I first saw Mike Nichols’ beloved 1967 film The Graduate when I was around the same age as its protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad who wants absolutely nothing to do with the upper-middle-class adult social and professional life that now awaits him. The movie follows Benjamin (played by the endearingly awkward Dustin Hoffman) as he spends a summer doing his best to avoid making any decisions about his future, and meanwhile becomes romantically entangled with both Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft, in a justly famous performance) and her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). At nineteen or twenty, I enjoyed the movie, and admired the fine filmmaking involved, but it didn’t involve me deeply or sweep me away. I suspect that the main reason for this might have been that it hit too close to home: it was difficult for me to fully appreciate the film’s sense of humor and ironic distance at a time in my life when my perspective on the world wasn’t necessarily all that different from Benjamin’s. I tried to empathize with Benjamin directly, and ended up feeling a bit put off by the ways in which the film treats his feelings from the perspective of a somewhat older and more experienced adult.
When I saw the film again a few years later, I enjoyed it a great deal more, and was able to see the humor in Benjamin’s predicament a bit more clearly. Still, it wasn’t until I watched it a third time (in preparation to review Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the 1968 Oscar race; you can read my review here) that I think I fully understood the import of the film’s memorable ending. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.) In the closing shot, Benjamin and Elaine sit together at the back of a bus, just after Benjamin has interrupted Elaine’s wedding to another man. It’s a very long take, and as their expressions shift between elation, confusion, and fear, it becomes clear that neither of them have the slightest idea what’s going to happen now that they’ve so decisively cast their lot with one another. It is certainly not a moment in which true love triumphs unexpectedly over all obstacles; in fact, the filmmakers have taken great care to sow doubts about the seriousness (or even existence) of the love between Benjamin and Elaine. After all, Benjamin has only recently stopped sleeping with Elaine’s mother, and very little time has passed since Elaine saw Benjamin as the kid who’d heartlessly and senselessly broken up her family, and then started stalking her creepily and declaring his love for her.
What they really have in common isn’t love at all: instead, it’s a desire to rebel against the wishes and expectations of their parents. In my previous viewings of the film, I didn’t catch the rich and extraordinarily well-observed irony in the situation that Elaine and Benjamin find themselves in. They’ve bonded over their desire to fight against the expectations of their parents’ generation: they don’t want to lead the same kind of blandly materialistic lives, and they don’t want to spend the rest of their days doing meaningless white collar jobs and attending miserably dull parties with people just like their parents. But despite the fact that their relationship is expressly against their parents’ wishes, they’ve entered into it purely in reaction to that fact. If they do end up staying together, their relationship will have no firmer basis than that of, say, the Robinsons, who married because the future Mrs. Robinson had become pregnant (while rebelling against her own parents, no doubt).
According to Harris’s book, young audiences in 1967 tended to strongly identify with the generational struggle in the film, and typically read the ending as a victory of Benjamin and Elaine’s generation over that of their parents. But when someone asked Mike Nichols what happened to Benjamin and Elaine after they fled the wedding together, Nichols answered, “They became their parents”—not at all what those younger viewers wanted to hear. But this, I think, is exactly what makes The Graduate such a great film. I think what’s happening in that final shot is that Benjamin and Elaine are beginning to realize that their life together will have to be founded on something more solid than just a shared sense of rebellion against their parents. Both of them have been so caught up in rebelling that it’s never occurred to them to consider what it is they’ll do with their lives once they’ve established their adult independence. Mrs. Robinson’s rage in the church is not only for her lost youth, but also for the fact that she never made very much of the freedom of her youth when she had the chance. The fear, confusion, and uncertainty on the faces of Benjamin and Elaine as they ride the bus away from their old lives suggests that there’s little reason to believe that they will manage themselves any better (or any differently) than their parents.