The phrase New Hollywood originally achieved extensive use to express a new wave of films and young film directors that emerged between the “mid-to-late 1960s to the mid-to-late 1970s”; a phenomenon more frequently regarded as the Hollywood Renaissance. Amongst these young directors included Mike Nichols whose massive box office hit The Graduate (1967), became one of the momentous, landmark films of the period, and helped to put in motion an innovative modern epoch of film production. Freshness and originality (traceable to the French New Wave) within an embedded framework of classical Hollywood style could be the most fitting way to typify the formal structure of The Graduate.
Having emerged from the post studio era of production, a period when Hollywood was producing a high number of successful cutting edge films, The Graduate follows popular trends by setting out to offer a probing depiction of American society. Through its mixture of old and new Hollywood stylistic conventions, The Graduate realistically captures the 1960s culture of youthful alienation, disillusionment, opposition to the status quo and middle class values, and the growing cynicism of a younger generation against the older generation.
An array of industrial factors was significant to both the emergence of young directors like Mike Nichols and the changing content in films of the Hollywood Renaissance. The decline of vertically integrated companies together with a large decrease in cinema attendances, contributed towards the ending of the studio system of production, and opened the gateways for a thematically different style of film-making. Consequently, “individual packages were assembled:” a format that gave directors like Nichols more authority, money and freedom to stamp their authority on film projects.
Due to these rapid modifications in industrial factors, American values were also being challenged. The success of sexually explicit films like The Man with the Golden Arm, led to an adjustment of the production code. With barriers falling, Nichols was allowed to portray adultery, affairs and near nudity in The Graduate. Films no longer had to strictly target the family audience. Hence, Nichols pushed the limits, pushing the restrictions of both stylistic medium, and of taste. The idea of an older married woman (Mrs Robinson played by Anne Bancroft) eagerly seducing a young college graduate almost half her age (Benjamin Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman) was deemed controversial by many older audiences at the time, yet proved very effectual in targeting youth audiences. The film was thought of as bringing something new to Hollywood.
However, although The Graduate has been bracketed as a product of New Hollywood, it is important to note that most of its scenes adhere to the classical style of editing, mainly because continuity editing and conventional form was a proven successful formula in Hollywood cinema; it remained ideal for constructing narratives that were visually uncomplicated to follow. The opening scene of The Graduate is principally constrained by the rules of classical Hollywood style for reasons like this, and so that audiences are presented with a rational believable world. The film begins with a close-up of Benjamin Braddock’s face – the white background focuses attention on his steely motionless gaze. The composition of this shot accentuates his look of disillusionment to the audience. It seems he is isolated, but the camera steadily zooms out, revealing him to be on an aeroplane packed with passengers. By filming his muted bodily movement on the automatic walkway in one slow extended take, the sense of Benjamin’s isolation is heightened; Nichols is of course shaping up a narrative to reflect the disillusionment of the youth culture of his day, and as we learn later, Benjamin’s future reservations. Together with the popular non-diegetic soundtrack Sound of Silence, Benjamin’s mood is perfectly encapsulated within the opening credits.
Since the lyrics of Sounds of Silence coincide with Benjamin’s behaviour, it almost becomes a second language for the film. The song, produced by the folk music duo Simon and Garfunkel, became an instant hit with the youth culture of the 1960s; it reached number one on New Years day (1966). In the opening, it matches well with the slow pace and continuity of the scene; the solemn edge and dim emotional colouring of the track underline the psychological difficulties Benjamin is experiencing.
It is only when the shot of Benjamin exiting the airport dissolves to a shot of him expressing his qualms about future aspirations, that the viewers are able to distinguish the basis of his psychological commotion.
By presenting a traditional older community who don’t understand Benjamin’s troubles, the viewers build compassion towards Benjamin. In this second close up of his face, Benjamin conveys a slight look of apprehension as he tries to explain to his father (Mr. Braddock played by William Daniels) of his need to be ‘different.’ However, Benjamin’s worries about his future are seemingly ignored. His father seems more concerned about keeping up appearances and persuading his son to attend to the guests of the home-coming party. This scene draws directly to the 1960s culture of youthful isolation, because like several young individuals of his generation, Benjamin emerged from the safe haven of the college lifestyle, only to feel confounded and highly indecisive about his future career. His parents, however, highlight their self-absorbed intentions by coaxing him downstairs as opposed to understanding his predicament; the party just seems like a reason for them to parade their material possessions to their friends. Hence, young people loved the movie because it highlighted their anxieties, and in the process it put down parents as “self-obsessed immoral clods” who only saw life through the narrow lens of class structure and wealth.
Another technique used to represent the oblivious older generation is when the middle-aged guests of the home-coming party find themselves communicating in third person about Benjamin, even whilst he is positioned quite close to them. Combined with their invasive ways (almost pressuring Benjamin into an answer about his future), none of them truly comprehend Benjamin’s desires. In looking troubled and hesitant about future goals, Benjamin appears to be resisting the quintessence of the supposed American dream – a complete American education, followed by a lucrative career. Like young people of his time, he is finding it difficult to come to terms with the institutionalised adult working life awaiting him.
During the party Benjamin is constantly surrounded by a swarm of older people who want to praise his academic achievements or question him about his future; this only further adds to his claustrophobic mindset. Even after escaping the middle-aged crowd to refuge of his bedroom, he is interrupted by Mrs Robinson and feels trapped once more. Within the same shot that Mrs Robinson is being framed in the doorway, Ben is also framed within the world of his fish tank – another symbol of imprisonment that is repeated several times throughout the film. Indeed Benjamin is like a fish himself – shy, introvert and feeling alone in an ocean of emptiness. The classical editing in the opening of the film attains a smooth and faultless style of narration, allowing the viewer to effortlessly track the direction of the narrative; the viewers can feel the tension created when Benjamin’s inner conflicts are crossed with a non-understanding older generation.
Further continuity editing is used to uphold clear narrative action (a feature of several successful films of the Hollywood Renaissance) as well as build up the moments leading up to the bedroom scene, in which Mrs Robinson will attempt to seduce Benjamin. In an establishing long shot of Mrs Robinson’s house, Benjamin is persuaded to accompany Mrs Robinson inside. As Benjamin enters, he is surrounded by a porch made of all glass, making the environment outside entirely noticeable. The huge trees and thick green bushes outside, give the appearance of a tropical jungle; this could be a metaphor to illustrate Mrs Robinson’s pursuit of Benjamin. Also, in one of the most infamous frames within a frame shot where Benjamin is framed perfectly under Mrs Robinson’s leg, Mrs Robinson again takes on the more dominant position between them; she takes up the role of a predator whilst he becomes the young vulnerable prey. These portrayals of a sexually aggressive woman perhaps symbolises how easily the older generation and society can lead a fretful, alienated individual astray if he or she deviates from forming a meaningful purpose towards life. Benjamin, who is already feeling lost, is caught off guard and becomes easy pickings for Mrs Robinson to take advantage.
From an industrial perspective, Mrs Robinson’s pursuit of Benjamin is important in establishing her constructed gender role; she is neither a liberated woman (who will leave her husband and pursue her romantic desires) nor a conformist faithful suburban housewife. During the 1960s, women roles were shifting from 1950s image of subservient housewives, to a more rebellious independent role. However, Mrs Robinson plays both the unhappy suburban housewife as well an explicitly sexual woman chasing an affair. She is shown as asserting her authority and sexual prowess over Benjamin, yet is still bound by her sex and relations with men; her representation is a result of the film industry’s incapability to cut free from the conventional portrays of women so prevalent throughout the history of early Hollywood cinema. Julia Anderson states, “Most viewers were not interested in watching, and Hollywood was not interested in funding a determined woman as a popular female lead.” Thus, Mrs Robinson is a gripping protagonist – one of the most renowned in Hollywood, in fact, but when her character is measured in terms of gender depiction, it is plain to see she is not gripping because of her accomplishments, but because of her villain like role. And her whole story circulates around her relationships with a member of the opposite sex; as a result she remains a female character that is defined by her association with a man, instead of her own defiant or heroic actions.
The extent of Mrs Robinson’s overwhelming sexual needs bears resemblance to the dissatisfied, sexually frustrated housewife described by Betty Friedan in her Feminine mystique (1963). Although Mrs Robinson had been forced into marriage as a result of becoming pregnant, she is put in a hopeless position to escape the marriage, possibly since she has become financially dependant on her husband. In having conformed to the archetypal housewife role rather than pursuing a professional career, it could be argued that she has become consumed by the feminine mystique; a lifestyle which regardless of true love keeps women, in many cases, interested due to the wealth of material possessions and money they receive. In Mrs Robinson’s case, the combination of a loveless relationship and dreary housewife commitments makes her more subject to an “increased sexual appetite.” Thus, Mrs Robinson only engages in the affair to use Benjamin as defence mechanism to bring herself out of her miserable existence within marriage.
The cinematography techniques used to capture Mrs Robinson’s growing sexual desires for Benjamin, are examples of a move away from classical Hollywood style; the lightning fast cuts and other disorientating effects in the bedroom scene create the feeling of restiveness, impatience and a great sense of sexual hunger on Mrs Robinson’s part. One of the reasons in using discontinuity techniques was because it was a major component for films deserving to be categorised as part of a new wave or renaissance. In this case it is effectively used to represent the turning point in the film; not only does it highlight Mrs Robinson’s sexual urges, but the high-speed editing simultaneously reflects the growing tension and awkwardness on Benjamin’s part. This time he is framed over Mrs Robinson’s shoulder and it is clear to detect his uncomfortable reactions when presented by the fully unclothed Mrs Robinson.
By applying a slow opening to The Graduate and contrasting it with these bursts of rapid cuts, the visual impact of the seduction is made much greater to the audience; the full force of Mrs Robinson’s desire is projected onto the viewer, who up until now has been comfortable experiencing the largely unnoticeable style of editing. Films like The Graduate and others of the Hollywood Renaissance period aimed to move away from directing entire films via strict continuity regimes; they aimed for a newer exciting dimension of stylistic techniques and current gimmicks to reflect characters emotions. The fact that Benjamin is emotionally at a crisis himself, makes the subsequent affair with an older married woman all the more worthless.
The whole feeling of worthlessness surrounding the affair between Mrs Robinson and Benjamin is brilliantly captured in the musically backed montage, a segment that uses rapid editing and special effects – a more direct use of discontinuity style thought to have been borrowed from the films of the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague). During the montage, one scene is edited so that it appears Benjamin is drifting between his parents house to the hotel room he shares with Mrs Robinson. Afterwards, in a disorientating match-cut, Benjamin is shown climbing up onto his home swimming pool raft and landing on top of Mrs Robinson in the hotel bed they share – perhaps another symbol to symbolise Benjamin’s downward spiral in life, and his plunge to new lows by partaking in the affair.
Within the several jarring cuts that show Benjamin walking back and forth into these separate spheres, the non-diegetic soundtracks Sound of Silence followed and April Come She Will play in the background; in illustrating compressed narrative information within the montage, the sequences of events highlights their loveless affair, and demonstrates how Benjamin is submitting himself to Mrs Robinson in order to block out the purposelessness and bleakness of his life over the summer. Nichols purposefully contradicts continuity here to stamp his mark on the film; in borrowing successful elements of the French New Wave, he is able to add that major ingredient of innovation so important to films in and around his period, and use it portray the feeling of youth disillusionment manifest in his society.
It could be also argued that the increased discontinuity techniques in the musically backed montage have a more political purpose rather than merely reflecting character moods. By having a more jarring sporadic style of editing, viewers becomes more alert to messages in the film, and start to question dominant ideologies in society. In this case, Benjamin’s refusal in submitting to neither the “plastics” world of the older generation or any other city profession shows his rejection of the status quo and middle class ideals; a similar rejection shown by the youth rebellion of the 1960s. More concern in emphasised on Benjamin’s need to belong and find his identity as opposed to following the traditional way of American life – fulfilling his education and entering a commercial, corporate based occupation.
Through Benjamin’s almost robotic, strained replies to his father questions, he is resisting the standardised American way of living in hopes to search for a more fulfilling existence. Thus, his feelings of aimlessness directly reflect the youth generation of the time who equally “drifted for prolonged periods of time whilst trying to determine an aim in life.” Benjamin’s feelings of discontent are justifiable because as Friedan would argue, many young men who willingly conformed to corporate life in the late 1960s realised that the “purposelessness of their work kept them from feeling like men.” For reasons like these, Benjamin refrains from following the old-fashioned way of living that his parents have occupied. Instead he enters a passionless affair and drifts around at his parent’s pool as a form of escapism.
Pushing narrative boundaries and including illicit representations of sex in the affair between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson were thoughtfully calculated by the film to target the 1960s American youth rebellion culture. In an era when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) no longer had the final contribution in the film’s story, Nichols was free of most strict censorships. This allowed him to openly forefront facets of the youthful counterculture; in doing so The Graduate targeted younger audiences (the major cinema ticket consumers in the late 1960s). Since younger people preferred films that “dealt more explicitly with sex,” Nichols audience targeting strategy proved very cost effective and ticket sales rocketed with the film earning “a box office gross of $105m.” Large amounts of that gross total were down to Nichol’s innovative film techniques which pushed home the feelings of the youth counterculture – uncertainty, fear, and a general lack of direction in life.
Another reason for Nichols to offer the clear rejection of classical unambiguous cinematic form (evident in the scenes previously mentioned) was because many film directors who employed such techniques in various scenes of their films were held up in admiration at the time, whilst Hollywood films restricted by conventional narrative flow were condemned. Films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde were largely greeted with huge success for their innovative trendy stylistic approach. Described as a “period of great artistic achievement based on ‘new freedom’ and widespread experimentation,” these new formal styles became very profitable for selling huge box office hits, and helped cement the Hollywood Renaissance a “golden age in Hollywood history.”
Moreover, by using new off the wall techniques, Nichols perhaps shows his desire to be held in the same admiration of previously successful forward thinking directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chapin and Howard Hawks, who were much-admired for their “high film art,” and auteur status. Considering the new found freedom that directors of the Hollywood Renaissance had, the films of the period have been mostly understood in terms of the efforts of the artistic auteur. Hence, Nichols too has been regarded as a filmmaker creating his own personal style of directing. For example
The scene which celebrates Benjamin’s 21st birthday is important in establishing the psychological burdens Benjamin is suffering; a mindset which mirrors the youth alienation and counterculture of the 1960s. Through avant-garde techniques, Nichols positions the viewers in Benjamin’s viewpoint (looking out of a scuba diving mask), and forces them to experience Benjamin’s feelings of entrapment as he makes his uncomfortable transition from a boy to a mature man. Benjamin’s visions reveal a blurry image of his parent’s faces; this together with muted sounds of the middle-aged crowd could be representative of Benjamin being too caught up in his own thoughts to acknowledge anything, particularly the overbearing views of the older generation he wants to block out. As well as moving lethargically towards the pool and finally sinking to the bottom of it, this scene cements the foundation for his growing rebellion towards his elders.
Like the youth alienated society of the day, Benjamin prefers to blank out the real world. Before he decides to emerge in front of the birthday guests in his scuba diving outfit, Benjamin’s replies to his father are packed by unusually high pitched bleats of apprehension: “dad can we please talk about this for a second.” The anxiety that punctuates Benjamin’s line deliveries accentuates his uptight frame of mind, and becomes a point of resistance against his parents. Not only does this add to the comedic element of the film, but by presenting comedy in its blackest sort, these instances positions the viewer to ridicule American materialistic values – the need to flaunt material wealth as a means of maintaining class hierarchies. The fact that Benjamin’s father feels the need to highlight the price of the scuba diving mask to the birthday guest only further affirms this.
As Benjamin moves sluggishly towards the pool, it is interesting to note the parallels of Nicholas’s point of view shots with Alfred Hitchcock’s; they both create a similar feeling of discomfort in the viewer. Like Hitchcock, Nichols too questions the root of regular human behaviours by aligning the viewer to the protagonist’s dissenting action through point of view. The increased volume of Benjamin’s breathing appears to be a sound which transcends from realism to expressionism and it fits in well with Benjamin’s troubled mood. In this way viewer feels they are partaking in “scopophilic and often pervasive acts,” sharing a strong bond with Benjamin. As continuity editing paints a more naturalistic ordered world, these avant-garde techniques can be viewed as mirroring the disordered society of the 1960s- youthful alienation and rebellion to middle class norms.
Moreover, Benjamin’s behaviour and strained replies to his father are significant in establishing Benjamin’s identity crisis; an issue which reflects the gender crisis of the 1960s. During the 1960s, new notions about masculinity were starting to surface; the counterculture sought to change the traditional one dimensional understanding of man. In contexts to Benjamin’s world, he encounters the suburban middle-class ideas of the older generation and their traditional understanding of manhood – a well rounded education, followed by a future in “plastics.”
However, by rejecting this lifestyle in hopes to seek his true identity, Benjamin models himself on the modern image of the American male – one who has a greater vision as opposed to conforming to the rather straightforward life presented to him by his father – one that he is readily expected to lead. Just like in The Graduate, the older generation of Nichol’s time did not recognize that the gender roles for men were changing; it was only due to the growing counterculture asserting new attitudes towards gender that finally produced a young politicised generation who were on the lookout for their true individuality. The film thus mocks the traditional views of the older generation, particularly the materialistic wealth and snobbery that Benjamin’s father constantly parades to his friends.
In addition to the changing gender roles of the 1960s, Dustin Hoffman’s projection of a wholly different type of masculinity in The Graduate could be down to industrial factors. In a period when the industry was in flux, older notions of star power as highly desired commodities were concurrently on the decline; the rebirth of Hollywood cinema in the mid-to-late 1960s provided room for new stars to be born. This allowed Nichols to move away from portraying the traditional male hero – one who was physically imposing, clearly motivated by an aim, and a man of more action rather than words.
Nichols, on the contrary, presents the viewer with a male hero (Benjamin) who is small, introvert, awkward, indecisive, and feels lost throughout the film. As The Graduate was entering Hollywood cinema at a time where films were projecting high innovation, it could be argued that Nichols opts to go for something new in his characters to represent this trend. In the process he undermines classical narrative convention by portraying a male hero who has no clear motivations. Therefore as well as reflecting the changing gender dynamics of the period, Nichols gives rise to a new kind of star impersonation in his male hero.
Moreover, Katharine Ross’s character Elaine (the daughter of Mrs Robinson and Benjamin’s true love) also reflects the changing gender attitudes of the 1960s. At a time when the women’s movement was gathering in strength, so the depiction of women in Hollywood cinema was also shifting. By ultimately rejecting the prospect of a mundane marriage and suburban lifestyle, Elaine liberates herself from the lifestyle forced on her by her parents; she shows herself to be capable of making decisions about her future.
However, in choosing to marry Benjamin, Elaine’s representation reflects how marriage was still deemed imperative to the fulfilment of femininity in the 1960s. Nonetheless, the educated Elaine thinks independently, and like Benjamin, she chooses to abandon the older generational norms in favour for her self-fulfilment and romantic desires. The institution she attends for her college education (Berkeley) is also an important place for constructing her forward thinking mentality since it was “the centre of radical movements including class, gender and politics.” By ending the film with Elaine’s romantic escape, the film stays also stays in touch with the 1967s year of proclaimed summer of love.
Even though there is a slight change in the gender roles for the female protagonists, the women in The Graduate still conform to ingrained patriarchal norms, thus making the film a product of its time. The 1960s was a period where the second wave of feminism was gaining momentum, however in the face of these changes, inequality between the sexes remained; accordingly, the Hollywood industry only made minor adaptations in female character roles to reflect this. Benjamin’s mother and Mrs Robinson still inhabit a feminine role, acting as subservient counterparts to their working husbands, and although Elaine is an educated woman, her part in the story is mainly as a foil to Benjamin’s quest for identity.
Moreover, in the shots of Mrs Robinson’s legs and semi naked body, she can be viewed as what Laura Mulvey would state, an “object of the male gaze.” The leopard print coat which Mrs Robinson wears on her first meeting with Benjamin at the hotel is an important animal motif representative of her sexually predatory nature; she adheres to the voyeuristic erotic pleasures of the male audience. Although it can be argued Mrs Robinson is an assertive sexual subject in her own right, the counter argument would assert that she merely upholds sexual power over a physically petite, self-conscious, unconfident young man – one who’s young enough to be her son. In casting two aesthetically attractive women protagonists in Mrs Robinson and Elaine, The Graduate becomes another film of its time which fulfils the “neurotic needs of the male ego”
Furthermore, the affair between Mrs Robinson and Benjamin is mainly a manifestation of an old fashioned male fantasy – having a sexual affair with an older married woman. From this viewpoint, The Graduate places constraints on its radicalism and rather offers a constructed form of narrative experimentation in order to attract widespread audiences. By depicting this male fantasy, the film once again lives up to patriarchal norms.
Due to the patriarchal norms of the time, The Graduate also keeps in conventional Hollywood custom by naturally focusing on a male protagonist in the narrative. The entire film revolves around Benjamin and, in typical fashion, the focus remains on his character development, identity struggle (making the adjustment from youth to adulthood), and the sexual relationships he gets caught up in. Mrs Robinson and Elaine, who are the key women protagonists in the narrative, are only defined in their sexual relationships with Benjamin. This demonstrates the Hollywood industry’s tendency to heavily rely on the individuality of a male hero. The major success of The Graduate just became another platform for the industry to persist with notions of a male hero, whilst female characters had constraints on their freedom and remained mostly marginalised.
Nonetheless, Elaine does have a good measure of freedom, and it is perhaps this along with her youth which make the psychologically and sexually suppressed Mrs Robinson jealous of her; consequently Mrs Robinson perhaps has an affair with Benjamin to reclaim her lost youth. To her, Benjamin provides the only escape of happiness in an otherwise dreary traditional suburban housewife life with a man she no feelings for. When the audience are made to realise Mrs Robinson and her husband share separate beds, one becomes conscious that they merely live under the false pretence of a happy marriage to keep up appearances in a rigid class structured society. It is aspects like these with which The Graduate is attacking the conformist ideals attached to middle-class values.
Due to the dark, biting satire of the film, one cannot help but find the whole situation amusing, especially the dialogue regarding the moments Mr Robinson discovers the affair: in Benjamin’s defence he says, “it didn’t mean anythingâ€¦we might just as well have been shaking handsâ€¦I don’t love your life, I love your daughter sir” to which Mr Robinson replies, “As far as Elaine’s concerned, you are to get her out of your filthy mindâ€¦and that’s all Ben, you’ll pardon me if I don’t shake hands with you.” Benjamin’s awkward, spontaneous replies are so absurd that one cannot help but laugh. The interchanging comments between them underpin the many comic moments of the film; comedy gives an effective platform to mock the societal values of the traditional American people – a direct example of this is when Benjamin, in his lifeless monotone voice replies “no sir” to Mr Robinson’s question about whether Benjamin respects him. The film’s ability to confine all these serious moral issues into dark humour reflects the growing confidence of filmmakers, and the freedom that allowed them to assemble contentious film projects around multiple genres.
Overall, although the period of transition in the Hollywood industry during the fifties and sixties bought much needed freedom to filmmakers, The Graduate still remained an industrial product; the film speaks to a incessant helplessness in the world, and inability to change and to create change – for example, when The Graduate does portray action, it is performed by an isolated hero in a particularly antisocial method (going against societal norms and traditions), further establishing that genuine change, collectively carried out, is unattainable.
Even though Benjamin and Elaine escape together in a typical “happy ending,” they do it at the expense of leaving their families behind; after everything, the final shot of them staring blankly into space is an uncomfortable one, especially Benjamin who produces the same look of disillusionment like the one in the opening of the film. Nichols does very well in artistically capturing the themes of the 1960 counterculture; however, in a commercially dominated industrial sphere, Nichols is inevitably indebted to stay within the constraints of total freedom of expression because he needs to get the film funded. By using calculated methods of visual experimentation and having a very constructed radical plot, The Graduate ensures economical success and with it, the widespread appreciation of the film from audiences.