The Graduate was an American film released during one of the most chaotic times in U.S. history; 1967. Much warfare was occurring overseas in Vietnam, in the streets of American cities, and on college campuses. The youth was as rebellious as ever, yearning to distance themselves from their parents who came from a materialistic generation (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s. Wikipedia, 1967 in the United States). Twelve years earlier in 1955, a film entitled Rebel Without a Cause was released, although it was a much simpler time, the film also addressed the unrest of youth. Both the male lead characters in The Graduate and Rebel Without a Cause struggled with the generation gap that had formed and felt misunderstood by the older generation (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s. Frost, Social issues, problem pictures of the 50’s).
1955 was a much more innocent and less complicated time than 1967 in America. 1955 was the year that Disneyland opened, the Mickey Mouse Club aired on TV, and Elvis made his debut. Racial segregation had ended on trains and buses, yet the arrest of Rosa Parks occurred when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. This incident began the national civil rights movement in America, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forming the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama to boycott city buses. With positive things happening in the pop culture scene with the help of Disney and racial oppression beginning to subside, James Dean’s tragic death via car accident must have come as quite a shock to the American public (Wikipedia, 1955 in the United States).
Rebel Without a Cause was a film with a surprisingly dark tone, considering the seemingly innocent time period in which it was released (Wikipedia, Rebel without a Cause). Perhaps the reason that Rebel Without a Cause resonated with audiences is because social unrest lay beneath the squeaky clean suburban lifestyle. There was a strain put on the unification of families when they were moved to the suburbs and the generation gap began (Frost, Social issues, problem pictures of the 50’s). Rebel Without a Cause’s main character, Jim Stark, was a suburban, middle class rebellious teen portrayed by James Dean. The film was released just shy of one month after Dean’s fatal car accident caused by his reckless driving. This suggests that Dean shared a commonality with his character Jim that he portrayed (Wikipedia, Rebel without a Cause).
While Rebel Without a Cause was released just prior to the beginnings of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, The Graduate was filmed and released in the throws of it and other vastly more turbulent times in America. 1967, the year of The Graduate’s release, was a time that many American lives were lost in the battles of the Vietnam War. This prompted protests on college campuses and in the streets of big cities such as Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s. Wikipedia, 1967 in the United States). Yet, President Johnson was still trying to convince the public, that American soldiers were making progress in Vietnam (Wikipedia, 1967 in the United States). Meanwhile in Haight Ashbury, flower power was occurring with hippies protesting “make love, not war”, turning onto drugs and dropping out of society. Whereas the generation gap was a pressing issue in the 1950’s, by the late 60’s, the generation gap exploded, with youth growing out their hair to rebel against the system (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s. Frost, Social issues, problem pictures of the 50’s).
In addition to the Vietnam War, there was violence and destruction occurring on home turf because of race riots in America. These riots occurred in Tampa, Minneapolis, Detroit, Newark, Milwaukee, and Washington D.C, destroying buildings and claiming lives in 1967. Juxtaposing this violence were triumphs for African Americans including Thurgood Marshall becoming the first black Justice of the Supreme Court and Carl B. Stokes becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. city in Cleveland, Ohio. Additionally, the ban on interracial marriage was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. (Wikipedia, 1967 in the United States).
There was also much activity regarding outer space in 1967, including the signing of a treaty by the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom, banning nuclear weapons in outer space. In the music scene, the Beatles, released an eleven track album entitled Magical Mystery Tour with new songs such as “All You Need is Love,” “Penny Lane,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Wikipedia, 1967 in the United States). For Americans, 1967 was a much more tumultuous time than the innocence of the 1950’s. Therefore this makes the release of Rebel without a Cause in 1955 more controversial than 1967’s The Graduate.
What was interesting about The Graduate perhaps is that is wasn’t about Vietnam. “What I heard the most from college students was, over and over and over and over, 'Why isn't it about Vietnam?'” remembers the film’s director, Mike Nichols. “Because that was the fashionable topic, that was the topic that showed what a serious person you were and how deeply involved, and to make a movie that was for young people and was not about Vietnam actually affronted them” (AMC Blog, 2008).
Screenwriter Buck Henry, producer Larry Truman, and director Mike Nichols all wanted to make the film because they identified with the main character, Benjamin Braddock. They and their peers had experienced the same things as Benjamin at his age and felt the need to “get away.” Henry claims that they made the film because it was something that they all understood. (AMC Blog, 2008).
Nichols recalled that at a test screening of the film in New York City, the audience got out of their seats and started yelling when Benjamin beat Mr. Robinson with a cross in the church scene near the end of the film. This frightened and stunned both Nichols and Dustin Hoffman who portrayed Benjamin in the film. Hoffman was sitting in the balcony of the theater during the screening and came out of the theater white as a sheet according to Nichols (AMC Blog, 2008).
“We didn't understand what had happened, because it had hit some wind that was circling the Earth, something that nobody could have predicted, and just been lifted beyond what we ever could have imagined…It was some cultural thing that just exploded as a result of the film, but it was, of course, like all cultural things, already happening,” said Nichols (AMC Blog, 2008).
The character Benjamin is shown to be symbolically drowning in several scenes in the film. Towards the beginning of the film, he is seen with his head resting against a fish tank in his bedroom. He looks like he is already under water, then he is convinced to go downstairs to join the graduation party his parents are throwing for him. Benjamin is shot in mostly close-ups in this scene and appears to be “swimming” through the guests as he is bombarded with questions and congratulations. Later in the film, Benjamin uses the pool in his backyard as means to escape from his parents and their friends. But, when he is forced by his father and mother to show off his 21st Birthday present, a diving suit, the viewer sees Benjamin’s point of view and then the camera switches to an objective point of view as it pulls back, and Benjamin is shown at the bottom of the pool progressively growing smaller. Again, the imagery of drowning is used to symbolize Benjamin’s inability to escape from the values of the subculture, being his parent’s materialistic generation (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s).
Similarly the main character Jim in Rebel Without a Cause is victimized by repressive social circumstances involving marriage, occupation and the generation gap. Both Jim and Benjamin are misunderstood by their parents, and both disagree with their parent’s way of life. Whereas Benjamin is trapped by the social conditions of the world he lives in, Jim is portrayed as having an isolated and insecure condition. This isolation is shown visually by director Nicholas Ray in using the lonely planetarium during the film Rebel Without a Cause (Frost, Social issues, problem pictures of the 50’s).
Another similarity between Jim and Benjamin concerns color. In Rebel Without a Cause Jim wore the iconic red jacket which symbolized blood, danger, sexuality, and violence. Benjamin wore a lot of white and black toward the beginning of The Graduate. This told the audience that he fit into the world of his parents and his affair with Mrs. Robinson. The liaison is encased in his parent’s world which explains why the relationship with Mrs. Robinson is meaningless to Benjamin. Nichols showed sex as destructive and love as constructive, because Benjamin’s attitude completely changes once he starts dating Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine. When he falls in love with Elaine and starts to break free from Mrs. Robinson and his parent’s world, he wears clothing with warmer tones. The filmmakers also told the audience about Mrs. Robinson’s character from her clothing by dressing her in various animal prints. This animalistic garb tells the viewer that Mrs. Robinson is dangerous, fierce, wild, and it also carries other risqué sexual connotations (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s).
The music in The Graduate was innovative because it used music from Simon and Garfunkel that wasn’t created specifically for the film. Yet the lyrics go perfectly with the film’s storyline and often reflect what Benjamin is feeling. The songs are integrated into the plot of the affair and comment on the character’s relationship to their environment. This is done perfectly in the opening of The Graduate in which Benjamin arrives at the LAX airport to return to his parent’s house upon graduating college. “The Sound of Silence” plays as Benjamin looks deflated while traveling through the airport (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s).
The Graduate is a time capsule movie that is thematic and not a heavy protest film. Just like Rebel without a Cause spawned many teen exploitation films, there were many youth oriented films to follow The Graduate and a new era of creativity was born. It is therefore not surprising that The Graduate is number seven on AFI’s list of Films of the Century, and was also nominated for seven Academy Awards winning Mike Nichols Best Director at the 1968 Oscar’s (Frost, Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s). The Graduate had artistic production and addressed heavy topics such as the generation gap, sexuality, and conformity. Perhaps this is why it was well received during a controversial and unstable time in America can still hold its own today.
“1955 in the United States.” Wikipedia. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1955_in_the_United_States.>
“1967 in the United States.” Wikipedia. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1967_in_the_United_States>
AMC Blog. “The Graduate and the Generation Gap.” Ed. Abbey, Cory, Cline, Elizabeth, Harlin, Tayt. 2008. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://blogs.amctv.com/movie-blog/2008/04/graduategeneration-gap.php.>
Frost, Jacqueline. “Angst out Youth in the Late 60’s”. Cal State Fullerton. 3 March 2011. Lecture.
Frost, Jacqueline. “Social issues, problem pictures of the 50’s.” Cal State Fullerton. 3 February, 2011. Lecture.
“Rebel Without a Cause.” Wikipedia. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebel_Without_a_Cause.>