The Graduate: A Cultural Phenomenon

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Although the film The Graduate is remembered as one of the signature comedies of the 60s, it represents more than a mere identity crisis for a recent graduate. In point of fact, the movie stands significantly from the teenage and youth-driven rebellion that the decade is known for. Interestingly, the idea that producer Lawrence Turman had when he optioned the rights to Webb's Novel The Graduate

is scarcely propelled. But Turman does not also have a clue that the movie would morph to be one of America's masterpieces. The Graduate is everything else besides a satirical comic. It is also more than about the confusion, helplessness, and desperation of the young people in the 60s. It is a symbol of the cultural phenomenon prevailing in the 60s making it not only a film of its time but also the one that came at the right time and moment in history.


The Movie

Set in 1967 by Lawrence Turman, and based on the Novel The Graduate by Charles Webb, The Graduate captures the life of a clumsy, fearfully, and an ambivalent graduate Benjamin Braddock. Benjamin arrives home from Southern California as a recent college graduate utterly unsure on how to survive in the adult world.

Turman manifests the lack of surety in Benjamin from the outset of the movie. Benjamin appears defeated; his face blank and expressionless, resembling a zombie's look. Benjamin feels empty and lonely, despite the bursting of the plain to Los Angeles with passengers of varying ages.  The sounds of silence playing in the background at the LAX airport only serves to affirm the level of Benjamin's hollowness:

.And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more.

People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.

People writing songs that voices never shared, no one dared disturb the sound of silence… (Simon 10).

Benjamin's flight from the East to Los Angeles symbolizes the journey from the known to the unknown that is the plight of the youths in the 60s. Although he is smart, Benjamin does not have the slightest of ideas about what to make of his life in the future. Benjamin also comes from a wealthy family, but he is dissatisfied and unhappy, not even with the welcoming party that his parents prepared and invited all his friends. Benjamin reveals to Mr. Braddock (father) about the worry for his future. Despite the confusion and worry about his future, there is only one thing that Benjamin wants to be…different.

The level of confusion reaches rock bottom at the family swimming where Benjamin is seen as lacking in social graces. However, Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) offers one of the film's greatest lines "Plastics" (#42). Mr. McGuire has learned of Benjamin's confusion and is looking to offer guidance. Accordingly, there is a great future in plastics which Benjamin ought to exploit to earn both a career and direction in life. But Benjamin is hesitant to pursue a career in plastics as it is soulless and superficial.

From his conversation with his father, Benjamin wants to be "different"-and a pursuing a career in plastics, doesn't cut it. In point of fact, plastics is everything that Benjamin fears and despises from being artificial and cheap to being superficial. ‘Plastic,' therefore, characterizes both of the 60s artificialness and short-liveliness. For instance, Benjamin's relationship with Mrs. Robinson was plastic by virtue of its lack of true feelings and connection. Mr. McGuire's advice to Benjamin on the need to consider a career in plastics is also superficial. More importantly, it is a sheer manifestation of how clueless and ignorant Mr. McGuire's generation of the challenges facing the youths at the time.

Benjamin's desires to be unique entangles him to an older woman Mrs. Robinson, the wife his father's business partner. It is out of their relationship that the movie also produces a classic line…"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" –Benjamin (#63). Benjamin entanglement with Mrs. Robinson is short-lived and lacks any true connection aside from the physical. It is plastic and Benjamin is left dissatisfied. The movie comes to a close with the elopement of Benjamin and Elaine to yet another uncertain future. But this time Benjamin has someone to walk through within uncertainty.

Historical context

The Graduate as earlier mentioned is more than a story about the fear and uncertainty about the future. Neither is it only about identity crisis. It is a story about the cultural phenomena that prevailed in the 60s. The fact that there is some form historical context embedded in the production of the movie as well as in the emancipation of the characters, justifies why The Graduate became the third most profitable movies of all times (Jackson 380).

Turman produces the movie at the when the South and Northern California cultures are so distinct that the general public affirms they should be different states. Benjamin resides in Southern California-the land of wealth, while Elaine lives in Berkeley, near San Francisco-the land of heated radicalism. More importantly, the film captures the behavior and ideology prevailing at the time.

While many youths go through formal education, they are unsure of what to make of the lives and future after completing school. Metz writes in Engaging Film Criticism: Film History and Contemporary American Cinema that Southern California represents the hollowness and emptiness of Benjamin's parents. The North, on the other hand, represents Berkeley's youths culture in the 60s (Metz 107).  The southern hollowness manifests in Benjamin's incessant uncertainty about the future. This ideology was evident in the 60s whereby many youths were clueless on life in the outside world.

The level of emptiness and lack of the sense of direction was only tied to the younger generation of the time. For the older generation, though, the idea of "American dream" was deeply ingrained into the mentality. This was majorly due to their participation in wars, conflicts, and revolutions that shaped the society on different levels. As such, the older generation had a clear picture and ideas regarding their future explaining why some like his father and (or) Mr. McGuire were wealthy.

The Cold War and the participation in both Korea and Vietnam conflicts only served to cement and reinforce the mounting fears about the future among the youths (Whitehead 36).  Furthermore, the majority of the youths in the 60s did not experience any forms hardships caused by wars. Whitehead writes that the Post World-War II generation had a sense of entitlement to material accumulation and wealth (Whitehead 36). 

Yet, many failed to embrace the opportunities to create a future for themselves. For instance, Ben did not show much enthusiasm about the idea of the plastics when Mr. McGuire proposed it to him. In point fact, Ben loathed the idea of plastics despite its much-anticipated profitability.

The Graduate

was also written at a time when the generation gap between the old and the young persons was imminent. Given that the former had participated in the Vietnam War, they expected the young people to enjoy the fruits of their labor-peace-and to further the American dream. But, the younger generation failed to see the need for exerting themselves beyond the usual comfort zone. Ben's conversation with his father is evidenced enough by the difference in the sense of importance between the two aforementioned generations. From this conversation, it is apparent that the conflict between the two on what's valuable has existed for decades.

With the beginning of the Vietnam War, comes to the rise of the counterculture and anti-war movements to reach their peak at the release of the movie in 1967. The Graduate employs Berkeley campus as the symbol of the anti-war movement of the late 1960s. In addition, Berkeley marks as the center for organizing protests against America's participation and those of the youths in the Vietnam War in the 60s. Also, the campus bears the seeds of the 1964 Free Speech Movement organized by students.

Besides the anti-war movements, the sexual revolution also dominates the 60s as part and parcel of the counterculture prevailing at the time. The famous …"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" –Benjamin (#63) is a perfect example of sexual expression, dominant in the mid and late 60s. The young generation embraces sex as a culture used to express themselves freely. Ben uses the relationship with Mrs. Robinsons as an opportunity to express himself and to get rid of his sense of unworthiness and loneliness.


When The Graduate was released fifty years ago, many did not foresee the movie joining the history books as one of the best romantic-comedy films of all times. Neither did they expect that it would qualify as a generation-defining film. What people saw was the ordinary confusion of a young college graduate looking to craft a life for himself. It is only after the use of shortcuts by the main character Ben, did many begin to see past the romantic-comedy. The Graduate, therefore, became a surprise package in the film industry.

Since its first release, The Graduate continues to speak to every generation. The popularity of the movie is attributed to its ability to overlook the politics of the 1960s. Indeed, the movie was released at a time when the US was undergoing numerous political waves but the producer decided to avoid. Nevertheless, many young people are able to associate with the struggles of life after school. Like Ben, many are confused on where to go, who to lean to, or how to maneuver the world.

Works Cited

Grindon, Leger. "The Graduate (1967)." The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies: 139-149.

Jackson, Kenneth T, and William L. O'Neill. M - Z. New York: Scribner's, 2003. Print.

Metz, Walter. Engaging Film Criticism: Film History and Contemporary American Cinema. New York: P. Lang, 2004. Print.

Simon, Paul. Lyrics 1964-2016. Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Whitehead, J W. Mike Nichols and the Cinema of Transformation. , 2014. Internet resource.

September 25, 2023




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