Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) centers on a coming-of-age story in a contemporary context used to satirize aspects of modern life and to highlight the conflict between generations that marked the late 1960s. The changes that come over the central character can be seen as a vision of the creation of a revolutionary, though a revolutionary without a clear cause to support and one who in the end has no idea what to do next. The film was highly influential: "The Graduate dealt explicitly with American middle-class sexual mores and spawned a series of youth-oriented films about sex, protest, and the generation gap" (Man 33).
The film can be divided into sections according to the way the plot unfolds. Brackman states: "The tensions of the first third of the movie -- ending with Benjamin's phone call to Mrs. Robinson -- arise from the question: What is Benjamin going to do with himself?" (Brackman 36). We can see this when we first see Benjamin as he arrives home at the airport. He is a young man who seems out of kilter with the world around him. He passes through that world without seeing it, out of the plane, down the ramp, along the moving sidewalk, and all the time it seems uncertain that he knows where he is going. We discover that this is precisely his problem -- he does not know what the future holds for him. He has reached the age when he has to make a decision as to that future -- he has graduated from college, and this means that he is expected to join the adult world, get a job, earn a living, marry, raise a family, and all the rest.
Generational differences are at the heart of the themes of this film. Benjamin's is a more idealistic generation because it has started to see through the hypocrisy of their parents' generation. The radicalization of Benjamin shows how this process works. He begins as clay in the hands of the older generation, but he is not very happy with his role, or with the role the older generation is creating for him. He learns slowly, but he does learn. He comes to see that the facade behind which the older generation hides is just that, a cover behind which they may hide their selfishness, cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy. Mrs. Robinson is one sort of predator, and she is always depicted in the film wearing animal skins and animal patterns to show this (quite a contrast to the "fish" she hooks in Benjamin, always dressed conservatively and blandly in the garb picked out for him by his parents, right up until the last when he appears disheveled and unkempt). The older generation turns on him with a vengeance when he asserts himself, denying Mrs. Robinson's sexual ownership of him and even his parents' proprietary interest in his "future."
Hill also notes how enclosed Benjamin is and sees this image as repeated throughout the film, beginning with the party scene:
When the older people speak to Ben, unlike most Americans, they close in on him, presenting a feeling of confinement and space limitation. This is only a small symbol of a greater entrapment, the visual signifier of which is glass. There are scenes of the bored and worried Benjamin looking forlornly into his fish aquarium, as if to identify with aquatic boredom and captivity. To make the connection more complete, we see Benjamin himself entrapped in his own metaphorical aquarium. At the pool party, wearing his scuba gear under water with a look of depressed surrender, Ben reminds us of the fish in his tank (Hill 199).
The scenes between Benjamin and Elaine indicate an awakening in him of new feelings and a new sense of self and self-worth. Mrs. Robinson at one point challenges his growing personhood and tries to downgrade him by stating that he is not good enough for her daughter. This challenge from the older generation makes Benjamin want to prove that he is good enough for her daughter. The scenes between Elaine and Benjamin are romantic, a sharp contrast to the predatory sexual scenes between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin. The whole thing reaches a climax when the generations come together, when Elaine realizes that the woman Benjamin has had an affair with is her mother.
The imagery of Benjamin drowning occurs again and again, emphasizing that he is a fish being hooked by Mrs. Robinson, something seen early in a shot of the two through a fish tank. The image of drowning is highlighted again by the fact that it is raining when the conflict comes out, and after this Benjamin is more like a drowned man than he was before. He moves zombie-like through scene after scene, watching Elaine from afar, thinking about her, going to places they went to together, and all the time trying to reach a decision as to what to do with his life now. He never managed to make that decision before. He was beset on all sides by people trying to make it for him. Now, he is more alone than ever, and this forces him to do his own thinking and reach his own conclusions. When he does, his radicalization is complete.
The effect this has on others is electrifying. His parents think he is crazy -- he says he will marry Elaine, but Elaine does not know it yet. Her father threatens him. Elaine rejects him. Also, the response of her parents is to get her engaged to someone of whom they approve -- she is being shaped by her parents the way Benjamin was being shaped by his.
The Graduate became a key film in challenging the mores of the older generation and in upholding the younger generation as one that would be able to see through hypocrisy in time and seek a better existence. Interestingly, though, the film only shows the younger generation challenging the values of the older. Benjamin and Elaine flee, but they do not seem to be going anywhere. They have no plans and no clear values to substitute for those they are rejecting. They only reject what they see as wrong, but they have not constructed any new edifice in which to live.
Benjamin is the protagonist of the film. For a "hero," he is singularly uncommitted and does not take control of the situation or even take action. He is rather acted upon by circumstances, carrying through the image of him on the moving sidewalk at the beginning. His parents drag him around; Mrs. Robinson drags him around; his desire for Mrs. Robinson's daughter directs his actions; and the anger of his parents and of Mr. Robinson push him in another direction. Benjamin is largely reactive rather than proactive. He is an unformed human being, having emerged from school into a world he finds increasingly hypocritical and unwelcoming. Inexorably, all of the bright promise of the opening sequence is stripped from him, and interestingly it is not missed. He was never committed to the American Dream, and he has seen through to its reality.
What is the essential element making these events possible, or making the different characters view these events as possible? That element must be Benjamin's character and his position in society, a position confining him to a glassed-in prison as effectively as his aquarium does his fish. Benjamin is not viewed as a human being at all. His parents see him as proof of their success, and they want him to be a success in the business world to carry on their tradition rather than because it is good for him as an individual. There are simply things that are expected of Benjamin. Though people ask him what he wants to do with his life, the truth is there is only a narrow range of answers they want to hear. Anything else would be viewed as scandalous or tragic, depending.
Mrs. Robinson sees Benjamin at the party and sees a lost soul. Indeed, she sees a young man who is not fully formed and who may never be given the way he allows himself to be pushed and pulled one way and then another. She sees a commodity in him, something she can use for her own pleasure. When it is apparent that he has enough mind of his own to prefer Elaine, Mrs. Robinson reacts as the wronged party -- she is an autonomous being and can be hurt, while Benjamin is a cipher and should only do what is expected of him.
Farber and Changas, who do not particularly like the film, describe Benjamin in cogent terms:
We soon learn that Ben, for all of his credentials and in spite of his vulnerable face, is clean-cut and stupid. He's supposed to be a champion college debater, but he can hardly form a sentence (Farber and Changas 37).
Ben passes through the world looking for something without even seeing what he is…