Study Guide

The Graduate

The Graduate Introduction


Release Year: 1967

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Director: Mike Nichols

Writer: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Charles Webb (novel)

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft


Sometimes, you can get a killer outfit for a bargain basement price.

When producer Lawrence Turman optioned the rights to Charles Webb's novel The Graduate for $1,000, he probably had no idea that it would eventually become a major cultural phenomenon. For one thing, the book itself had…not been. But after Turman, along with director Mike Nichols (fresh off the critical success of the movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), screenwriter Buck Henry, and the movie's cast—including Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in their now iconic roles—got through with it, it had morphed into one of the masterpieces of American cinema.

The Graduate is a classic "coming of age" movie, right up there with Mighty Ducks 5 and The Karate Kid 3. Of course, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in a breakthrough role) isn't an eccentric high school kid trying to go to prom with a slightly less eccentric girl. No, that's a sub-plot from Sixteen Candles. This kid has just graduated from college and has no idea what to do with his life. In the process of figuring it out, he's seduced by his parents' glamorous friend, starts an affair with her, and falls in love with her daughter.

Oops.

The Graduate, which was pretty racy for its time, became a counter-culture classic. And Benjamin Braddock wasn't even a hippie. There are no drugs, no references to Vietnam, no political protests, no long hair. Benjamin's a clean-cut privileged child of wealthy suburban parents who just feels out of place in their world. He's the poster child for alienation and anomie.

Premiering in 1967, the film went on to scoop up a Best Director Oscar for directing phenom Mike Nichols and Oscar nominations for newcomer Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, and Turman (for Best Picture, as producer). It broke box office records for many of the theaters that screened it and ended up as the highest-grossing film of 1967. It was a critical success as well, landing at #7 on AFI's 100 Best Movies list (before falling to #17 on a later AFI revision of the same list—still not too bad).

The film turned Dustin Hoffman into a household name and cemented Nichols' reputation. After The Graduate, romantic leading men no longer had to be conventionally tall, confident, good-looking movie star types. Different was in. Smart was cool. Nerdy and awkward were okay. All you young actors of that description—you know who you are—have The Graduate to thank for that.

While definitely a period piece, most critics find that The Graduate remains fresh. It still manages to resonate because of its universal themes: trying to find your direction in life, navigating the confusing waters of love and sex, wondering why exactly you went to college, clueless parents…the list goes on. Audiences, especially young audiences, relate to Ben: his anxiety about his future, his rejection of his parents' values, and his seriously bad decisions.

It's funny, depressing, and philosophical. And we didn't even mention the soundtrack.

What is The Graduate About and Why Should I Care?

Shmoop isn't trying to seduce you.

We swear. That's not what this pair of virgin banana daiquiris and Michael Bolton's softly playing "Greatest Hits" are all about.

We're just trying to get you to watch The Graduate.

The Graduate is one of the all-time, classic "alienated youth" films, so if you happen to be someone who is trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing in life apart from what society expects from you, the film's apparently targeted at you. But what if you're not a recent college graduate from the mid-1960s with contempt for your parents and everything they stand for? How can you still relate to The Graduate? How can you groove on those freaky vibes of the film, and get hip to that cosmic jive in an appropriately drug-free manner? Shmoop has the answers. (And there aren't really any hippies in The Graduate, thus rendering our '60s-lingo shtick woefully off base).

The "Real World"

Eventually, you are going to be tossed into the Real World, probably screaming and covered in refuse. When you get there, you'll be faced with at least some of the same dilemmas that Benjamin Braddock faced. Hopefully you don't get involved in some weird relationship with your parents' friend, but you might find yourself entertaining the same thoughts as Benjamin, who wants his future to be "different" and have some higher purpose. You also might find yourself drifting on a metaphorical inner tube, swirling on a sea of discontent and disillusionment. You might find your sense of self to be a little shaky.

Of course, The Graduate doesn't so much solve these problems as it does empathize. It takes a guy with fairly typical feelings of disappointment and confusion, then watches him while he tries to figure things out. Benjamin's not a bad boy renegade or even a rebel, really. He's just a little aimless, something which can resonate with all of us at some point.

On the other hand, Ben's a privileged kid and a former BMOC at the classy eastern college he attended—track star, great grades, editor, fellowship winner. If the typical trajectory of law school or whatever didn't appeal to him, it seems he could have figured out some way to give his life some meaning other than sleeping with Mrs. Robinson and running away with her daughter (after about two dates, btw). Seriously, this was 1967. How about the Peace Corps? Anti-war activism? Volunteering at a health clinic for the poor? Mind-expanding drugs? (Just kidding, although it was a popular solution at the time.) Instead, he makes a few impulsive moves and considers himself decisive and committed at last.

While you're watching the film, consider this: is Benjamin finally taking his life into his own hands and becoming an independent young man who can finally break away from his parents' expectations? Or is he a self-indulgent rich kid who can't get out of his own way? Maybe the answer to that depends on whether you're 18 or 68. It's worth studying the film to see how director Mike Nichols creates sympathy for this anxious, aimless kid who's got everything going for him but can't get going.

Trivia

Originally, Paul Simon had written a song referencing "Mrs. Roosevelt"—meaning Eleanor Roosevelt. But, for The Graduate's soundtrack, he changed the words to "Mrs. Robinson," altering the meaning and creating a classic. (Source)

Mike Nichols described explaining to his friend, Robert Redford, that he couldn't play the role of Benjamin Braddock: "I said, 'You can't play it. You can never play a loser.' And Redford said, 'What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.' And I said, 'O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?' and he said, 'What do you mean?' And he wasn't joking." (Source)

Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Stand by Me, Close Encounters, What About Bob?) and Mike Farrell (B.J. Hunnicut on the TV show M.A.S.H.) had their film debuts in The Graduate. (Source)

Dustin Hoffman never thought he would get the role of Benjamin because he didn't look the part. MAD magazine did a parody of the film in which Benjamin asked his parents why he was Jewish and they weren't. When Mike Nichols saw the parody, he realized that he probably cast Hoffman for unconscious personal reasons. As an immigrant Jew who fled Nazi Germany, he said he often felt like an outsider himself in the WASP society. (Source)

Hoffman had signed to play a role in Mel Brooks' The Producers but got a call from Mike Nichols about auditioning for The Graduate. Brooks (who was married to Anne Bancroft) knew something about the novel and film and let Hoffman audition because he was certain he was too nebbish and ethnic to get the part of Benjamin. (Source)

Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson) was only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman and 8 years older than her onscreen daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). It's called acting. And makeup. (Source)

The Graduate Resources

Websites

The Graduate IMDB Page
The Internet Movie Database is a massive collection of data on movies: technical specifics, info on the cast and crew, notes on little goofs and errors—all that stuff. Here, The Graduate gets the full IMDB treatment.

The Graduate Rotten Tomatoes Page
Rotten Tomatoes collects tons of movie reviews. The Graduate's show that it's withstood the test of time so far.

The Graduate: A Resource for Film Students and Fans
This site collects some articles and pictures—just straightforward fan stuff.

Books

The Graduate by Charles Webb
This is the book that started it all. Of course, Charles Webb didn't actually make too much cash off the success of the movie itself, unfortunately. 

Home School by Charles Webb
Webb wrote a sequel to The Graduate—which unexpectedly revolves around the fact that Ben and Elaine married and are homeschooling their kids. This book didn't make quite as much of a splash as its predecessor, apparently. Can't understand why.

INSPIRED BY THE GRADUATE:

Rumor Has It directed by Rob Reiner
This movie takes off from The Graduate in that it's about a woman who discovers that her mother and grandmother might've been the basis for Mrs. Robinson and Elaine, respectively.

Articles and Interviews

"Here's to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of The Graduate," by Sam Kashner
This article goes into depth in discussing "The Making of The Graduate." It's packed full of facts and funny anecdotes—definitely worth reading.

"How Mike Nichols and The Graduate Changed American Movies Forever," by Stanley Kauffman
Kauffman offers his own assessment of the cultural significance of The Graduate; although he thinks the movie has some flaws, he's overall very positive.

It Was All a Dream
Mike Nichols describes how his camera techniques were used to create a dreamlike atmosphere in the film.

He's a Square
The author makes the case for Mrs. Robinson being the real rebel in the film. He thinks that Benjamin himself is more like his parents than he wants to admit.

Happy 40th Birthday
Like Mrs. Robinson, The Graduate is still fabulous at 40.

Mike Nichols' Obituary from The New York Times
The Times pays tribute to Nichols and his incredible career. Is there anything this guy couldn't do?

We Think He Liked It
A Film Spectrum reviewer discusses Nichols' inventive camera work and says that The Graduate changed American cinema forever.

Betcha Can't See It Just Once
A film critic watched the lines outside the theater in 1967, when young people were going insane over the film.

He Doesn't Buy It
The magazine devoted 26 pages to an analysis of The Graduate. You'll need a subscription for this one. Basic thesis? Benjamin was really a child of the 50s, not the 60s.

A Collection of Articles on The Graduate from TCM
Turner Classic Movies offers some insight into the inner workings of The Graduate on their website.

The Wheels on the Bus
The Nostalgia Critic explains why The Graduate had the best ending of all time.

Roger Ebert Grows Up
Second thoughts on The Graduate from middle age.

Video

The Graduate Trailer
This trailer apparently isn't the original trailer—but a re-release of the movie (since it mentions at the beginning that Nichols won the award for Best Director at the Oscars). It pretty much summarizes the whole movie.

Mike Nichols Interviewed on Charlie Rose
Charlie Rose—master of the relentless, "Just describe, for me: What is it?"—interviews Nichols about his career.

Dustin Hoffman Talks about The Graduate with AFI
Hoffman—who broke out as a star by playing Benjamin—talks about his awkward path to landing the role.

And the Oscar Goes To…
Here's Nichols, racking up his due, after scoring big at the 1968 Oscars.

Second Thoughts
In their re-review of The Graduate, Siskel and Ebert are still essentially positive, but claim to have liked it less than when it first came out. Ebert says that as young man he thought Mrs. Robinson was just "some old lady" whereas now he finds her to be a "babe" and Benjamin he finds to be an "insufferable creep." '

Tom Hanks Pays Tribute to Mike Nichols
Tom Hanks pays homage to the master at an AFI ceremony, citing his work including and beyond The Graduate.

The Real Mr. Robinson
Mel Brooks confides in Jerry Seinfeld about The Graduate.

Audio

"Mrs. Robinson"
This is the one Simon and Garfunkel song written specifically for the movie, which actually made it in. Originally the lyrics referenced "Mrs. Roosevelt" but Simon changed them to make them fit.

"The Sounds of Silence"
More than any other song, this one might be the one most closely associated with The Graduate. It totally captures Benjamin's inner feelings of isolation and melancholy.

"Scarborough Fair"
Also featured in the movie, "Scarborough Fair" is really an adaptation of an older English folk song—not, strictly speaking, a Simon and Garfunkel original.

Images

The Famous Promotional Poster Image for The Graduate
Mrs. Robinson's panty hose clad leg extends as Benjamin looks on warily in this genius image.

Another Promotional Picture
In this image, Mrs. Robinson is close to the lens, while Ben stands at the end of a long surrealistic hall, trapped in his isolation.

Ben and Elaine on the Bus
This is the famous, enigmatic ending, where Ben and Elaine's facial expressions melt from joy into neutral thoughtfulness—maybe even worry.

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock
This is the man himself, staring into his fish tank, moping in his room as usual.

Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson
The famous seductress is on the prowl, wearing a leopard skin jacket.

Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson
Katharine Ross reportedly claimed that, in real life, a girl like her wouldn't have gone for awkward, initially scruffy Dustin Hoffman. But hey, this is the movies.

Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson
Whether having Mrs. Robinson cheat on him, or losing control of his town's beach to a Great White in Jaws, Murray Hamilton delivers the character actor goods.

Mike Nichols, the Director
The young Nichols, fresh off the success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is ready to take on The Graduate.

Buck Henry, the Screenwriter
Henry ended up writing one of the most successful, classic adapted screenplays in the history of movies, and went onto a ton of acting and screenwriting roles.

Charles Webb, Author of the Novel The Graduate
Webb didn't make much money off the movie or the book, but he's the guy who started it all, conceiving the characters, the plot, and most of the dialogue.