/ just want to say one word to you . . . "plastics." There's a great future in plastics. Think about it.
—Advice to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate
As the 1988-89 school year starts and seniors at colleges and universities across the nation advance towards completion of final requirements for graduation, a significant period in American culture, politics, and society also will be coming to a close. A large number of the graduates of the class of '89 were born in 1967, a year which for many of its graduating seniors signaled the opening to a new era of social and political possibilities. Thus, an entire generation has grown to adulthood in the intervening years and a time for some summary, reassessment, and evaluation has arrived.
Such a task of review is not an easy one. Certainly, tomes can be written (and several already have) which would attempt to analyze the impact of the generation of post-World War II baby-boomers on the last two decades of America history. Likewise, an estimate of the separation between the liberal idealism associated with a multitude of the graduates of 1967 and the conservative pragmatism of the majority of the class of 1989 would require a full symposium. However, since motion pictures, like all other art forms, often serve as mirrors to society—reflecting its morals and values, as well as its political and social concerns—an examination of .the evolution of American culture, politics, and society, the accompanying accomplishments and failures, during the lifetime of this current generation might be just as valid through the microcosm of a film study.
The Graduate, released in late 1967, appears to be the perfect candidate as the inception for at least a minimal effort at such a study. The Graduate, ranked second only to The Sound of Music (1965) as the top box-office hit of its decade, was the first major film to indicate the emerging sense of alienation among young people in the Sixties. (A similar film directed by the yet unknown Francis Ford Coppola, You're a Big Boy Now, was screened the same year but received much less recognition.) The widespread popularity, or in some circles notoriety, of The Graduate, the technical mastery of director Mike Nichols, and the subtle influence felt by many of the viewers transformed this wry comedy by screenwriter Buck Henry into a movie classic and a landmark film.
Admittedly, in 1967 initial resistance to the Vietnam War was only beginning to increase. Also, the film preceded by months the stormy events of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the awakening of the country's consciousness by the conflicts surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In addition, it would be nearly two years before the cultural, or counter-cultural, explosions of the play, Hair, the film, Easy Rider, and the music festival, Woodstock, that confirmed the arrival of a separate sub-society which had been developing and enlarging since the folk music and the Berkeley free-speech movements of the early '60s shocked many and held up for display the frayed threads of communication between the generations.
Nevertheless, it is the foreboding, rather than forbidding, nature of The Graduate which contributes to the film's status as a prophetic exposition, which gives it the resonance of a distinct thunderclap signaling the coming storm of protest and upheaval. Indeed, the impact of the film is heightened by the fact that Benjamin, expertly played by Dustin Hoffman in his first starring role, is not a "typical" anti-establishment type; instead, he is portrayed as the model son, an exemplary student-athlete. In fact, he and his girlfriend Elaine find themselves turned-off by "hippies" when they stop at a drive-in diner and complain about the loudness of the rock music. The "calm-before-the-storm" feeling of the film is increased by the absence of any evidence of the war already wounding the country or of the mounting anti-war sentiments sprouting at colleges nationwide. Even though Elaine attends the University of California at Berkeley, a prime center of protest, when Ben makes an extended visit to the campus the only acknowledgement of turmoil to take place in the film occurs when his landlord asks if he's "one of those outside agitators."
The upper-class society of Ben's family and friends also appears to exist totally isolated from the real world. Ben's parents and neighbors are as far removed from the domestic and foreign troubles about to dominate the nightly newscasts as Ben, seen in full diving gear standing alone submerged in the family swimming pool, is symbolically severed from the goals and values shared by his parents and the other members of their generation. The Graduate seen 21 years later seems even more disconcerting because of Ben's inability to replace the values harbored by his parents' generation with ones of his own.
In 1967 a budding anti-establishment attitude and a blossoming awareness about social inequity can be distinguished simply by looking at the films which garnered the six top Academy Awards—In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture and Best Actor), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Best Actress), Cool Hand Luke (Best Supporting Actor), Bonnie and Clyde (Best Supporting Actress), and The Graduate (Best Director). The Grammy Awards' Album of the Year went to the Beatles for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was published; and the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction was granted to David Brion Davis for The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.
Still, most who were casting off the convictions and values of the past had not yet discovered a substitute set of beliefs and morals, and few had begun to embrace the alternative lifestyle later celebrated at Woodstock. Like Benjamin, who declares his only ambition is that he wants his "future to be ... different," the common responses by young people to the questions about their futures were vague. Because of this uncertainty, Ben's confusion serves as an appropriate metaphor for his fellow classmates of 1967. If one remembers the closing scene of the film, Ben has spirited Elaine away from her marriage to a fraternity "make-out king," and the two are shown sitting in the back seat of a bus, Ben looking like a defrocked monk and Elaine still in her wedding gown, travelling tentatively forward but not knowing where they are headed, dubiously leaving behind the world of their parents, staring silently into the camera's eye and at the late-'60s audience, and like the theatre patrons gazing back at the couple, unsure of what lies before them.
What lay before them is now history, and for a large portion of this year's graduating class it has been a lifetime. Many conversations and, I'm sure, dissertations have been engendered by debate concerning The Graduate's status as a breakthrough film, its innovative characteristics, and its treatment or non-treatment of various topics, including the following: the emphasis placed upon wealth and the materials money can buy, the priority of career, the place or lack of space for politics and religion in one's life, the evolution of society's attitudes towards sexual stereotyping and sexual lifestyles, the conflict between conformity and individualism in beliefs and customs, the fickleness of fashion, and the frankness of artistic expression. Any historical, political, or social examinations by experts of the past two decades will reveal the major changes which have occurred in each of these areas. However, despite the perceived transformation of American society since the late '60s, an irony exists which today's viewers or, more likely, re-viewers of The Graduate may discover and find discomfiting: while no one was looking, the closed, sterile society, with all its symbols of isolationism and materialism, against which Ben seems to be rebelling in the film apparently became the ideal society for many of the graduates in the 1980s.
By scanning some of the films which have been popular and influential for young adults since the release of The Graduate, it is possible to trace the evolution away from the revolution of the late '60s and early '70s as if one were tracking a forceful storm's progress across the country and out to sea, leading to an eventual stillness, to some a stagnation. At the same time, any pattern that forms could be extended and, upon further study, might guide one to an understanding of the direction future cultural, political, or social movements of the current generation of graduates may take.
Films of the late '60s and early '70s popular with the younger audience followed the 1967 anti-establishment, anti-hero leads of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. In addition, as the Sixties ended and the Seventies began, the visions and goals of the rebels and protesters started to sharpen, centering upon a discontinuation of the Vietnam War, a halt to racial discrimination, and a guarantee of equality for the sexes, as well as a celebration of individualism. Films such as Easy Rider (1969), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Alice's Restaurant (1969), M*A*S*H (1970), Getting Straight (1970), and Harold and Maude (1972) mirrored in various ways these concerns and completed the rejection started by The Graduate of many of the previously set social standards. Even an anti-hero, anti-establishment western such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) can be added to the list of movies expressing a generation's general sense of exasperation with figures of authority and the status quo. (Later heroes in such films as Dirty Harry, An Officer and a Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo, Top Gun, and Die Hard, although renegades, are all figures of recognized establishment authority, usually either in the police or the military.)
In the middle '70s, after the pull-out of American troops from Vietnam and the resignation of Richard Nixon over Watergate, after integration of the South seemed closer to a reality with the elections of a number of black leaders to political office, and after women came to account for nearly half the workforce, the prime targets of the revolution began to fade from view. Ten years after The Graduate broke new ground a shift occurred on the part of the young audience away from films which posed political or social questions, which spoke to current issues, and towards films which once again offered escapism from the real world just as the most popular films of the early '60s had.
Although the middle and late '70s delivered some fine films which dealt with complex contemporary issues, such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975), One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)—not to mention a trio of post-Vietnam pictures, The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979)—those movies which avoided the contemporary by looking at the past with nostalgia or, more often, to the far future in fantasy have become legendary as the biggest box-office hits of all time. The unprecedented success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Wars (1977), and the early '80s entry of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) announced a new era of diversion from reality, in these instances by averting one's eyes from the entire planet Earth itself. Heroes in the most popular films of the late '70s and early '80s (some of the most popular films in cinema history) like Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Johnny Rambo resembled the invincible characters in children's comic books. Even the horror, slapstick comedy, and romantic comedy genres were not immune, as witnessed by the overwhelming prosperity of Alien (1979), Ghostbusters (1984), and Splash (1984).
By the early 1980s it seemed that the only battle to which "real" contemporary characters of high school or college age committed themselves was the friendly fight against authority figures for the right to party. The four most influential films to demonstrate this theme were Animal House (1978), Porky's (1981), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Risky Business (1983). Perhaps the most noteworthy of this grouping is Risky Business, in which director Paul Brickman consciously evokes images of The Graduate. Like The Graduate, Risky Business is a witty satire of a young man's alienation and coming of age. With the opening moments of the film, in which Joel, played by Tom Cruise, is lying on a lounge wearing sunglasses, the image of Hoffman's Benjamin floating in his family's swimming pool on an inflated mattress and wearing dark glasses is easily recalled. Brickman's use of juxtaposed shots and camera angles that "see" through the eyes of Joel is also reminiscent of techniques associated with Nichols' direction of The Graduate. Even Hoffman's preppy clothes and short haircut have come back into style.
A decade and a half after The Graduate, moviegoers were returned to familiar territory, only something had changed. Joel and Benjamin shared a separation from the standards set by their parents, they were both model middle-American young men, they were both sexually inexperienced at the beginning of their respective stories, and each needed to find a direction for the future. However, Joel triumphs not by turning his back on the American enterprise system, but by successfully staging a "risky business," a brothel, in his parents' home and impressing a Princeton recruiter. The chaotic and confusing situations in which young people find themselves searching for experience and happiness have not changed, but the solutions have. In the conservative era of "the Reagan revolution" and a time of promising economic conditions, the answer is not to fight the system as Benjamin had, but to adopt the system under one's own set of rules. Perhaps in another five years Joel's character could resurface as the young stockbroker in Wall Street.
Another well made teenage film released in 1983, Valley Girl, also offered homage to The Graduate by freely borrowing images and dialogue. In the closing scene of the film, director Martha Coolidge steals from the getaway conclusion of The Graduate. In an earlier scene, the mother of one of the "valley girls" tries to seduce her delivery boy by sharing one word of advice, "plastics." However, the poor boy is too young to catch the allusion and understand the message. Paradoxically, perhaps this lack of communication clearly conveys the message that a new generation of film viewers, a new generation of Americans, had supplanted that of the late '60s and early '70s.
This viewpoint is confirmed by the appearance of The Big Chill, also a 1983 film. Seven graduates of the late '60s are drawn together to attend the funeral following the suicide of an eighth classmate, Alex, who had seemed to embody the spirit of their younger selves. He was the non-conformist, the promising scientist who refused to follow the staid academic life, instead choosing to develop the ideals nurtured in those earlier years. His friends are left to face the fact that they have drifted from their ideals and to try to regain a sense of togetherness in new roles, under new rules. "The big chill," the long cooling of youthful fervor, is halted for one warm weekend of thawing, but the unattainable ideals and Utopian expectations of the Sixties are finally, like Alex, respectfully laid to rest.
In 1985 the stage was cleared for a new gathering of classmates to voice their own set of concerns in The Breakfast Club, in which director John Hughes introduced an assorted, admittedly stereotypical, group of high school students—the local hood, the insecure loner, the jock, the honor student, and the popularity queen—to prove that teenage alienation, although now primarily social, and the presence of a generation gap remain painful experiences for many in the Eighties.
Perhaps the most dominant image of the 1980s teenager for many Americans, though, is another Alex. Certainly, Michael J. Fox's portrayal of Alex Keaton on television's Family Ties is an extreme exaggeration, a caricature, which considerably overstates the case of materialism, conservatism, and conformity in today's teenagers. However, an examination of a few of Fox's feature films hints at the movement youth-oriented movies have taken in recent years. Fox's first major film success was the enormously popular Back to the Future (1985) which, along with the similar Peggy Sue Got Married the next year, continued the nostalgic, backward gaze of the early '80s. However, his second hit film, The Secret of My Success (1987), comically presented a young, ambitious capitalist, not far removed from the Alex Keaton character, looking to make his first million on Wall Street. A third film, Bright Lights, Big City, released this year, offers a dispiriting glance into the world of a young man living in New York City's fast lane and the personal destruction to which such a lifestyle leads.
A number of other recent films have heralded the same theme and might be seen as forerunners of future film projects. Wall Street (1987), Less than Zero (1988), and Cocktail (1988) are among the movies that contain young characters disillusioned by the easy attainment of money, sex, drugs, and alcohol. It is as if the pounding of the judges' gavels at the trials disclosing the insider trading scandals and the fears generated by the Wall Street crash of last October also reverberated throughout Hollywood and struck blows against film characters' expectations of happiness through monetary or material excess. This proliferation of moralistic films may also be attributed to growing concerns over the AIDS epidemic (a topic many saw metaphorically represented in last year's blockbuster, Fatal Attraction) and substance abuse.
Nevertheless, twenty years after The Graduate reflected the gathering uncertainty and distrust about the materialistic measures of success recognized by society and the plastic personalities rewarded by society, these new films are beginning to move in the same direction. The pendulum swing may now be complete. A generation of graduates later, we may discover that we are back where we started, that the tranquility brought about after one storm is merely the calm before another.