While watching this for the third time – perhaps not the third time in my life, but in the third major portion of my life – I have a fresh viewing of this classic movie. What could be better then a strong bildungsroman (definition: coming of age story) about a college graduate who is disconnected from society and its expectations, and his quest to find himself? I find the messages in the story more relevant and more clear at the age of 33 then when I was 18, 22, and in my late 20s (okay, 4th major life era).
When I first saw the movie in my teens, I had a vague impression of Dustin Hoffman’s character being “lost” and wanting to be found. However, I couldn’t articulate the feeling or the themes because I was too young and inexperienced. I did empathize with the character as I’ve grown up in a society where I felt lost and disconnected as well: a society that emphasizes a formal education, followed by a career (despite the fact that no one know who they are when they’re 21), and pressure to buy a house and start a family. Who wants to go through that system? During the viewings in my early and late 20s, I’ve always felt the the vague impression that “The Graduate” was touching on some aspect of “lost” and “found” and the emptiness of modern Western society. However, I didn’t have the words to articulate that message.
Now at the age of 33, I fully see what the movie is about. Benjamin, who is a recent graduate, comes home shortly after graduating with honors from a top university. His parents are privileged, and their circle of friends are all successful, glam, and a little fake, as well as materialistic, which places Benjamin in a precarious situation. Benjamin is a sensitive, impressionable, optimistic, romantic, and hopeful young man. He wants more to life than being on the conveyor belt of education, job, and family.
Benjamin struggles for meaning in a world where everything was set for him and yet feels like there is something very “plastic” about the whole situation, something that is artificial. He wants to feel something real, meaningful, and to “connect” with something or someone when basically all he feels is external pressure from everyone to “succeed” (when he has no idea who he is as an individual).
Sure, he has an affair with Mrs. Robinson; his future love’s (Elaine) mother. However, that is just a side plot or a distraction from the great issue at hand: Benjamin’s identity, his future, and his need to “connect” and “feel real.” When he has his first date with Elaine is a starstruck by the connection and conversation that he has with her. They were able to talk about real things as peers such as their future, their feelings of isolation, and all the anxiety they feel (should feel) in their point in life.
Of course, things get messy when Elaine finds out about his affair, but this doesn’t stop Benjamin from pursuing who and what he loves most. Plus, his date with Elaine might have been the first time and first person in his life that he’s connected with.
From a feminist viewing, should Elaine’s character been hatched a bit more? Yes, she was a periphery character in the grander scheme of Benajmin’s life. Perhaps, for the time (1960s) Elaine’s character did have some positives going for her: she was college educated, she seemed to have been intelligent, opinionated, and had an idea of what she wanted as well as who she wanted. However, very similar to her mother, she was forced into a loveless marriage by her family (most likely a family connection to stay or move up in society) in which she felt helpless – very similar to her mother who married because she became pregnant with Elaine. Her partner was some blonde Ken doll look alike that represents everything society wants: tall, handsome, rich, and successful (bland, empty, and unsubstantive). Benjamin represents everything that society does not want: awkward, shy, deep, intelligent, an intellectual, passionate, and eccentric.
Elaine does end up going off with Benjamin – which was her choice as a female – but not without Benjamin knocking out the wedding party with a cross. So in the end, there is a happy ending but we have Elaine who had decisions to make but ended up getting rescued by a man, and Benjamin who found true love and fought off the crowd (also symbolic) to gain his identity, place, and source of happiness.
Yes, it was not a feminist movie, but it was a very good movie, maybe great. In our times of equality and tolerance, I don’t expect a movie to top this any time soon as script writing, movie directing, and movie audiences aren’t ready for a slow-moving, deep movie about a young man’s (or young woman’s) coming of age in the face of a callous, unfeeling society. Plus, technology and people’s need for action has completely killed character development, dialogue, and gradual plot development in films. This movie will always represent a piece of nostalgia and a modern problem in our Western society.