For a few seconds in Mike Nichols’ 1968 Oscar-winning picture, “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) got his head in a fishbowl. Quite literally. In one scene, you can see a close up of his head; the fish tank bubbles behind him. In another shot, Braddock’s behind the tank, looking at the fish.
It isn’t an understatement to say that Braddock’s got his head underwater and he’s just trying to keep afloat. A few weeks ago, he was captain of the track team, head of the debating club, managing editor in his school’s paper and a Frank Halpingham scholar. Now, he’s just another confused college graduate, unsure of what to do for the rest of his life.
Nichols’ picture holds the same resonance it did when it first came out in 1967. Hoffman’s palpitations are palpable. Adults still ask you “What are you going to do?” and “Are you going to grad school?” — as if you have your whole life figured out. That’s enough to make any young person sweat with anxiety.
Braddock’s fears are personified when his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), propositions him.
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?” Braddock says — which was voted as one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes.
Perhaps Braddock’s story is a cautionary tale for us young folk. The metaphors are there; he’s drifting and dying from suffocation. His life’s literally being flushed down the drain.
Nichols’, who passed away from a heart attack at 83 years old yesterday, shows this through his visually striking shots (filmed by Robert Surtees and edited by Sam O’Steen). On his 21st birthday, Braddock’s underwater in scuba gear. The camera shows the scene from his point of view, as if he had a GoPro strapped to his head. The pool’s square container’s like that of an aquarium. Braddock’s the main spectacle of his parents’ private party, after all — like a caged animal at a zoo exhibit.
This trapped feeling is conveyed with other editing effects. In another scene, Surtees overlays the pool’s watery aqua-blue reflective surface over Hoffman’s tan skin, creating the illusion that he’s drowning underwater. In the opening sequence, Hoffman’s at an airport; his body stays stage left of the screen as everyone hurries pass him.
Hoffman’s very sympathetic as Braddock. The camera captures his sad Bambi eyes and his frowns with close ups of his face. In one scene, his head is framed by the dark black headboard he’s resting against, before zooming out to reveal his nakedness on a bed.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s harmonies provide bookends in the film, reflecting the sad contemplative atmosphere of Braddock’s life. “April Come She Will’s” the soundtrack to Braddock and Mrs. Robinson’s sordid affair. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle’s” Braddock’s road trip song as he drives to meet Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and his love interest, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” (which was coincidently released on their “Bookends” CD) narrates Braddock’s quest for purpose. While “Sounds of Silence” opens and closes the film.
“The Graduate,” which is based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, is a messy story without bookends. Although there’s a certain symmetry to the script, the ending’s unsettling. That’s because Buck Henry and Calder Willingham’s screenplay doesn’t answer the initial questions posed at Braddock: What are you going to do? Hoffman still looks fearful in the last scene of the film as he rides off in the distance. He has the rest of his life ahead of him, after all.
“The Graduate” was directed by Mike Nichols and written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on Charles Webb’s novel. Nichols won the 1968 Academy Award for “best director” for his work on “The Graduate.”