In two months, the Mike Nichols classic film, “The Graduate” will be turning fifty years old. This film was and remains one of the most culturally significant films ever made and continues to hit home with American youth today. The story follows Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who is the poster child for his parent’s generation. They all expect him to live up to their own definitions of success but he is unsure of what his future may hold. Benjamin ends up having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, a close member of his parent’s social circle. Over the course of the film, this movie repeatedly indicts the older generation’s American Dream as staid, boring and lacking in meaning, reflecting the popular opinion of the youth generation towards their parent’s ideals and values.
This film was released during the sixties, a time of confusion and conflict. Throughout the decade, one of the main sources of this strife was the growing youth counter culture. The parental generation valued a conservative view on concepts. They were consumeristic and thought that they had to conform to societal expectations at all costs. This viewpoint is presented through the actions of the main character’s parents and friend group, who are all very proud of Benjamin’s many achievements. He got good grades throughout school, was heavily involved in extracurriculars and was well liked by most all of his peers. To them, he fits the definition of success. It is even stated in one of the most famous lines from the film that the future lies in just one thing, “Plastics!” In addition to the quote’s literal meaning of the rise of the plastic industry in America, there’s also the underlying philosophy that a person’s path to success lies in conforming and molding to what is expected of you.
To the left, we see in Benjamin’s expression that he is somewhat loathful and scared of these supposed words of wisdom. Ben doesn’t want to be forced into the great opportunities that may exist in this field.
To the right, we see on Ben’s face a sense of confusion and insecurity about his future. This inner divide is further addressed through the lighting of the shot. The fish tank in the background is fully lit, showing his life leading up to this point. So far he has done everything that society could ever ask of him. However, in the foreground, we see his face is divided perfectly down the middle, half in the light with the other half left in the shadows. Benjamin is split between either choosing to remain in the light with his parent’s generation or going into the unknown and mysterious future that awaits him if he refuses to submit to everyone else’s expectations of him.
Later on, Ben is approached by Mrs. Robinson with the intent of seducing him and convincing him to have an affair with her. Eventually, he gives in to her request and the two of them begin seeing each other on a regular basis. After their relationship begins, Ben starts moving more towards the viewpoint of drifting about and doing what he wants as opposed to remaining on the path he has led his whole life. In one scene, his mother confronts him as he relaxes in the backyard swimming pool about why he is just sitting in the pool all day, to which he remarks that “it’s very comfortable just to drift here.” Again we see dialogue full of subtext. Ben is obviously enjoying relaxing on a pool inflatable. Additionally, he seems perfectly content with just sort of drifting through his life. When further pressed as to why he was trying so hard all those years if he’s not going continue pushing himself he nonchalantly responds with “you got me.”
The Graduate was one of the most culturally significant films released during the 1960s. It was hailed by the growing youth counter culture for its critique of the conservative views of their parents. Additionally, through Mrs. Robinson’s actions, the movie pokes holes in the supposedly perfect lifestyle of the older generations. Half a century later and this film still hits home on prevalent themes that are important to young people everywhere. The push to try hard in high school and to get into elite universities has never been higher. Teens are put under ridiculous amounts of pressure by all of society to achieve greatness. It is seen more often than not, that parents are forcing their children to go into professions that will earn them more money over professions that they actually have a passion for. People today can learn a lot from Ben’s decisions to live his life how he wants to and not how others want him to, making “The Graduate” a relevant and important movie to watch.