Rethinking ‘The Graduate’s place as the defining film of ’60s, and Ben Braddock’s accidental rebellion

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Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock, an accidental rebel ()
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In The Graduate, a smart, disaffected twentysomething sniffs out the meaninglessness and hypocrisy of the preceding generation’s way of being, and then must make his own way in life and love without any inherited wisdom to guide him.

It's since been memorialized as one of the signature films of the '60s, but in many ways The Graduate (screening today through April 19 at Film Forum) actually stands well apart from the youth-driven revolt that the decade has come to represent.

If, like me, you're the child of Boomers, Mrs. Robinson was an irresistible pop tune about an old lady long before Anne Bancroft polluted your mind. This distortion is telling; the idea of The Graduate was more important than the film itself, which wasn’t passed down. It became their movie, like Easy Rider, and I didn’t bother to watch it until college. Both of those films felt fiercely protected, somehow inviolate, wrapped up with a whole mess of concepts and feelings that don’t crop up in either movie. But The Graduate is useful when seen as a film that could only be made, or at least find a mass audience, right as American society opened up. It’s less radical than we want it to be in retrospect, perhaps, but then again, so was America.

If the film had come out any time before 1967 one wonders if it would have been decried as cultural slander. As attitudes shifted, this typically sad but rabidly acerbic Mike Nichols film was commercially possible in a way it couldn't have been before. The times were indeed changing, and this was the same year that Bonnie & Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also raked in significant chunks of the box-office draw. If anything, The Graduate is not inherently a movie of its time, but one that came along at the right moment, when the world was ready to watch without shrieking. The story of Ben and Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine would be taken seriously, humanely, not treated like the striptease Ben takes Elaine to in an effort to alienate her once and for all.

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None of this, though, makes The Graduate a film about that fabled decade, its seismic cultural shifts, or the freedom that people found as a result of its progressive politics. What was radical about the film is the love (and lust) story, not what it has to say about the greater world. In two telling, if seemingly minor, scenes, the film goes to great lengths to distance Hoffman's Ben Braddock from any of the explicit modes of Sixties-dom.

When Ben and Elaine eat hamburgers at a drive-though on what's presumably Los Angeles's Sunset Strip, a Day-Glo-painted car full of freaks is presented as little more than an irritant. Their music is too loud, causing Ben to roll up the top of his red Alfa Romeo like a grumpy old man; the hippies taunt him and linger just a beat too long—a shabbily-costumed, interracial spectacle from which Ben emphatically separates himself. 

Much of the film is about distance and separation, whether in relation to age, locale, or simply the dissonances of perception. The plot is propelled along by Ben's attempts to confront such distances, bridge the gaps or deal with the futility of such attempts. The drive-through scene represents one of the few times in which Ben goes out of his way to actively create a separation, to disconnect from the world outside of himself. The only alienation that suits him, in a film about searching for connection, is the one that places him apart from his peers.

Less drawn out, and in some ways more tacked-on, is the scene in which his Berkeley landlord snarls his dislike for "outside agitators." Ben, too, is understandably annoyed. He has come to Berkeley to win back his true love, not to take part in a revolution. Counterculture serves as the seedy backdrop for alienation, then something distasteful that Ben and Elaine can bond over. In Berkeley, it is simply in the way. The American flag that appears in the first shot of the Berkeley campus, briefly empty, has nothing to do with what that campus represented at the time—with SDS or the Panthers attempting to shake the foundations of the country there. It’s a more personal irony, about the mess Ben has gotten himself into, the web of scandal he’s subjected himself and others to, and the desperate longing that has brought him to the other end of the state with, as usual, no plan. He is, under the flag, a loser again, not a radical reconstitution of what the symbol means. The flag then isn’t so much about political identification as separation from the larger world. Ben is un-American in that he’s unmoored and confused, but the negation doesn’t give way to a new ideology.

Ben Braddock is no rebel. He doesn’t embrace transgression, reject society, make his own rules, or find himself as a result of it. Quite the opposite; aimless and unhappy, he is lured into a kind of rebellion, and then only salvages his relationship with Elaine through a laughable series of intrusions, awkward bursts of sincerity, and finally, a mad dash to the church that borders on physical comedy, albeit of an especially anguished variety.

Banging on the glass, screaming for her as the family curses him, provides an analogy for repression and release. She screams back and a melee breaks out, as is bound to happen when such rules are broken. But just as Ben falls into bed with Mrs. Robinson because he has nothing better to do and can’t help himself—not because he believes in any kind of libertinism—he turns the wedding into a brawl and a daring escape simply because the rules are in the way.

Ben goes from committing acts of daring out of errant boredom to improvising a happy ending with little more than his heart to guide him. It’s progress, and yet still remarkably old-fashioned. That’s the secret to Ben Braddock—he’s a schlub, a square, forced into the role of the rebel through a combination of circumstance, haplessness, and the sudden realization that true love is the only thing he thinks is worth fighting for. Mrs. Robinson, pitiable and yet undeniably magnetic, is the real bad-ass in The Graduate, and arguably the only reason Ben discovers the possibility of acting out of turn, and yet her transgressiveness is too world-weary, cynical, and downright terrifying for Ben to consider. Instead he runs in the other direction, the happily-ever-after direction. Otherwise, he might have been content to drift in his pool, fear plastics, and consider the void well into the fall.

Inertia is a hell of a drug, and at a time when plenty of 21-year-olds were being sucked into movements and lifestyle choices that would define the era (and a generation’s image of itself as permanently progressive, questioning, and imaginative), Ben Braddock just wants to sit around and drink Olympia. In this, he’s probably a lot more like his scorned parents than most readings of The Graduate would care to admit.