IMDB Top 250: #235 – The Graduate

250 films, 250 reviews. This is a pretty crazy idea, but who doesn’t love a challenge? Here at Cultured Vultures we’ll be counting down the IMDb Top 250 with a review for each from one of our dedicated film writers. Everything from Goodfellas to Casablanca will be covered over the next year or so for you film lovers to enjoy. You can’t say we don’t spoil you, you lovely lot. – Ashley, Project Lead

I want to take some time before really delving into things to talk about someone named Sam O’Steen. His name isn’t on the walk of fame and during his 40 year career he didn’t receive so much as a single Academy Award win (although he did pull in three nominations and win one BAFTA). Despite this, he is an undisputed legend amongst film-makers and appreciators, hailed as one of the greatest film editors of all time. None but the BraveCool Hand LukeRosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Sterile Cuckoo were all elevated by his masterful work but his most famous working relationship was with director Mike Nichols. Between 1966 and 1994 O’Steen cut 12 films for Nichols and in fact he only directed 2 films during that period that didn’t see the two of them paired up (one of which is a 20 minute short and the other a recording of a live recording of Gilda Radner doing a one-woman show). Some of their collaborative works were instant classics like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Silkwood and Postcards from the Edge whilst others like Catch-22 and Day of the Dolphin didn’t fare so well. The Graduate exists in a class all it’s own though and it belongs as much to O’Steen as it does to Nichols, in some ways it belongs to him more.

One of the things that makes the editing in The Graduate so distinct is how pervasive it is. Most people will tell you that editing has failed to do its job the moment you notice it, but in  The Graduate you can’t help but notice and that’s the genius of it. The striking, schizophrenic cuts blend so perfectly with the awkward, comedic uneasiness of the film that even though the audience is always aware of it, it’s accepted, even enjoyed. Go and see the film in a crowded theatre and see if the audience don’t start laughing every time there’s a 3-frame flash cut to Anne Bancroft’s exposed breast as she propositions a terrified Dustin Hoffman for the first time. Some times you have to break the rules to write new ones.

But I should probably talk about more than just the editing, right? It’s a story we can all relate to, I remember when I graduated from university, went back to live with my super-rich parents only to be met with the sexual advances of an older woman who lives nearby. It’s kind of a rite of passage. Dustin Hoffman (a total unknown at this point) absolutely owns the role, jerkily shifting from a nervous, shivering mass of self-questioning to something far more complex. Is Benjamin a victim? An asshole? Or is he a a 21-year-old boy trapped in a world of expectations and manipulation, vying for some slim aspect of life that he can actually control.

Mrs. Robinson meanwhile remains the most interesting character in the film, although Benjamin’s tumultuous relationship with her silently suffering daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) is interesting in its own tragic way, it’s the tangled power struggle between the cynical, damaged older woman and the naive, careening younger man that makes this film so darkly funny and deeply affecting. It should come as no surprise that whilst dozens of actresses, some of them of absolutely towering status such as Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Ava Gardener and even (bizarrely) Angela Lansbury unsuccessfully vied for the part of Mrs. Robinson before it finally went to Bancroft, Hoffman’s clumsy, fumbling audition won him the part immediately.

The Graduate never claims to be, nor tries to be any kind of love story. By the film’s end nobody is any closer to getting where they need to be in life, as much as the ending might make it seem like they have. Despite being both made and set in 1967, the characters in this film exist within a gated, austere bubble, eons away from all the cultural revolt that was happening at the time. For my money, the only time any character anywhere in The Graduate truly, honestly and spontaneously expresses themselves is when Elaine screams at the revelation that her boyfriend has been banging her mother. Benjamin’s final act of running into Elaine’s wedding and liberating her from would most likely would have been a soul-destroying arranged marriage was the right thing to do in many ways, but it wasn’t an act of love, or even an act of self-recognition.

That’s the thing though, the whole film behaves like one massive venus fly trap, beckoning you into a comfortable pattern of recognisable narrative beats, but always maintaining an undercurrent of uneasiness, from the dizzy, jagged editing to the enjoyable but subtly misplaced Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack. It’s like having lunch with someone you’ve known for a really long time, but every other sentence they start making references that are ever so slightly incorrect, small enough to move past without calling attention to, but impossible to ignore. It’s a very special kind of film that gets heralded as a classic, even though nobody is sure exactly why, and can’t seem to ever agree.

Note: the IMDb Top 250 Cultured Vultures are using is based on the standings from the 16th of November. Inconsistencies may apply.

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