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What Hollywood Got Wrong About Rebellion — The Graduate

The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross premiered in 1967. This movie is set during the 60s, one of the most revolutionary decades in US history. Pervasive protests, conflicts, rebellion, and civil disobedience caused by political and cultural transformations led to a profound change in the society of that country. However, the plot of The Graduate focuses on safe, Californian heaven more than the circumstances of the current situation.

Benjamin Braddock the protagonist has just graduated from college, but he does not have any idea what to do with his life, apart from wanting it “to be different” (Nichols, 1967). Ben engages in a predatory affair with a friend of his parents who is significantly older than him Mrs Robinson and falls in love with his lover’s daughter Elaine. Mrs Robinson does not approve of Ben’s wish to marry Elaine, but when Ben learns that Elaine is going to get married to another man, he chases her until he arrives at the church, and in the end, they run away together. By doing so, and by showing enormous amounts of determination in pursuing Elaine, Ben’s doing can be read as an act of rebellion and that is where Hollywood got it wrong.

Figure 1: Benjamin Braddock

Ben’s behaviour is not a rebellion, but a psychological crisis. He does not want to be a part of any movement of the 60s, he is not interested in the counterculture. His actions, such as going after Elaine, or conforming to the social situation prove that it is the insignificance of his relationship with his parents and other people around him, rather than their way of living, what makes him uncomfortable and confused. He is completely divorced from cultural and political reality, he does not engage in any movements or relationships with more aware members of his generation, simply because he does not feel like doing it. He shows no interest in the ongoing changes and revolution, or actually in almost anything until he meets Elaine. He is clearly confused and presents the typical mindset of young people in the 50s, although a decade later. And even though he rejects some of the ways in which his parents pursue their life, he is deeply attached to the same set of values they believe in. He does not need a revolution, but something meaningful in his parents’ world.

Figure 2: Ben and Mrs Robinson

Though Benjamin is lost, alienated, and extremely uncomfortable around the people who surround him, it is not enough for him to feel a drive to revolt. The only urge he feels is “to be rude all the time.” Feeling misplaced, he seems to blame people, not the system for this state of affairs. As written by Jacob B. Brackman: “The rebellious youth of the fifties—of which Benjamin may be considered a not particularly precocious example—rejected a number of lifestyles within the system but never deeply questioned the necessity of the system itself. Like Benjamin, they didn’t know what they wanted to do—only that they didn’t want to punch a clock, or spend Saturday afternoon with a beer and a ball game.” (Brackman, 1968). Therefore, Benjamin’s attitude visibly contrasts with the one presented by his peers and fits perfectly within the one from the past decade. The answer to his anxiety is not a revolution, but a chance to find his place or a possibility to remain in an inertial state in the unchanged world. According to Roger Ebert, on the other hand: “Benjamin is driven to such a pitch of desperation that he demonstrates a new scuba outfit (birthday present from proud dad) by standing on the bottom of the family pool: Alone at last.” (Ebert, 1967). What leads him to be so desperate though? Ebert’s review states that it is Ben’s parents’ lifestyle, towards which he is so critical that rebellion becomes inevitable. Ben detaches himself from the society around him and chooses to stay closed in his own, personal bubble. There is a very clear distinction between the private and public spheres, which can be also noticed in a car scene.

Figure 3: Ben and Elaine

While sitting in the car with Elaine, eating burgers, Ben reveals his feelings, making his behaviour and attitude a bit more clear, especially because this is the only scene in the movie in which he talks so freely about his inner problems and anxiety. He explains to her that he feels “this kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time.”(Nichols, 1967). He adds that “it’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. No. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to have made themselves up.” (Nichols, 1967). Is he talking about the system and his parents' lifestyle, or about the counterculture and revolution? Is he referring to the generational gap between young adults and grown-ups, or is he suggesting that he does not want to have any relation to what was going on at university? He starts to notice that there is something predominantly wrong with the world. According to Shoals’ interpretation: “The drive-through scene represents one of the few times in which Ben goes out of his way to actively create separation, to disconnect from the world outside of himself. The only alienation that suits him, in a film about searching for connection, is the one that places him apart from his peers.” (Shoals, 2012). Benjamin was not able to establish any meaningful and inspiring relationships while being in college. His life has no direction to follow, there are no role models for him from both sides, conservative and liberal as well. The reason for this particular situation might be the fact that while being in college during the 60s Benjamin could have met with a rather progressive approach to the political and cultural situation in the US. Therefore, since he represents the attitude from before a decade, it is obvious why he has serious problems with finding himself in society. It is too late to be a 50s style young adult, his peers have developed new solutions to the old problems, and the older generation found new issues to deal with.

Figure 4: Ben and Elaine after running away from Elaine's wedding

Benjamin’s alienation and anxiety are not caused by the system, but rather by the people who surround him. He believes that as soon as he finds a proper person for himself, the one who does not irritate him, everything will work out and his life will start to move in the right direction. Therefore, when he realizes that the only person he ever liked is Elaine, the only possible solution he sees is to marry her. Once the idea enters his mind, there is nothing to stop him from pursuing it. However, it is not a deliberate and rational decision. Instead of talking to Elaine in order to establish a meaningful relationship (or any relationship), he only observes her from a distance and spends time in his room writing her name on the paper all over again, not being able to stop thinking about her. What is important here is that all his actions mentioned above demonstrate that he is not in love with a real person, but with an illusion, he has created inside of his head. The image he cultivated in his imagination became a vision in which Elaine is the indispensable element of the formula leading to the normal (happy?), traditional life. The thought of being able to make this vision come true, suspends his apathy, filling him with energy and agency. He tells his parents that he will marry Elaine Robinson, to their great joy. However, the more he reveals his plans the more absurd they start to sound. He makes up his mind without having any conversation with anyone, even the future bride or her parents. He decides that marrying her would be the right thing for him to do and when he finally finds a purpose in life, he is ready to do everything to pursue it. That is the reason for continuously asking Elaine if she is going to marry him. That is why he is chasing her all the way tirelessly. That is why he reacts in such a hysterical way when he sees her kissing her newly-married husband. His scream is so ear-piercing because he realizes that the only hope he had for a normal life is just being taken away from him in front of his eyes. Therefore it is not love, or the will of rebellion that drives him to chase her, regardless of numerous obstacles, but the vision of marrying her, which is probably the most conservative reason he can have. As written by Bethlehem Shoals: “Ben Braddock is no rebel. He doesn’t embrace transgression, reject society, make his own rules, or find himself as a result of it. Quite the opposite; aimless and unhappy, he is lured into a kind of rebellion, and then only salvages his relationship with Elaine.” (Shoals, 2012).

Figure 5: Ben and Elaine a few seconds later

Reading Benjamin’s character in this particular way reveals the rather reluctant approach of Hollywood towards the present changes. Ben’s actions and decisions indicate his connection to traditional solutions and models. Through the movie, he is looking for a direction which he would like his life to follow, and when he finally finds it, it is the most traditional love story, which “like so many other plots, spells a heteronormative love triumphing over every obstacle to achieve blissful harmony and nothing more.” (Pomerance, 2019). The movie almost entirely ignores the cultural context of the 60s, depicting no change at all. “The Benjamin of the fifties—the Benjamin of the movie—makes trouble for a while, but pretty soon he comes around.” (Brackma, 1986). Instantly after reaching his traditional and typical goal, Benjamin has no more reasons to revolt. Therefore, the rebellion depicted in The Graduate is only apparent: the true message coded in the movie is conservative, presenting a cliché ending as the desired and proper one.

Bibliographical References

Brackman, J. R. (1968, July 20). Why Do We Love “The Graduate”? The New Yorker.

Ebert, R. (1967, December 26). The Graduate movie review & film summary (1967) | Roger Ebert. © Copyright 2022.

Pomerance, M. (2019). 1967 Movies and the Specter of Rebellion. American Cinema of the 1960s, 172–192.

Shoals, B. (2012, April 11). Rethinking ’The Graduate’s place as the defining film of ’60s, and Ben Braddock’s accidental rebellion. POLITICO.

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Marcelina Marcjoniak

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