In a brief passage on “absolute age and youth” from his famous book The World Viewed, philosopher and film scholar Stanley Cavell explains that “a failure of The Graduate is the failure of its supporting players to accept and fill and specify the types they project.” By this, Cavell refers specifically to Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), whose pursuit of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is prompted by a pain and suffering, both as a sexually unfulfilled wife and a recovering alcoholic, which the film neglects to take seriously. Moreover, Cavell adds, the primacy of Benjamin’s private life, “which wants to be the subject of the film, is also denied by the film, as firmly as by his parents.” Cavell’s comments—a serious and devastating critique—are rarely mentioned or acknowledged in discussions of The Graduate’s legacy, presumably because the film’s cultural impact and widespread appreciation by other filmmakers has led to a blind acceptance of its worth and wit.
Such precedent isn’t uncommon, especially for American popular culture of the 1960s, which is still affiliated with a time of change, progress, and rebooting of the Hollywood studios where, for a brief period, young talent ruled the lots, with filmmakers who were as interested in sex and politics as they were profits. The Graduate speaks to its time period with an eye toward the burgeoning unrest among youth, but what’s at stake isn’t Benjamin’s future, despite his own pleas to the contrary. Rather, it’s the stakes of class consciousness that roam throughout the film as the elephant in Benjamin’s neat and tidy room inside his parents’ mansion, where an aquarium the size of a king bed figuratively drowns the so-called track star’s passions. Director Mike Nichols exploits rather than interrogates Ben’s anxieties, so that his ennui is reducible to his accomplishments, which keep getting repeated by the adults as badges of vicarious honor. Nichols also plays Ben’s socially awkward tics for laughs, whether Ben’s literally whimpering in Mrs. Robinson’s presence or in a cold sweat as he arranges what appears to be his first sexual encounter.
Of course, in some sense that’s the film’s very point: that Benjamin is simply an object, a piece of luggage, made of plastic, a sad clown—all metaphors The Graduate visualizes in one way or another. The question isn’t the film’s dramatic prowess, which is undeniably rigorous and considered, but to what end the filmmakers put Ben’s angst and, thus, situate his merit as a purportedly universal figure of social uncertainty. These demands may sound too grave for The Graduate, which pawns itself off as a comedy, especially in the sequences set inside the hotel where Ben and Mrs. Robinson ultimately consummate their affair. However, the film demands consideration of the abyss with its suggestion of American society as a system of unfeeling exchange, which explains Ben’s robotic demeanor and cyclical jumping from bed to pool like clockwork.
To expand on Cavell’s claim, The Graduate completely fails its female characters since their esteem is always filtered through Ben’s perspective, but in a way that naturalizes, rather than draws attention to, that representational relationship. When Ben is forced to take Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) out on a date, her humiliation manifests with relation to Ben’s sunglassed eyes and not by her own accord. He’s determined to make her have a bad time, but ceases tormenting her once he notices a tear trailing down her cheek, implicitly realizing his limited capacity for sadism. But even this fails to humanize Ben, despite that clearly being the film’s intent. His actions proceed from a place of selfishness and privilege—all of which the film licenses through its anti-fairy-tale deconstruction: Ben ultimately gets the girl, but he’s hardly a knight in shining armor. In fact, he’s an ape, a being of base instincts, which Nichols clarifies after Ben is stranded at the zoo, left with nothing to do but stare into the eyes of his evolutionary predecessors.
These could be intriguing claims for the source of Ben’s aimlessness, that to be on the cusp of adulthood in a contemporary environment necessitates confusion over one’s place in society, but the film views Ben’s quandary with an ambivalence that revels in his apathy while insisting that his harmlessness is his best trait. Ben isn’t an “agitator,” as his landlord (Norman Fell) fears, but nor is he a mannequin, toeing the company line. Instead, Ben’s simply middlebrow, and his meager rebellions are as innocuous as the mistake Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) repeatedly makes by pouring Ben scotch instead of his requested bourbon. The Graduate criticizes an entire class of people who’ve turned themselves into ornaments, but, to double down on Cavell’s earlier points, its true failure is that Nichols never turns that critique back onto the film itself.
The Graduate has been available in stellar home-video editions for years, with five separate releases from MGM (three DVDs, two Blu-rays) between 1999 to 2011, but the Criterion Collection’s newest iteration is easily the best the film’s looked yet, with a 4K presentation that lends the image a depth of field and clarity not yet seen. Color is vibrant and showy, especially in shots with Benjamin’s aquarium or outdoor scenes set around the family pool, but the transfer still makes the film look like it’s from the 1960s, with filmic artifacts like grain and a few minor tears to the negative present at various points. The sound is perhaps the most exciting A/V component, especially because this disc boasts both the film’s original monaural track and a 5.1 DTS-HD remix that allows Simon & Garfunkel’s ever-present songs even more centrality within the film’s overall scope.
A college course could be constructed around the issues raised in these exhaustive supplements. Two commentary tracks offer quite different perspectives. The first, recorded in 2007, finds Steven Soderbergh in conversation with Mike Nichols, and the pair work through Nichols’s timeline and influences while conceiving of and making the film. The tone stays fairly light, though Soderbergh makes sure to prompt a new question or insight whenever Nichols goes long-winded or trails off. Howard Suber gives an extended reading of the film on the second track, and it’s the kind of commentary where sentences begin with "Sigmund Freud wrote...," with Suber pointing out every possible symbolism he can find. There’s exuberance in how Suber matches even small bits of business throughout the film, like the way Benjamin puffs out his cheeks during the party at his parents’ house, which is mirrored by Elaine later at the zoo. The shortcoming, however, is that any film becomes a game of symmetries and sequencing for Suber, who admits that he’s never been able to figure out the symbolism of Benjamin’s shaving scenes, as if a clearer relation to either water or plastics would deepen the film’s meaning.
Dustin Hoffman provides a nearly 40-minute interview, recorded in 2015, that finds the actor by turns reflective, congenial, and mildly sentimental as he recalls his reluctance to accept the lead role, since he was certain that he didn’t have anything in common with a handsome track star. Hoffman’s prowess as a storyteller is on full display here, as he brings in minor details about shooting screen tests or standing at a urinal with Gene Hackman to illustrate the stakes for his career, but also his own humanity. Producer Lawrence Turman and screenwriter Buck Henry chat with one another, among many things, about working with Nichols and filming the film’s penultimate scene. A featurette called "Sam and Mike" provides a brief history of the working relationship between Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen, which reveals that Benjamin’s wardrobe—particularly the windbreaker—was inspired by O’Steen’s own, which he wore to set every day.
There’s strong archival material here, including an interview between Nichols and Barbara Walters from 1966, in which Nichols explains why good reviews upset him more than bad. Paul Simon appears in a brief clip from The Dick Cavett Show, explaining why the song "Mrs. Robinson" made Mel Brooks’s life a living hell. There are also assorted screen tests, a trailer, and an essay by critic and journalist Frank Rich. Rounding out this mountainous lot of supplements is a short documentary called "Students of The Graduate," which features brief interviews with well-known filmmakers, including David O. Russell, Marc Forster, and Harold Ramis, explaining their affection for the film and a 1992 featurette called "The Graduate at 25," which cycles through insights from Hoffman, Henry, Turman, and Katharine Ross for further fine points about the film’s production and reception.
Criterion is more out to pummel than seduce viewers with their gargantuan, Blu-ray of The Graduate, making it one of the label’s most ambitious—and comprehensive—single-disc releases.