WARNING: YES, THERE ARE SPOILERS.
What is it about the disenchanted youth that plays so fascinatingly well on film? Whether it be Brick, Less Than Zero, My Own Private Idaho or Harold and Maude there is something, some key element, about adolescents who are disillusioned and seemingly jaded, that makes theses films that much more interesting to watch. It’s all the more interesting when said disillusioned youth comes from a privileged background, defies their parents for a sense of brief freedom, only for their thrill search for the limitless to instead drag them back down, back into reality. The Graduate, at first, seems like a typical coming of age film, but in reality, it’s more, allowing the harsh truths of life to overwhelm the charm of the forbidden love. It’s the fall from grace. None of the characters were very saint-like, they all had faults a plenty and were refreshingly relatable in that sense. Still, the fall came from their charade, the charade of expectations implemented, of the idea that because of who you are you’re excusable from mistake and misstep.
I’m sadly poorly versed in Dustin Hoffman’s previous works. I’ve seen more from him in his more recent films such as Finding Neverland and I Heart Huckabee’s, and have yet to watch movies such as Kramer vs. Kramer, films that heralded him to the likes of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. I’m glad this was my first foray into classic Hoffman, considering in this film he showcases an intimidating amount of on screen charisma. He’s an actor you can’t take your eyes off of, waiting and watching as his next scene comes. He’s an invaluable presence, monopolizing his strengths in deadpan and dry delivery, as well as surprising me, who knew him mainly as a comedic actor, for his dramatic delivery and the way in which he easily charmed a viewer into rooting for him no matter the mistakes he was making.
There were three key components other than Hoffman himself that made the movie surpass any expectation I’ve ever held for the film: the soundtrack, the coming of age aspect, and the ending. First off, the soundtrack to a movie can be a game changer, it either distracts or elevates, and in this case, it was the latter. While many, myself included, can argue that Simon and Garfunkel was used entirely too frequently, it was still used in moments of poignancy and character growth. Think of the movies with amazing soundtracks, movies such as Almost Famous, Trainspotting and The Royal Tenenbaums and now think of what they would have been without them? The right song with the right scene has the ability to draw on the emotions of the viewer and create an heightened level of escapism that an audience member can simply sit back and capitulate to the picture in front of them. Think of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and try not to think of the scene on the bus in Almost Famous that instilled such a sense of familial camaraderie that for a moment you were on that bus, visiting all of your old friends who are so very uncool. The Graduate’s usage of Simon and Garfunkel instills a similar likelihood. When the montage of the affair with Mrs. Robinson begins, and we see Ben go from unassuming to assured, it’s relatable because who hasn’t gone through a transformation from one version of themselves to another. As we watch him change, the music allows the emotional connection from the story to the audience, allowing them to relate.
Then, there is the coming of age bit, which while one of the most overdone forms of storytelling, when done right can be cinema’s most effective measure of storytelling. It’s because everyone has been in there in some sense. What college student hasn’t heard variations of “What do you plan on doing with your life?” “What are your plans after college, graduate school?” multiple times since their very first day as a freshman, who’s just getting accustomed to dorm life? As a people, we’re very obsessed with the future, and what’s going to happen rather than enjoying the moment in which we’re living. It is that idea, the idea of throwing caution to the wind that makes this film so utterly captivating because while as an audience we understand Ben, it’s also impossible to escape the truth of the inevitable fall. No matter the girl he tells himself he loves, the family he tells himself he needs to detach himself from, no matter whatever plans of grandeur he holds for himself, it is the now that is concerning which leads to the ending, one of the most moving moments in cinema.
Happy endings are easy and often nice to see after rooting for a certain character for however long the length of the film is but endings that end with some ambiguity are miles ahead more fascinating. Sadly, I was spoiled by this ending by watching (500) Days of Summer, and I have to wonder about the effect it may have had, had I walked in totally ignorant to what would transpire. Ambiguity allows films an extra level of emotional impact; films, such as this and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, allow viewers no sense of comfort, no immediate gratification but rather a sense that we’ve only seen a piece of a greater story. As the two sit in the back of the bus after their great escape from the confines of their families’ pressure and the elation and adrenaline begin to settle, we’re left with two very uncertain, frightened just barely adults. As their smiles slip and their eyes shift, it’s there we realize that in that moment, in that “now,” the final bit of innocence has left them. They may have possibly just made a huge mistake, aren’t even sure if they love each other or the idea of each other, but because of the spectacle they’ve made and the actions taken, they may be stuck. Those aren’t the faces of the triumphant, but rather the sentenced. The disenchantment has happened in full.