloof from the abyss of American problems. Though drugs form the actual focus only of the hippie scene, they have become an integral part of the daily environment in almost every sphere that young people influence. Yet if one of Nichols’ Berkeley extras had lit up a joint in the background, the effect would be shocking; it would suddenly place Benjamin in a different time setting altogether.
In one sense, Nichols cannot be faulted for choosing to ignore protest and pot and the evangelism of individual and communitarian consciousness—any more than for not allowing a single black to pass more than fleetingly before his camera and for not mentioning the war in Vietnam. Yet in another sense what Nichols is talking about is precisely these things, for which the suburban void is no metaphor at all. He has not simply denied attention to drugs or politics; he has created a world in which they play no part, a world still obsessed with that old hangup sex. “The Graduate” has to do with an outstanding young man who finds himself turned off by the society he has been preparing to ensconce himself in. Yet all the readily available images to justify a turn-off far more compelling than Benjamin’s have been declined. Nichols has depicted Benjamin’s milieu as dishearteningly barren, but beyond showing its implicit conspiracy against everything that is seemly in his protagonist he has not begun to hint at why its barrenness may now be dangerous. When Benjamin’s landlord accuses him of being an outside agitator, the slight jest at the expense of right-wing Californians fails to draw any resonance from life; there is, for example, no trace of the compulsive political and cultural polarizations in that state, or of Berkeley’s significance as a New Left citadel, or of our myth that agitation, in the universities or the ghettos, wings in from “outside.” Nichols has made a film about growing up that is really about growing down, the lowering of consciousness; a film about dropping out that is really about working in; a film about alienated youth that refuse to acknowledge the momentous sources of alienation. “The Graduate” treats the question of alienation with an easy familiarity. It makes alienation seem to spring from unreasonable idealism, from overreaction to the harmless vulgarity of plenty. A disaffection more extreme than Benjamin’s—more in line with the disaffection of his actual generation—would have seemed disproportionate to the innocuous “evils” that Nichols has depicted.
We have grown quick to regard citizens exhibiting signs of disaffection as neurotic, delinquent, or “confused”—as members of a vaguely inferior minority whose discontent rests largely upon the fictions of disturbed imaginations. The President of the United States, in his State of the Union Message, makes get-tough asides about draft-card burners, marijuana smokers, and LSD takers. His listeners, his applauders immediately conjure up a picture of scruffy, nihilistic hooligans. Yet the President may be talking about some of the most promising young men on the campuses at Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, and Yale—young men who, like Benjamin, are the sons of our best-educated and most privileged class, and should, by tradition, inherit the country.
The Benjamin of the fifties—the Benjamin of the movie—makes trouble for a while, but pretty soon he comes around. In a lecture, Nichols informed an audience of Brandeis students that Benjamin would end up like his parents. Although this remains unsaid in the film—young audiences would find it unbearably offensive—it functions perpetually to integrate Benjamin’s flirtation with dropping out into a reassuring psychological tag, “the difficult phase.” “The Graduate” offers youth a subversive message: You cannot sustain an opposition to America; find someone to submit with, if you can. It seems unaware that history has upped the price of submission. In the fifties, “conformity” was the dragon against which valedictorians tilted their earnest lances. The trap of the sixties is complicity. The Benjamin that contemporary reality suggests could no longer imagine a life of quiet desperation in a social vacuum. He would begin to formulate definitions of “making it” all his own. He would concern himself with getting off, not with getting on. He might be driven by the need to change the system or to take revenge upon it. He might care only to ignore it or to take it for a ride. But he would not still interpret himself in its terms. He would perceive his role with a certain detached irony, recognizing himself to be a particular person—with a birth, some years in the world, a death—whose “business” had not yet become the business of being alive, and was colored with absurdity.
There are now a million such Benjamins, with visions of a healthier culture. At this moment, young people in the vanguard of change feel little hope for their chances. Many are possessed by paranoid visions of our collective future; thrown into relief by the reassurances of our official culture, they appear deranged. Indeed, by refusing to explore the terrible tension with which young Americans now experience their relation to America, and by suggesting the patterns of dissidence in figures as unpersuasive as Benjamin, the culture insists upon their derangement. If television, magazines, or at least a serious film like “The Graduate” reflected how grievously expectations for America have shrunk, a great many more young people would begin to discover one another. They would come to recognize the sudden prevalence of their own response and to believe more deeply in its aptness. The true Benjamins—those who feel themselves isolated, suspended in limbo between Lyndon Johnson and Ken Kesey, between acquiescence and domestic guerrillahood—would come to understand the depths of their fellowship and their strength.
I suggested earlier that the principal reason Benjamin couldn’t look forward to becoming an adult was that his environment had offered him no viable ideal of adulthood. He had to imagine for himself what a creditable grown-up life might look like, and he failed to come up with much of a picture. It’s unlikely that the efforts of others to conceive and test out new life styles would escape a person of Benjamin’s particular background. (Think of it: the new politics, the new bohemia, student power, the sexual revolution, acid, rock, the underground press—all germinated on his home turf. Where was he?) Yet such efforts cannot directly reach large numbers of young people who are removed from the heartland of changing social consciousness. These people are still like the Benjamin of the movie—put off, ready to pass up the fruits of their preparation, but wholly uncertain as to their options. Isolated and starved by the culture, they face a crisis of imagination. They can learn of their peers’ experiments only through the fun-house mirrors of the news media. Movies, the obvious source of help, have not begun to depict adult lives that thoughtful young people might admire or imitate; nor have they begun to examine, with any respect, young people going about the adult business of trying to find something propitious in their lives and their country. “The Graduate” has been accorded a reception like that of “The Catcher in the Rye,” even though it scarcely elaborates on the attitudes of adolescent discontent that Salinger’s book helped to reveal, and create, seventeen years ago. If we give unreserved praise to our cultural leaders for a vision of youth that ignores a generation’s worth of change, we must expect them to remain as barren of relevance as our political leaders. “The Graduate,” which in the end only quickens our perception of dead-end alternatives, begins with the radical intimation that there is some choice to be made on the threshold of adulthood—some yes-or-no decision about one’s future in American society. A film artist with the intelligence and the tremendous prestige of Mike Nichols should now begin to lay bare the nature of that choice, if it still exists. ♦