My partner and I went on a tangent from our Elaine May retrospective to watch some films by her old improv partner Mike Nichols.So we re-watched The Graduate, which I hadn’t seen since I was about the same age as Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin. Having just seen Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (see the previous “Antidotes” entry) may have colored my impression of The Graduate—or maybe it just illuminated it clearly for what it really is. The two films, made by friends and former collaborators, have a lot of parallels: they’re both about a young man doggedly determined to win his dream girl’s hand in marriage, defying her family’s disapproval and moving hundreds of miles to court her, and both end with an awkwardly prolonged coda after he's succeeded. Charles Grodin’s Lenny in The Heartbreak Kid is comically obsessed, a caricature of romantic love—he’s less in love with the college girl he meets on his honeymoon than freaking out and fleeing from the commitment he’s made—whereas we’re meant to take Ben’s love for Elaine, as one pure thing in a soiled world, seriously. Or so I used to think.
On the surface, the two central characters are pretty dissimilar, on opposite sides of the 1960s cultural divide: one an Establishment striver, the other a proto-counterculture dropout. Other than trying to squirm out of his marriage almost as soon as he’s in it, Lenny isn’t any kind of rebel; he’s eager to get in on the banking money and Midwestern respectability his blonde WASPy girlfriend represents. He suavely impersonates a DEA agent to scare off her college boyfriend, and later we overhear him say, making small talk at a party: “Well, there’s a lot of money in tear gas.” Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin—who became a generational icon, the embodiment of Boomer disaffection—is a sensitive, repressed young man who until now has been the passive object of his parents’ values and ambitions. He seems smarter, saner, and more sympathetic than Grodin’s infatuated, frantic bullshitter. At first.
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We first see Ben in a long tracking shot standing on a moving walkway at the airport, abruptly replaced, in a match cut, by his suitcase on a conveyor belt. The visual gag is underlined by an airport security sign reading: “Can You Spot the Difference?” We later see him against the background of an aquarium with a little plastic scuba diver in it; not much later, he’s immersed in the backyard swimming pool in scuba gear his father’s bought for him: he’s the one in the aquarium now. All images of him as an object or commodity, an accessory or toy, which is how his proud parents treat him, and what he doesn’t want to be.
It’s this first act of The Graduate, depicting Ben’s free-floating alienation after college graduation, that that people tend to remember—the affair with Mrs. Robinson, the Simon & Garfunkel songs—and I think there’s a reason for that. In the beginning Ben is a comic innocent, too timid to catch a waiter’s attention, inept at reserving a hotel room, and quietly appalled by the empty, dissolute adults he sees around him. (I like the involuntary little “eep”s he emits while trying to make smalltalk with the man whose wife offered her naked self to him upstairs a few seconds earlier, his polite suburban upbringing near the breaking point.) His seduction by Mrs. Robinson is the Establishment’s attempt to corrupt him, and his breaking free of her to elope with her daughter is an escape from that control, a Generation-gap allegory young audiences enjoyed. But what happens once Ben takes on some agency of his own complicates that story, makes it more ambiguous and disturbing. The rest of the film is, on any scrutiny or reflection, weird.
Ben is pressured into taking the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine on a date—an awkward situation, for self-evident reasons—and he tries to preemptively quash any interest she might have in him by affecting a sleazy persona, wearing sunglasses indoors and dangling a cigarette from his lip, and taking her to a go-go bar, until he’s shamed by the sight of her weeping while a dancer whirls the tassles of her pasties like twin propellers directly over her head. Elaine flees, humiliated, and he chases her out into the street, apologizing and assuring her that he’s not really like this, and stops her from crying by kissing her. (That a girl would acquiesce to being kissed by a guy who’s just taken her to a strip club on a first date seems like a screenwriting move of dodgy plausibility, as does her falling in love with him over the course of the same evening, and that love withstanding the revelation that he’s been screwing her mother all summer.) There’s the inevitable imbroglio where Mrs. Robinson forbids Ben to see her daughter and threatens to expose their affair and he’s forced to confess the whole sordid thing to Elaine who’s of course horrified and never wants to see him again. After the Robinsons send Elaine back to college to resume her approved courtship with a premed who looks like a poster for Hitler Youth, Ben decides he’s going to marry her, and follows her from Pasadena up to Berkeley, where he takes out a room in a boarding house run by Mr. Roper and starts auditing classes and coincidentally running into Elaine on and around campus.
Whether you think of this as romantic wooing or obsessive stalking depends on what kind of movie you want it to be. Bear in mind that at this point in the story Ben and Elaine have been on exactly one date. It seems like a flimsy basis for such a determined campaign of courtship/obsessive stalking. And Nichols deliberately elides the details of that date; after the false start at the go-go bar, we see Ben and Elaine at a drive-in burger place, talking about their shared sense of alienation and what bullshit the grownup world is, until they put up the top of the convertible, ostensibly to block out other people’s noise, but also cutting their conversation off from our ears. Maybe Nichols just thinks the details of falling in love are boring or impossible to convey to anyone who’s not immersed in the emotion (and this may be why most romcoms dispense with the courtship in a music-video montage). I’m not sure whether we’re meant to uncritically accept this as a Romeo-and-Juliet convention—true love at first sight—or if, per The Heartbreak Kid, we’re supposed to find it suspect. Maybe Ben and Elaine aren’t as different from their parents as they like to think they will be; we learn that the Robinsons got married after Mrs. Robinson got knocked up in the back of a Ford.
So is The Heartbreak Kid an exposé of what Benjamen’s behavior actually is, or is The Graduate a subtler, more ambiguous version of The Heartbreak Kid? After watching both films in close succession it seems pretty clear that their protagonists’ monomaniacal pursuits are displacements of other anxieties; in the same way that Lenny suddenly becomes obsessed with some golden girl because he’s terrified of the prospect of sharing a life with a real person, Ben becomes fixated on Elaine because he has no idea what else to do with himself. All his confusion and dread of adulthood are briefly resolved into a single clear goal: get that girl! Although that girl is just the twenty-years-younger version of the bitter alcoholic woman he despises. And, like Lenny, pretty much the instant he actually has her, his fervor fades, his clear-eyed certitude start to glaze over, and he reluctantly has to face the rest of his life.
This double-exposure impression of The Graduate, one reading superimposed over another, reminds me of a similar experience I had watching Frederick Wiseman‘s documentary High School twice a few decades apart. The first time I saw it I was a young man, and the picture it presented of high school ca. 1960s made it look like a cruel and arbitrary hierarchy designed to grind any vestigial independence or skepticism out of its students and drill docility and conformity into them instead—a factory built to turn out good citizen-employees who could be relied on to obediently kill foreigners on command, like the alumnus who writes a letter to his former teachers from Vietnam. Watching it a second time, in middle age, it seemed more ambiguous to me, less damning than sad. All those teachers and administrators seemed… not exactly sympathetic (some of them are nasty martinets, enforcing pointless rules and random punishments for their own sake) but pitiable, like Kafka’s impotent patriarchs or Goya’s Saturn, eyes mindless and horrified as he devours his own sons. They’re condemned to the plight of most elders in the modern age, earnestly trying to prepare their children for a world that’s already ceasing to exist. The parents in The Graduate are of the “Greatest Generation,” born into the Depression and coming of age during World War II; to them, lives of ease and material comfort seem like the greatest gifts they can offer their children. The postwar order the adults of High School understood was even then unraveling, its values dissolving, as they tried to hold it all together. It was released a year after The Graduate, in that year of revolt 1968.
It's poignant to look back at The Graduate now, as an artifact of a time when the Boomers—now a word synonymous with obsolescent mores, reactionary politics, and out-of-touch old people, the generation we’re all impatiently waiting for to get out of the way already—were the new generation of idealistic, angry young people, disgusted by the adulthood they were expected to embrace, dismayed by the future their parents were foisting on them. We start out thinking of Ben as a guileless Candide, balking at the corrupt, hypocritical world he’s expected to enter. The Boomers weren’t exactly sure what they wanted, but definitely not this. Ben keeps telling Elaine, “I’m not like this, I hate myself like this”—he’s not the kind of guy who would take a nice girl to a titty bar, who would fuck a married woman—earnestly assuring her that he would never do the things he is currently doing. (A lot of us tell ourselves that the shitty thing we’re doing isn’t “really” us, which is often what allows us to keep doing it.) Ben isn’t going to become the kind of awful adult who works a boring job, drinks too much, cheats on his wife, or golfs, who thinks that “plastics” is the secret of life. The Boomers knew they were going to be different, that they were going to change the world.
When Ben interrupts Elaine’s wedding, Mrs. Robinson snarls, “It’s too late!” at her daughter, who’s already said I do.“Not for me!” Elaine snaps back. In another kind of movie—an 80s teen comedy, say—it would’ve been a triumphant zinger, an applause line. But I think Mike Nichols knew it was already too late, in 1967. Now the Boomers mostly get blamed for electing Reagan, not credit for stopping Vietnam. Sometimes I want to break it to Gens Y and Z that they’ll be the hilarious contemptible old people soon enough, that someday Ashleigh will be the new Karen—that they’ll be condemned for eating animals, using phones made with child labor, memeing while the world burned, and a bunch of other stuff we haven’t even thought of yet ‘cause it still seems normal—but then I figure, Nah. It’s not my place to tell them; it’s their unborn children’s. The Heartbreak Kid ends with Lenny alone at his wedding reception, his goal achieved, his ardor deflating. After barricading the church doors with a cross and fleeing the silently writhing faces of their elders, Ben and Elaine dash off and catch a passing bus, making good their escape. But the camera doesn’t let them off with this happy ending; it holds on them, mercilessly, long after a comedy would’ve ended, as the giddy flush of excitement gradually drains out of their faces and their eyes grow dull, and they’re left to face the future that lies ahead and the stranger sitting beside them.
Nichols and May were a groundbreaking comedy duo of the 1960s, still spoken of with wistful reverence by all the stand-up comics and writers they influenced. Do yourself a favor and listen to some of their comedy albums, all available online. I especially recommend this outtake of them improvising a bit and cracking each other up, which I first head on my parents’ copy of the album. Comedian John Mulaney said of it: “I think it might be the happiest thing ever recorded.“ (If you can’t get past the skit’s dated premise, well, I congratulate you for seeing things so clearly in black and white. I just wish I could describe for you what color looks like.)
Nichols often responded to the question of what happened to Ben and Elaine with, "They grew up and became their parents." Disappointing not a few, I'd imagine.
I think you meant "Frederick Wiseman," not Frederic Weisman.