Roger Ebert famously re-reviewed The Graduate later in his career, approaching the movie with a more veteran take. On his first review in 1967, Ebert gave the film 4 out of 4 stars. In his 1997 review, he gave the movie 3 out of 4 stars. Not necessarily a bad review, but he developed a sour taste for Benjamin Braddock, the film’s hopelessly awkward but endearing protagonist. Ebert in 1997 no longer views Benjamin as a counter-culture sage but an entitled, spoiled brat, too lazy to realize that his isn’t profound in his disdain for the real world, and that his excessive pursuits of Elaine Robinson aren’t romantic, they’re just creepy.
Ebert isn’t necessarily right or wrong in either of his reviews. Rather, Ebert’s new take on The Graduate reflect how our movie-going tastes change with age. If you’re a young 20-something fresh out of college, striking it in the real world for the first time, Benjamin Braddock is something of a hero to you. If you’re in your 40’s or 50’s with children of your own, you’ll probably not only view Benjamin as lazy, but you’ll envy his parents for their prime California real estate and swimming pool. But you more likely empathize with Mrs. Robinson, wrought with age, wrinkles and regret, who was once an art major but took the path of domestic mother after getting pregnant with Elaine Robinson. Elaine doesn’t say much, not because she doesn’t have anything to say, but because she’s in a position where she knows nobody is going to listen. She isn’t ever going to go back to Art school or get a part-time job at a gallery or even paint a few blank canvases from time to time. She dabbled in seduction as a hobby, but her role as a matriach was her life, which Ben ruined when he fell in love with Elaine.
This is why The Graduate is a spectacular film. It has never changed over the years, but still evokes deep emotion from us, either in fiery support or contempt of Benjamin, in deep lust or pity for Mrs. Robinson, and endless curiosity about Elaine, both on why Ben is so infatuated with her, and why she seems to like Ben at at all. Mike Nichols is also a master of comedic timing and framing. The scene where Mrs. Robinson first meets with Benjamin at the hotel is comedy gold. Later, when they have an argument, there’s a beautiful shot of Mrs. Robinson strapping on her pantyhose as Benjamin peers from the doorway. And that famous ending, with Benjamin and Elaine peering off into the distance after he crashed her wedding, is hopeful and ominous, like taking a new job in a new city just to get over an ex back home. It’s a solution, but it isn’t necessarily the right solution.
Simon and Garfunkel famously provided the soundtrack to the film, which then catapulted them to super stardom. At times, the soundtrack is in perfect sync with the film’s emotional pangs. Other times its overwrought, like a teen sharing emo song lyrics as a Facebook status in an attempt to seem deep. If you’re watching from the perspective of an adult like 97 Ebert, that makes the music that much more appropriate, an overly-sentimental, moody soundtrack to detail the overly-sentimental, moody Benjamin. But I have to admit, watching Benjamin drive his roadster up the coast to Mrs. Robinson is a thrill.
Its now been 20 years since Ebert’s 97 review, and The Graduate can be seen in an even different light. Benjamin isn’t just creepy in his pursuit of Elaine, he’s downright dangerous, literally stalking her from city to city with endless resources at his disposal. We don’t really see Mrs. Robinson as a sexual icon like she was in 1967, but more an older woman using the power of her sexuality to coax a young man to giving her what she wants. And we envy Benjamin’s parents even more in 2017 than in 1997, because god, being retired with that house in Southern California is an absolute dream. 20 years from now, we’ll probably revisit these characters again, a bit older with a new perspective in a changed world. And this movie might make us feel renewed empathy for Ben, a deep appreciation of Elaine, or a more complex take on Mrs. Robinson and marriage in the 2030’s. Regardless of what we feel, this film, without question, will make us feel something.