The 1960’s were a time of change and growth for our nation. Not that I can speak first hand since I wouldn’t be alive for 20 more years but the youth made such an impact, they were the key to the 60’s being filled with change. With that being said all I can think is, are we really that different now? Or did the children of the 1960’s become exactly what they rebelled against?
In 1967 Mike Nichols made a film that would reflect that very frame of thought. The Graduate premiered and blew over audiences and critics alike and won Nichols a Best Director award at the Oscars that year. Why is this film so important? Why did this film strike such a chord, particularly with the youth? So much that it became part of the change of the 1960s? Could this film still be relevant to us today, or is it a time capsule stuck in the 60’s? Important films last. Important films stand on their own even when times change and new techniques are created to make films look better, they can still stand on their own.
The Graduate is a film that follows Benjamin Braddock (a young Dustin Hoffman in his feature film debut) just after he has graduated from college. He is confused about his future, but no one else seems to care. His family has thrown a huge graduation party for him, but he isn’t interested in attending. Ben has bigger things on his mind.
Mr. Braddock: What's the matter? The guests are all downstairs, Ben, waiting to see you
Ben: Look, Dad, could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?
Mr. Braddock: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born. What is it, Ben?
Ben: I'm just...
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Ben: I guess about my future…
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Ben: I don’t know…I want it to be…
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Ben: (looks at his father)….Different.
Ben is drowning, searching for a sense of anything. He is an empty person. Many shots of him are through his fish tank or right in front of his fish tank, he is often in the pool “just drifting” as well. We can feel his sense of hopelessness and it is only further felt through the claustrophobic scenes at the party his parents are throwing him. We almost lose him in the shuffle of all the people at the party, as he is seemingly losing himself in his own life. He is then pulled aside for some advice.
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word, just one word.
Ben: Yes sir
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am.Mr. McGuire: Plastics
Here Ben is presented his options. He can go on and live life like his parents and their friends and be “plastic” or he can become a real human being and live his life however he wants to live it. Here I think Ben is obviously representing the youth. He is representing the lost, drowning, and hopelessness experienced by the youth of the 60’s and its becoming more evident that’s where we are headed today.
Just after receiving his advice Ben is seduced by Mrs. Robinson, which leads to an affair that goes on for months. This is what sparks Ben to move forward in any direction. While before he was being presented his options, now he is presented a solution, or at least he thinks.
When Mrs. Robinson comes into Ben’s room and their relationship begins she represents the “plastics” while he is slowly becoming one. He tries to find meaning in their relationship beyond the physical, beyond the fake, but when trying to talk Mrs. Robinson she becomes monosyllabic and anti-social. All he wants is a connection but the world of “plastic” life is devoid of any type of human connection. Through this he realizes he has become more lost and hopeless now.
Ben is losing track of time and space as everything just seems to blend together. Without a cut he can be seen swimming in a swimming pool at his house and walking through the kitchen where his mom is cooking, and going through a door and it becoming his hotel room with Mrs. Robinson. This use of the long take is often used just as a paragraph would be used; there is nothing to distinct these two worlds (his home with his parents and his hotel room with Mrs. Robinson) from one another. Whether he is at home or the hotel it doesn’t matter because neither of them are real, in the sense that humanity, feelings and depth are real. Neither of these two worlds hold any bearing with the reality that Ben so desperately wants.
Ben eventually discovers Mrs. Robinson attended art school. You wouldn’t have known it now from looking at her and how she lacks any kind of humanity or ability to think for herself that she could even enjoy something that can transcend the fake. Through her we see exactly what Ben will become if he doesn’t do something, anything at all.
On the other hand Elaine is a symbol of hope. She is the catalyst for Bens change, but he is afraid of hope at first, it is a scary thing, especially when you are beginning to be wrapped up in “plastics” as he was. He tries to scare her away, but when he sees compassion in her tears and sadness, he sees someone who can actually feel something. He sees someone who isn’t numb to the world and its surroundings. It’s not long before he falls in love with Elaine because he has finally found someone he can connect with, something he tried to do with Mrs. Robinson but just couldn’t. He finds through Elaine hope that he can grow in a better direction and not become a “plastic."
This could be where Ben’s story ends if he hadn’t already gotten wrapped up in “plastics.” When Mrs. Robinson threatens him, she will stop at nothing to keep her daughter from marrying Ben. Mrs. Robinson gets a hopeful feeling through Elaine as well and loves her daughter and doesn’t want her with Ben because she views him as weak willed. He has doubts about the kind of life he wants to live and the type of man he wants to be, therefore Elaine is too good for him. She will go to great lengths to keep her from being with Ben, even practically setting up a wedding with someone she barely knows just to keep Ben out of her life. This is the older generation fighting back. They see hope in someone’s eyes and they want to kill it. The world isn’t made for hope but for a let down. She wants her to marry Carl over Ben because Carl already is a “plastic.”
Throughout the film, all the adults are referred to as Mr. or Mrs. While the younger people are referred to by their first name only. This is also a representation of the huge gap felt between these two groups. Neither are willing to come together in anyway and the “plastics” aren’t going to be “disrespected.” This is a theory or perhaps Ben respects them all, and only refers to them as such for this very reason. Even though he doesn’t always treat them with respect there is always the sneaking feeling that he is bound to become just as they are.
Ben then boasts to his parents “I’m going to marry Elaine Robinson.” They show great excitement for this decision until finding out she doesn’t even know, and probably doesn’t even like him. Mr. Braddock tells Ben his idea is “half baked” but Ben assures him it is “fully baked.” Mr. Braddock has no faith in the situation. He has no hope that things could turn out good for Ben. What is the harm of him moving to Berkeley and trying to get her to marry him anyway? This is instinctively always their thought, if it is not for sure than it is not fully baked, but Ben believes in hope, following his heart and not taking no for an answer.
His confronting of Elaine is him confronting his dreams. He tells her they should get married, but why does he want this so quickly, why marriage? Maybe because he doesn’t want to lose her or maybe because he is ready to settle down with her and become a “plastic” himself.
When Ben finds out Elaine’s parents had set up for her to marry Carl Smith, he will stop at nothing to stop the wedding. He drives to Berkeley first to find out the wedding is in Santa Barbara, while getting there he runs into the church and goes to the 2nd floor and looks down and sees the wedding. He begins banging on the glass he has always been stuck behind. As stated earlier when Ben is always seen through his fish tank or in the phone booth he can see the outer world but cannot become it because he is trapped behind the glass. All the while yelling “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine!” desperately hoping she will listen. When she runs to him he fights off everyone with a cross he grabbed from the wall and he and Elaine run out the door, locking the door behind them with the cross. Closing the “plastics” in and leaving tradition behind. The cross locking them in is showing their traditions are limiting them and holding them back, he isn’t so much banishing them as he is just leaving them to what they already know while he and Elaine have bucked tradition and are able to run freely.
In the final scene when Ben and Elaine sit in the back of the crowded bus, they are really alone, but together. They smile fervently excited for what they had done, only to grow into a blank stare later. The doubts begin flying through their heads, but they never look back, what’s done is done and even if it wasn’t the best way to do things, they finally did something with their lives and finally followed their hearts for wants rather than becoming “plastics” as their families and friends are.
Through this we get mixed feelings. Hopeful but still hopeless would be the best way to describe it. They fought for a change in their lives, as did the youth of the 60’s, but ultimately it seems that although they escaped lives as “plastics” in their youth, there is no fighting what’s coming to you.