"The Graduate" (Mike Nichols, 1967) During the summer of 2009, the small rom/com "(500) Days of Summer" contained a line that hit home on many fronts. The romantic hero (says the police blotter-like narrator) formed his romantic ideas at an impressionable age due to "a mis-reading of 'The Graduate.'"
An easy thing to do.
Lots of young romantic kids grooving on the surface-tension of the movie, missed Mike Nichols' (and scenarist Calder Willingham and Buck Henry's) wise, dispassionate warning of a life led for instant gratification, something that went right over the heads of a clan preparing for "The Summer of Love." When we first find Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) he's going nowhere mighty fast: first, stuck in a plane seat, then on an airport's "moving sidewalk"—life going by, him standing still. He'll spend his first summer out of college in much the same way. His first night home, he'll be hiding in his room (to avoid his parents' celebratory welcome home party) "worried about (his) future."
But the world will have none of it. Along with the free advice ("plastics...") and the pinched cheeks that will continue through his adulthood, Ben is coerced into driving the wife of Ben's father's partner home from the party. Once there, "things get a little weird." Dressed in her leopard-print coat,* Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) reveals herself to be quite the predator, as well as revealing that she's neurotic, alcoholic and...oh, by the way, Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) won't be home for hours. Yes, as a matter of fact, she is trying to seduce him,** and Ben barely makes it home uncompromised by Mrs. and Mr. Robinson, who gets home sooner than expected.
But Ben is feeling pressure at home. Dad wants him to think about graduate school and is trying to hook him up the Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). To an extent he does a little bit of both by spending time in post-graduate studies with Mrs. Robinson, who becomes fiercely adamant against Ben dating her daughter. He also finds out that the Robinsons have a marriage of convenience as she became pregnant with Elaine and that was the thing to do.
It's pretty apparent that after four years of schooling, Benjamin doesn't listen very well. Forced into a date with Elaine, he's determined to screw it up, succeeds all too well, then, having reduced her to tears, decides that he can't be that much of a heel and makes it good to her. A romance begins to take shape, but is quashed when Ben reveals to Elaine that he had an affair with her mother.
Against all odds (or reason) Benjamin begins pursuing Elaine, culminating in a rescue at the church of her wedding, where they famously escape on a bus, having defied convention, their parents, and get things their way.
Orson Welles has said any story can have a happy ending...depending where you end it. If Nichols had ended with Ben and Elaine flush with revolution bussing away to their future, it would have been a happy ending.
But he doesn't. He stays on his shot of the two rebels as their expressions change from elation to confusion to...what? Ben has been so focussed on the prize and Elaine, confused and pressured into marriage, that they don't have a plan...they don't even know where the bus is going. The story will go on, and Nichols doesn't cut away until the last moment—he lets us see their expressions change, her looking at Ben unsure, Ben just looking forward still in an adrenaline daze of what he's done.
And what he's done is risk something the whole movie has been warning against—becoming like his parents. Mrs. Robinson has aspirations and dreams that were exploded when she became pregnant with Elaine and she became dependent on a man for her well-being. Elaine, with no degree, is now dependent on the adrift Ben and the only thing on his mind is domestic bliss, although how he'll get there, he probably doesn't have a clue. Their impulsive act of rebellion is a trap to becoming their parents. A lot of people missed that message in the 60's, but it's always been there for anybody not blinded by the comedy and the attraction of its stars.
It occurred to me (after loving the movie for 30 years) when my wife professed to not liking it much because the character of Elaine is so ill-defined and confused. It's not a strong woman's part, despite its screen-time. And Ben is simply a mess—single-minded, shallow, without much motive other than selfish ones. He's very much his parents' son.
So, when "(500) Days of Summer" came out, with its shallow male pursuing a female through friendship and assuming forever is part of the bargain, and its female character who enjoys the friendship but doesn't see it "safe" enough to be permanent,*** the connection to "The Graduate" clicked, all too finally. It is a comedy (in the classical sense), as its protagonists don't even know that by pursuing their course of what they see as rebellion, they've condemned themselves to living the quietly desperate lives of their parents.
On the occesion of its 30th Anniversary, a lot of critics who could do so, re-evaluated "The Graduate," and down-graded it accordingly. Given the new "reading between the frames," I'd actually up-graded as being far more subtle and wise than the comedy aspects of the film would suggest. Perhaps it's time to pay a visit to Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road," as well.
What did "The Bard" say? "You say you want a revolution, well, you know/we'd all love to see the plan..."
"Everybody puts Benjy in the corner:" Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft "Graduating"
* This was the 1960's—the term "cougar" would show up forty years later. Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman at the time.
** We dissected this scene in "Don't Make a Scene: The Graduate.
*** "(500) Days of Summer" has a telling scene, he takes her to see "The Graduate" and she ends up sobbing; what he sees as romantic, she sees as frightening, terrifying...and her situation.