It’s always a little dangerous for critics to cast their gaze backward on films that are widely considered masterpieces. Sometimes the results are illuminating; things that weren’t clear about a movie at the time sharpen in retrospect, and sometimes a movie that was ahead of its time gets the credit it deserves. Other times, we can slip into the “this movie is overrated!” trap, which usually comes off as snotty and ignorant. Or we might too readily fault a movie from the past for not living up to the political, aesthetic, or ethical standards of the present.
Minefields aside, it’s still worth looking backward, especially when movies that defined a generation hit a big birthday. Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, which had its premiere 50 years ago on December 21, is one such movie. Released in 1967, it’s come to be seen as the first “serious” movie targeted at the baby boomers, who were just coming of age. It toured college campuses and drummed up impressive buzz that translated to big numbers at the box office.
The critical consensus in 1967 mostly declared the film an instant classic. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it “one of the best seriocomic social satires we've had from Hollywood since Preston Sturges was making them,” and Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that “it is funny, not because of sight gags and punch lines and other tired rubbish, but because it has a point of view.”
At the time, many critics and viewers seemed to read The Graduate as skewering wealthy, stodgy affluent society like the adults around Benjamin Braddock — and thus saw Braddock as an avatar for disaffected and slightly bewildered youths. But 50 years on (and further from the follies of youth), the film’s take on Benjamin reads differently. In 1967, he was already an unflattering type — in 2017 he’s even more so.
Benjamin Braddock wasn’t a hero for 1967. He’s even less of one in 2017.
By 1997, Ebert had changed his tune a bit. Back in 1967, he wrote, he had identified with Benjamin, the 21-year-old character played by 29-year-old newcomer Dustin Hoffman. (As Mrs. Robinson, the older woman with whom Benjamin has an affair, a then-35-year-old Anne Bancroft was playing a woman at least 10 years older, which is a sharp reminder of Hollywood’s ideas of women’s looks.) But 30 years on, he’d seen the light and realized who the real heroine of the movie was: “Well, here is to you, Mrs. Robinson,” he began his second review. “You’ve survived your defeat at the hands of that insufferable creep, Benjamin, and emerged as the most sympathetic and intelligent character in The Graduate.”
In his reappraisal, Ebert suggested that The Graduate was a “lesser” film, held captive to its era. “It comes out of a specific time in the late 1960s when parents stood for stodgy middle-class values,” Ebert wrote, “and ‘the kids’ were joyous rebels at the cutting edge of the sexual and political revolutions.” And he confessed near the end that “today, looking at The Graduate, I see Benjamin not as an admirable rebel, but as a self-centered creep whose put-downs of adults are tiresome ... To know that the movie once spoke strongly to a generation is to understand how deep the generation gap ran during that extraordinary time in the late 1960s.”
Not everyone was high on the film back in 1967, either. Writing in the New Yorker in 1968, Jacob Brackman criticized the film for not being nearly political enough:
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.
The film, Brackman suggested, failed to diagnose the source of the disaffection felt by Benjamin and his counterparts out in the audience, which stemmed from Nichols’s insufficient portrayal of what ailed the country in the first place.
Brackman seemed to be looking for a far more overtly political film than Nichols was interested in making, one that would more keenly diagnose the “generation gap” in the film — and you can see his point. The Graduate is about a few different things, but the most obvious is the gap between the era’s youth and its grown-ups. Its story, after all, is about a recent college graduate who comes home, is profoundly annoyed by his parents’ wealthy lifestyle and terrified by the prospect of becoming them (which seems all but inevitable by the end), and is seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner, only to fall for her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
Benjamin feels like a young man totally disjointed from his peers; when he goes to find Elaine at Berkeley — a place that was fraught with counterculture significance in 1967 — he is accused of being one of those “outside agitators” by the man from whom he rents a room, and it’s kind of hilarious, because nobody can really imagine that of Benjamin, neither us nor him. He isn’t interesting enough to be an agitator, and he doesn’t really seem to have any views on much at all. His two defining characteristics are that he is a swimmer and he has won a fellowship for graduate school, though he doesn’t seem too motivated to go to graduate school. No matter. His daddy’s rich, and he’ll coast through just fine.
Watching The Graduate from 2017, that’s what strikes me most: exactly how much of a type Benjamin is. Nichols’s filmmaking is still unmitigatedly brilliant, and his use of sound (and sometimes silence) and creative editing would be just as innovative (if not more so) in a movie today.
But after 2017, we can’t watch movies like The Graduate quite the same way anymore. For one, Dustin Hoffmann, who starred earlier this year in The Meyerowitz Stories, has been accused by numerous women of sexual harassment and assault, all of which occurred after the filming of The Graduate but can’t, and shouldn’t, be brushed aside.
And in an unforgettable early scene, Mrs. Robinson has Benjamin drive her home, then lures him upstairs and takes off clothing as he protests vehemently — a scene that feels uncomfortably close to many of the kinds of allegations that have been made against powerful men from Harvey Weinstein onwards this year.
What happens next is instructive. Benjamin changes his mind and invites Mrs. Robinson to the Taft Hotel, where they start an affair that seems born out of boredom and curiosity for him and some kind of desperation for her. Neither is interested in the other in any way that even vaguely resembles romance, but it becomes clear at some point that Benjamin has the upper hand simply because of who he is: free, young, wealthy, with his whole life in front of him, and she needs him, on some level, to assure her she’s not invisible.
Elaine’s attraction to Benjamin is also improbable — they barely seem to have a conversation throughout the whole movie — but it doesn’t seem to matter, to the film or to the characters. Elaine is more or less a blank canvas for others to write their futures on. And devoid of actual interests of his own, Benjamin is destined for a lifetime of getting what he wants and then getting tired of it.
From the vantage point of 2017, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone seeing Benjamin as some kind of rebellious hero. He seems a lot like the guy that many powerful men have turned out to be — acquisitive, careless, brutal, and yet somehow incredibly boring. At times it feels like The Graduate, for all its filmmaking merits, is a story sent out into a world that expected us to see that person as interesting. (Whether or not it’s intentionally slyly skewering Benjamin throughout is a question I cannot answer.)
I think Ebert was right: It’s Mrs. Robinson who’s the film’s most fascinating character. But I’d love to see what The Graduate would feel like told from Elaine’s perspective, and get a sense of what she was thinking all along. Elaine and Benjamin’s parents are business partners, after all, and live the same kinds of lives. Benjamin turned out to be a dud. But in 2017 it’s Elaine, the daughter of privilege who doesn’t seem interested in waiting around like Benjamin, whose story I want to see.