It's hard to believe that it's been 50 years since Dustin Hoffman astounded audiences with his confused, uncomfortable performance in Mike Nichols' The Graduate. The film was truly ahead of its time, with a relatable narrative and a groundbreaking approach to storytelling that has left audiences amused and enchanted since its release. It's a movie that combines spot-on dry comedy with thought-provoking themes, making it feel like a truly modern film, despite its age. Hollywood still has a lot to learn from The Graduate, so here are five major takeaways from this American classic.
5. Waste No Time
Exposition is for chumps, but it's often necessary to introduce the audience to the characters and their situation. However, The Graduate paces its story quickly and cleverly throughout these early information dumps. When Benjamin first meets Mrs. Robinson, for example, there already exists a tension, a sense of conflict which drives the film until its conclusion. The movie also pulls off some of its funniest dialogue at the beginning, setting the audience up with laughter and then building a more dramatic story on this foundation. It's an unconventional formula that actually makes for a stronger first half than most films are able to manage.
4. Seek Out Talent Old And New
By casting Anne Bancroft, a veteran actress with both an Oscar and a Tony under her belt, Mike Nichols and his casting team were clearly seeking out seasoned talent. However, The Graduate took a serious risk casting Dustin Hoffman as the film's protagonist. Hoffman was an unknown entity at the time, but this proved to be a wise decision in the long run. Hoffman's awkward, uncomfortable presence was unique in Hollywood and spot on for the character of Benjamin. These days, we often see big films attracting the biggest names. However, The Graduate teaches us that it's far more effective to dig deep, often choosing an actor who better fits the script instead of more seasoned, familiar talent.
3. Write Movies About Real People
There's a sense of gravity to The Graduate's story that you don't find in a lot of films. While there are a lot of laughs throughout the movie, and the plot can seem low stakes at times, so many scenes will drag you right back into the reality of these characters. The difference is the dialogue. It's written from the heart, spoken by real characters with hopes and dreams (or the lack thereof), which fuel the conflict and keep you on the edge of your seat.
There's also a lot of gray area to the film, with no character ever seeming entirely right or wrong. While similar films will use stock characters in stock situations, The Graduate is a muddled mess in which a bunch of real people chase after real goals, and I find this far more interesting to watch.
2. Find A Balanced Tone
The most innovative films are often the hardest to categorize. The Graduate is ripe with clever dark comedy and meticulous cringe humor. However, it balances these antics with powerful performances and gripping adult themes. Often just minutes apart, Benjamin Braddock will shift from an uncomfortable goofball, uncertain and fumbling over every sentence, to a tragic hero, meandering painfully through one of life's hardest transitions. With a sharp screenplay and nuanced performances from the entire cast, The Graduate strikes a unique balance. It's a difficult formula to master, but one that resonates with modern audiences and is well worth attempting in newer films.
1. Embrace Bold Endings
There's something triumphant about The Graduate's ending. It's a romantic, underdog turn of fortune that leaves you cheering for Hoffman's character while remaining hopeful for his future. That is, until the very end. In a subtle but powerful moment, Hoffman looks away from Katharine Ross, terribly uncertain with his decisions and fearful for days to come. Ross suddenly follows suit with a similar expression, and the film closes on an uncomfortable slice of reality. In doing so, The Graduate boldly suggests how "happily ever after" starts to look once the credits have rolled. It's not the safest choice the film could have made, but it pays off resoundingly well and keeps you contemplating the movie far longer than you would have otherwise, a testament to the power of a daring ending.
The Graduate is a milestone achievement of American cinema. It's intelligent, hilarious, heartbreaking, and unsettling all at once. Both Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson have become icons of their respective generations and convey powerful themes that retain the film's relevancy in 2017. This is a movie that could only be constructed by taking bold risks, challenging the form of how movies are made and relishing in new cinematic ideas. While it hits its 50th anniversary this year, we still have a lot to learn from this rare gem of a film. It's an inspiration for filmmakers everywhere, and we can only hope to see it inspire similar risks in cinema moving into the future.
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