When the film The Graduate came out in 1967 it was rated “M” (for Mature audiences) and I wasn’t allowed to go see it. I was 13 and I had read about it in magazines and newspapers. I bought the book that it was based on and I loved that. It is a 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Webb, who wrote it shortly after graduating from college.
The novel, The Graduate, is quite different from the movie, but if you gave a book report synopsis of the novel, it would still come out to be the story of a young, naive, college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (played in the film by Dustin Hoffman). After a successful college “career”, he finds him self totally disillusioned by his prospects. Grad school? The “plastic” business world of his parents and their friends?
A virgin, he finds himself seduced by Mrs. Robinson (in the film, Anne Bancroft, who was only 35 when they shot the film), a family friend who was also disillusioned with her life.
Eventually, they become disillusioned with their affair, but Ben falls in love with her daughter, Elaine, who he had been forced into having a date with by his parents.
This was major shocking material for me in 1967. It was pretty hot stuff for the rest of the country too.
I did get to see the film in a theater on its second run in a movie house in my hometown that ran it and didn’t really care how old you were.
Things didn’t make sense to Ben. And when he says “It’s like I was 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. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up,” it made sense to me that things didn’t make sense.
But first was the book…
After I read it, I dug around in the library looking for other books or information about Charles Webb. It was a lot harder in those pre-computer and Internet days.
Webb grew up in Pasadena, California, graduated from Williams College in 1961 and declined an inheritance from his father, a wealthy doctor. I imagine a good part of the novel comes from his life. Allegedly Webb had an affair with an older, wealthy, beautiful and married Pasadena socialite,and he wrote the book at the poolside bar of the Pasadena Huntington Hotel.
Webb went a lot further in rebelling than Ben. According to Wikipedia and other sources, he had been in a long-term relationship with Eve for more than 40 years. She is an artist and goes by the name of “Fred” in solidarity with a Californian support group also called Fred, for men who have low self-esteem.
They removed their children from school so that they could home school them which was illegal in California at the time. So, they fled the state. I recall seeing an article in my local paper years ago that they managed a nudist camp in New Jersey. They divorced not for the usual reasons, but as some kind of protest.
Reports are that they have given away four houses in succession, lived on the breadline, worked as cleaners, cooks, fruit-pickers, and at K-Mart and were living in a shack. The last report I found said they live in Hove, East Sussex, England.
Webb’s most famous novel is still that first book. He sold the film rights for a one-off payment of $20,000 and an additional $10K later when the film was such a big hit.
Webb avoided publicity and never capitalized on the film’s success. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham wrote the film version and were applauded for it but it retains much of the dialogue of the book.
After The Graduate, Webb published, Love, Roger (1969), The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970 and also a film), Orphans and Other Children (1975), The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place (1976), Elsinor (1977), Booze (1979), New Cardiff (2002) and Home School (2007). I have read a few and they were all good reads.
When the film came out, it was a great time to be a movie fan, although the ratings system was an out-of-date legacy of the Hays Code from the 1930s.
Enter Jack Valenti in 1966. He was faced with quality films like The Pawnbroker (1965), Blow-Up (1966), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which were pushing the limits of nudity and profanity in mainstream movies.
They came up with a new voluntary MPAA film rating system using G for General Audiences, M for Mature Audiences (Parental Discretion Advised), R for Restricted (Under 16 Not Admitted Unless Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian) and the dreaded X for Adults Only (Under 18 will not be Admitted – changed quickly to 17).
Even though I was far from being a college graduate or even a high school graduate in 1967, I identified with Ben’s discontent. Maybe everyone at a certain age identifies with it.
The quote that is always associated with the film is from the scene at Ben’s graduation party where a family friend offering advice says:
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Plastics was literally a big industry at the time and also the word the counter-culture used to describe the phony world of their parents.
I saw the film 8 years later when I was a senior at college. It was shown in my last spring semester before graduation in the student center as part of an exams study break. I assume a bunch of us were thinking about graduation, about finding a job or trying to fend off real life with a few more years of grad school.
Mr. Braddock: What’s the matter? The guests are all downstairs, Ben, waiting to see you.
Benjamin: Look, Dad, could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?
Mr. Braddock: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born. What is it, Ben?
Benjamin: I’m just…
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don’t know… I want it to be…
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: [looks at his father] … Different.
But the scene that got an almost standing ovation of applause and identification at that showing was when Ben’s father
confronts him after another wasted day.
Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin: You got me.
That “You got me” kind of said it all for many college seniors. I’m not sure if that’s still true today.
Back in 1967, I fell madly in love with Elaine and Katherine Ross who played her in the film. I also became (and remain) a fan of Dustin Hoffman. He was 29 when he made the film where he was playing 21 years old. The movie made him a star.
I have a VHS, a DVD, a Blu-Ray, and a special edition of the film. I watch it at least once a year. I watched it with my sons. I still love it. I bought a copy of the script. I have reread the novel.
Webb published a “sequel” in 2007 (after some legal hassles over the rights to the characters). The cliffhanger ending of the book and film takes place at a church when Ben rescues Elaine from a marriage she shouldn’t be in. They grab that passing bus and as the music comes in we watch them laugh and then get serious as the bus carries them away to – well, we could only imagine.
A little bit of spoiling – in Home School, eleven years have passed and we are on the East Coast in a suburb of New York City, and they have two sons, whom they are educating at home. Nan (who we knew as Mrs. Robinson) is a surviving grandparent who returns to their lives.
But you can’t go home again. I enjoyed reading about them, but it wasn’t the story I wanted for them. I always thought that their lives together wasn’t going to work out in the end. I read that look on their film faces as a very identifiable oh shit, now what realization. They lived together. Maybe they got married. But it wouldn’t work out long term.
The rules still don’t make sense and they still seem to be making themselves up as we go along.
The Graduate was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry and it is is always in the top 20 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list, and it ranks #21 on the list of highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada.
Here’s Dustin Hoffman being interviewed on his bed in 1968 about sex and women and sexuality and seeming not all that comfortable about the whole thing.