Benjamin Braddock and I have a lot in common. Just like the main character in Mike Nichols' classic 1967 comedy, 'The Graduate,' I returned home to the bosom of my idiosyncratic family following my college commencement and proceeded to spend the ensuing summer lazing around the house, contemplating my future, dodging questions about what I wanted to do with my life, and, most notably, avoiding any kind of responsibility. And like Benjamin, I was good at it. The only differences were I lived in Connecticut, not Southern California; no one suggested I go into plastics; I watched movies instead of floated on an inflatable raft in my backyard pool (didn't have one of those, dammit); and no smoking hot neighborhood matron (I really didn't have one of those) came sniffing around my door offering no-strings sexual favors (double dammit!!). Granted, the wanton woman who sinks her claws into Ben's back (and libido) ultimately gives him a lot more grief than ecstasy (the compassionate teacher in 'Tea and Sympathy' she is not, and chances are if Ben ever chose to speak about his experiences with her, he would not be kind), but she also opens his naïve eyes to the ways of the world, and indirectly shows him what really matters in life.
'The Graduate' is arguably the most famous seduction story in film history, and though it begins as a risqué romp – and sustains a whimsical tone throughout – this generation-defining movie makes some sober statements about both the arduous (and continual) maturation process, as well as the rueful ennui of middle age. Its two colorful central characters act as conduits through which such ideas flow, and their ill-fated coupling is the stuff of cinema legend.
Shy, sheltered Ben (Dustin Hoffman) catches the eye of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner and mother of all cougars, at his graduation party, where his parents' annoying friends overwhelm him with effusive well-wishing and probing questions about his next move in life. Although he initially resists her brazen attempts to seduce him, Ben succumbs to his curiosity and raging testosterone levels and arranges a lusty liaison, which, after a hilariously awkward start, soon evolves into a regular series of sexual trysts. The physically satisfying but emotionally empty arrangement becomes complicated, however, when Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns home from college, and both Mr. Robinson and Ben's parents pressure Ben to ask her out. He reluctantly agrees, much to the chagrin of his jealous lover, who harbors more than a few unresolved issues regarding her daughter. The thorny situation takes a very messy turn when Ben finds himself falling for Elaine. And when he's forced to spill his dirty little secret…well, you can just imagine the fireworks and fallout.
Though there's a lot of spot-on satire in 'The Graduate,' its relatable elements of character are what keep it relevant. (And were it not for its decidedly retro '60s feel, which is a big part of its charm, the film would be timeless.) Director Mike Nichols and screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry deftly lampoon suburban mores and the aimlessness of America's privileged youth, but dress up the send-up with a harsh, cynical edge that lends the proceedings welcome gravity. Loss of innocence is one of the movie's major themes, and at times its depiction can be painful. What begins as a playful, carnal indulgence for Ben soon evolves into a tawdry dalliance that weighs heavily upon his psyche. By taking the cart before the horse and, like many young males, becoming obsessed with sex, he misses out on the emotional connections that solidify and enhance a relationship. Mrs. Robinson may educate him on the finer points of erotic love, but Elaine becomes Ben's tutor in matters of the heart.
'The Graduate' is also about breaking free, forging one's own path, pursuing what one believes is right, and the anxiety and uncertainty that go hand-in-hand with such daunting notions. Nichols, though, is wise enough not to let his audience – and characters – get carried away by such liberating ideas. As we all know, life is not nearly as carefree as we'd like it to be, which makes the up-in-the-air, what-now coda tacked on to the exhilarating altar-raiding climax such a stroke of genius. Escaping the confines of parental constriction is easy, the film tells us. Living life afterward is not. And reality puts a damper on the party pretty damn quick.
Nichols won a Best Director Oscar for 'The Graduate,' and he earned it by infusing his film with plenty of innovative technique. The seduction sequence, with its quick cutaways giving us fleeting glimpses of Mrs. Robinson's naked body, brilliantly mirrors Ben's confusion and panic, while off-kilter shots reflect the affair's out-of-whack nature and imbalance of power. The creatively compiled montages (beautifully set to Simon and Garfunkel's music) speak volumes about Ben's state of mind at various plot points, and the shot of Mr. Braddock (William Daniels) lecturing Ben against a blistering bright sun is inspired. Considering 'The Graduate' was only Nichols' second movie, his brash command of the medium and willingness to color outside the lines is really quite remarkable.
The film's frank depiction of sex also pushed the envelope back in its day, and Nichols, aided by the fine comic timing and inflections of Hoffman and Bancroft, constructs some memorable sequences that accentuate the inherent humor, clumsiness, and insecurities that often trip up the mating dance. Though Hoffman at times overplays Ben's innocence, the 30-year-old actor acutely conveys the alienation and angst afflicting not just his character, but an entire generation of young people. It's a breakout portrayal, and one that will be forever identified with him.
Of course, say the name Mrs. Robinson, and Bancroft immediately springs to mind. This iconic, supremely nuanced performance rivals her Oscar-winning turn in 'The Miracle Worker,' as the veteran actress bravely sheds her inhibitions and embraces the world-weary humor and razor sharp edges of this juicy role. (Never for a moment would we dream that in reality Bancroft is only six years older than Hoffman!) And under Nichols' tutelage, even Katharine Ross, who at times during her long career has had trouble acting her way out of a paper bag, turns in some surprisingly sensitive work that justly earned her, along with her co-stars, an Oscar nomination. Film buffs will also enjoy spotting a young Richard Dreyfuss in a bit part, as well as Mike Farrell of 'M*A*S*H' fame in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it walk-on as a bellboy.
'The Graduate' is both a period snapshot and an enduring coming-of-age portrait distinguished by expert direction, incisive performances, and a smart, witty script. It garnered a slew of well-deserved Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), and remains an iconic lynchpin of late-'60s cinema. Much like its hero, 'The Graduate' rebels against the tenets of traditional Hollywood moviemaking, and helped forge a movement toward more modern, edgy, creative productions. And it still plays well and speaks to us today. (Those of us who first saw it years ago and identified with Ben, now can find elements of his parents and Mrs. Robinson lurking inside us, much to our horror!) So here's to you, Mike Nichols and company, for making a film that continues to resonate intellectually, emotionally, and stylistically...and for showing us that if we want a happy ending in real life, we're gonna have to work for it.
MGM has done a nice job sprucing up this 40-plus-year-old film, and though the 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer still sports a nick or two here and there, the print looks great overall – clean and vibrant, with lovely contrast, and a grain structure that's visible but not overpowering. The opening credit sequence exhibits a bit more texture than the rest of the movie, but the picture quickly stabilizes once the narrative begins, and though some scenes are softer than others (often depending on the degree of light), clarity is generally excellent. Background elements can look a little fuzzy around the edges, but that's to be expected for a film of this vintage. Close-ups, however, are quite sharp and detailed, allowing us to see the sweat glistening on Hoffman's face and fully appreciate Bancroft in both glamorous and haggard guises.
Colors are strong, but always remain in check. Benjamin's red sports car consistently perks up the picture, the green lawns and foliage add welcome lushness, and Elaine's solid pink dress lends a refreshing pastel splash to a stuffy hotel scene. Black levels are surprisingly rich, creating a couple of striking silhouettes, and fleshtones remain stable and natural, from the undergarment tan lines on Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin's bronzed torso. A bit of digital noise creeps in occasionally, but because it's intermingled with the grain, it's less noticeable than usual. Edge enhancement is absent, however, and no banding breaks up the azure California skies.
In a side-by-side comparison, this high-def rendering trounces its DVD counterpart (included on a second disc in this set; see below), hammering home the point that 'The Graduate' has never looked better than it does here. Upgrading is a no-brainer for fans, but due to this Blu-ray edition's inexcusable lack of supplemental material (once again, see below), those who own the 40th Anniversary DVD of 'The Graduate' just might want to hang on it, so they can access the fine extras included on that disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track scores big in the fidelity department, providing crisp, clear tones, but it's sorely lacking in its surround capability. The absence of almost any rear speaker involvement is largely a result of the original track's limitations, so we have to settle for a smattering of front-channel stereo effects that often sound artificially engineered. Dialogue is always easy to comprehend, although Elaine's bloodcurdling scream and Benjamin's mother's guffaw tax the audio's high end, resulting in some ear-grating distortion. The Simon and Garfunkel tunes sound great, however, as do Dave Grusin's instrumentals. Songs like "The Sounds of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair" possess marvelous presence and warmth, but unfortunately don't envelope the listener. Like gentle waves lapping against the shore, the film's audio only progresses so far into the room before receding back to its source, and the effect, at times, is a little frustrating. Still, for a 1960s film, 'The Graduate' sounds pretty darn good.
MGM really dropped the ball here. This Blu-ray edition of 'The Graduate' contains no extras whatsoever, save for a lame collection of trailers for 'The Pink Panther,' 'Hoosiers,' and 'Rocky,' and a DVD edition of the film on a separate disc. If you'd like to see the original theatrical trailer for 'The Graduate' (in horrible shape, by the way), it resides on that disc, but it's the only supplement on it. (The extras from the 40th anniversary DVD, which include two audio commentaries - one with actors Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, and one with directors Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh - and two featurettes are nowhere to be found.) In addition, the widescreen version of the film is presented in windowbox format, an especially annoying way to watch this acclaimed motion picture. All of which begs the question: Why include the DVD at all? And if so, why not include the 40th Anniversary edition instead of a barebones, poorly presented version?
'The Graduate' put Dustin Hoffman on the cinematic map, gave Anne Bancroft her second-greatest film role, and won director Mike Nichols an Oscar. It also captures the spirit of a generation and ruthlessly lampoons late-'60s suburban society. This classic comedy-drama comes to Blu-ray sporting a strong enough transfer to make upgrading worthwhile, decent audio, but unfortunately no extras related to the film. The movie itself comes highly recommended, but the lack of extras bumps down the overall rating to a standard recommendation.