The Graduate is significant for three reasons. First, it is a major work by director Mike Nichols, who is characteristic of what the French call an auteur. (He is in complete control of his films and they contain consistent themes and elements of style.) The Graduate was Nichols's second film after he directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and it won him an Academy Award for best film director of 1967.
Second, the film was very popular with young people. The Vietnam War was escalating, and many young people were questioning not only the war but certain values of their society. But The Graduate was not a heavy protest film as Getting Straight or The Strawberry Statement were. The film's concern was not with destroying a materialistic, "plastic" society where people use each other as objects, but with a young man who questions this value system, decides what is important to him, and acts upon it honestly.
Third, the film stands the test of time. It possesses qualities of universality and brilliance because Nichols uses the filmic symbol system to generate laughter and cheers from his viewers.
The story concerns Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman in his screen debut) who returns to California from his eastern college and reacts zombie-like to his parents, their friends, and the values they live by. He is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner, but he acquiesces to this relationship only to save himself from symbolically drowning in the values and objects of the materialistic sub-culture he is in. In fact, Mrs. Robinson uses Benjamin as an object to satisfy her desire. Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson carry on their affair until he is forced by his parents to have a date with her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), currently home from college. One kiss from Elaine changes Benjamin from passivity to action. He now pursues Elaine, and overcoming all odds, rescues her at a church just after she marries a medical student. Benjamin and Elaine (she is still in her wedding gown) leave together on a bus.
The Graduate shares with other Nichols's films the theme of a character who finds himself or herself "drowning" in some way, and who attempts to change. In The Graduate, Nichols shows this drowning visually. Early in the film, Benjamin is in his room alone during his graduation party staring into an aquarium which has a model of a diver at the bottom of the tank. Mrs. Robinson comes in and asks him to drive her home, throwing the car keys into the aquarium. She symbolically has the "key" to his survival. At her home, she makes it clear that she is available to him. He later calls her to begin the affair after he has been humiliated by his father who has given him a diving suit for a birthday present. His father has Benjamin wear the suit to "show off" in front of friends. In this suit, which relates to the diver in the aquarium, Benjamin enters the backyard pool and then just sinks to the bottom. He stays underwater as the camera pulls back, making him almost disappear. His voice, calling Mrs. Robinson, is heard at the end of this shot before we see him making the call from a hotel. Thus, the affair begins his emergence into life and helps him question what is really important to him.
The Graduate also shares with other Nichols films the tentative ending, where the viewer is left to ponder if enough really has changed. In the ending of The Graduate, Benjamin has rescued Elaine and they escape on a bus. They don't speak. Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" is sung, as it was at the beginning of the film. The point Nichols is making is that perhaps not enough has changed, and that Benjamin cannot free himself from his society completely; he can only try, by seeing clearly and being true to himself and his own values.
This ending is consistent with the endings in other Nichols films. In Working Girl, 21 years later, which can be compared to The Graduate, the heroine has saved herself from "drowning" (she has crossed the water to Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, for example) and has become a boss, not a secretary. The last shot has her looking out the window of a huge building with many floors above her in the hierarchy of the business world, suggesting she has made a change but that there is a long way to go.
Elements of style that Nichols uses so well in The Graduate that can also be found in his other films are the use of the environment to comment on the states of his characters (cool colors and white walls in The Graduate emphasize a sterile environment), heads that fill the screen while the background is often out of focus (Benjamin moving through the guests at his graduation party as the camera, concentrating on him, shows his isolation), and the use of filmic technique to comment on the situation (Benjamin runs to the church to rescue Elaine but appears to be running in place without getting anywhere, since Nichols had this action shot through a very long lens that flattens perspective).
The Graduate remains today as funny and profound as it was when first released. It articulates concerns about values. And for Benjamin, Elaine, and the viewer, there is a tentative note of hope.
Release Date: 1967
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Brian Avery, Walter Brooke, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Buck Henry, and Marion Lorne
Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Source Citation: Schuth, H. Wayne. "The Graduate." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 478-480.