“Mrs. Robinson, if you don’t mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange.”
It’s interesting how a film attaining classic status can somehow make it feel like work for the uninitiated. The Graduate has been so lauded with praise for so long that it’s easy to forget just how fun and fucking funny the film truly is. It’s an exquisite blast of wayward youth triumphing over the tyranny of mom and dad’s old fashioned values. A cringe comedy about sex and love and how easy it is to confuse the two. A sumptuous mix of expressive visuals and perfectly pitched pop music pulling from art film experimentation and anticipating the music video revolution all at once. It’s one of the great movies about youthful uncertainty and show off directing that every generation of film students can claim their own. Or at least it’s all those things upon first viewing. The beauty of The Graduate and the reason why it continues to endure is because the acidic comedic masterpiece tends to grow along with its audience and mean something completely different when viewed from different ages. That’s what elevates the film into one of the all time greats. It’s probably also why the movie found it’s way into The Criterion Collection this week and deservingly so.
Whenever viewers first stumble onto The Graduate, they tend to identify fully with Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock’s stoic overachiever. Undergoing that pathetic and universal phenomenon known as the quarter life crisis, Braddock has no clue what to do with his future and is caught in an endless funk. He’s hilarious awkward in all sorts of identifiable ways. Nichols beautifully employs cinemascope photography to isolate Braddock in the frame to emphasize his solitude, while Hoffman’s hangdog face and mumbling method acting are ripe with cringe comedy gold. The Simon and Garfunkel score finds poetry in the adolescent emotions and mixes with Nichols’ expressive cinematography in a manner that anticipates Wes Anderson by decades. All the adults are satirical cartoons of wasted lives and absolutely hilarious (one word: “plastics”). Meanwhile Anne Bancroft appears as the intoxicatingly sexy older woman Mrs. Robinson and nails that type so perfectly that her character’s name is a synonym for milf. Finally, Katharine Ross pops up as the perfect girl who finally understands Ben and gives his life purpose. Sure, there are all sorts of obstacles in this couple’s way, but there’s a love here that will conquer all, give purpose to their lives, and help the couple become adults far more enlightened than their stupid parents.
Ok, so maybe I’m being a little too snidely close-minded with how The Graduate appeals to viewers lost in Benjamin’s Braddock’s very specific 20soemthing condition. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that and certainly the melancholic and massively influential final shot undercuts the romantic chase that leads up to it for even the least critical of viewers. However, there is something special about the experience of revisiting The Graduate as you age that makes the movie something deeply special. Mike Nichols (as well as his often forgotten, but equally important screenwriter/genius Buck Henry) weren’t 20somethings when they made The Graduate. As much as they wanted to accurately and poetically explore Bejamin’s youthful plight, they also satirized it. There’s no denying that Ben is a narcissistic whiner tediously wasting his time on second viewing. He uses Mrs. Robinson in rather ugly ways and essentially stalks Katherine Ross rather than romancing her. They run away together only because that seems like a more appropriately anti-authoritarian fantasy for them to live out rather than the suburban fantasy that their parents planned. It’s not really love. It’s just convenience and hormones.
In addition to that, Mrs. Robinson is no mere sexual fantasy. She’s actually a deeply tragic figure. She’s lost, probably an alcoholic, and just as disgusted by middle class doldrums as Benjamin. She even fancies herself a bit of a bohemian and progressive like the kids. If anything, Mrs. Robinson proves that all of the self-obsessed depression and rebellious desire to burst out of social norms that Benjamin battles with never goes away with age. They just become more obviously pathetic, because that kind of nonsense only feels profound you’re young enough to think that it makes you special. Sadly, that’s just one of the many painful truths that everyone has to ignore or lie to themselves about to get out of bed in the morning. That’s the thing about The Graduate and the genre of cringe comedy that it created. This brand of humor isn’t just about transforming the awkward moments we all share into observational comedy. It’s about how those weird little embarrassments that define mundane moments actually speak to profound truths.
So, The Graduate is a satirical exploration of youth that plays just as well for those aging themselves out of cultural relevancy as it does for the wayward youngins at the center. On top of that, the movie is also a beautifully crafted bit of expressive filmmaking that created a new visual language that still feels special and influences indies to this day. It’s a comedy that plays like an art film. You can pick it apart an analyze it for any number of undergraduate (zing!) film theory essays or just watch it for pure pleasure. It’s a deeply influential movie of undeniable historical significance that still feels fresh for young audience. The Graduate is a masterpiece of art and entertainment. It’s as close to a perfect movie as exists. Few films deserve a spot in the Criterion Collection as much as The Graduate.
The last time that The Graduate was on the Criterion Collection was back in the laserdisc days, so obviously this edition is a bit of an upgrade. The film has been on Blu-ray before though, so Criterion had to pull out all the stops. The new 4K transfer is remarkable, retaining the old 60s color scheme accurately while revealing new depth, clarity, and detail that has never been visible before. It’s drastically better than the previous studio Blu release, which had a certain plastic sheen from excessive digital manipulation. This release is every bit as vibrant, yet always pleasingly film-like in appearance. Two lossless audio tracks are available, one in the original mono and the other in a 5.1 surround remix that works surprisingly well for a film that was clearly never designed to be in surround sound. The surround mix is pleasingly subtle, mostly popping during the soundtrack which fills things out nicely. It’s a beautiful Blu-ray presentation of a masterpiece worthy of the Criterion label. Everything that you could possibly want…and then there are the special features.
The disc kicks off with a collection of the best special features from previous releases including a 25th anniversary documentary, a commentary from UCLA film prof Howard Suber from the old Criterion laserdisc, a fantastic audio commentary with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, and an amusing featurette on the film’s influence featuring interviews with the likes of Harold Ramis and David O. Russell. It’s all good stuff, but that’s not the new stuff. Criterion has rounded up some intriguing new archival features like screen tests for a variety of potential Elaines and Benjamins, a brief 6 minute excerpt from the Dick Cavett show with Paul Simon discussing the soundtrack, and a dated yet amusing 16 minute interview between Barbara Walters and Mike Nichols shot right before he began production on The Graduate.
New material kicks off with a spectacular 35 minute interview with Dustin Hoffman discussing his early days as an actor and the production of the film, ending with an amusing anecdote about a Graduate sequel that they never made. Speaking of fake Graduate sequels, the great Buck Henry (who infamously pitched one of those in The Player), pops up for a twenty minute chat with producer Lawrence Turman to discuss the challenges of getting the tone of the screenplay right and it’s unexpected success. Finally film writer Bobbie O’Steen pops up for a 27-minute discussion about her late husband Sam O’Steen’s ongoing collaboration with Mike Nichols and how it altered and influenced the filmmaker’s career. It’s a surprisingly rich piece about the substance behind the style of The Graduate. Toss in a trailer and a new essay by Frank Rich and you’ve got a hell of a package even by Criterion’s standards.
Does This Deserve a Spot on Your Dork Shelf?
It’s hard to imagine Criterion release a better or more stacked Blu-ray this year, nor will they put out a film more worthy of the treatment. Don’t be stupid. Buy it immediately.