Have you ever stopped to take the time to reflect upon the question of whether films are a reflection of contemporary societal mores and values or is their status closer to that of being a primary influence upon the evolution of traditions and conventions? If you have not ever taken the time to ponder concepts such as this, you could probably find no more appropriate time to do so than while binge viewing on sex comedies of the 1960s. America’s attitude toward sexuality likely changed more between the release of The Apartment in 1960 and Myra Breckenridge in 1970 than it has ever changed during any one decade before or since. Was that evolutionary sea change a reflection of society or were the movies released during that period themselves responsible for the shift in standards?
The Graduate appeared on the scene closer to the sexual attitude expressed in Myra Breckenridge than The Apartment, but ideologically speaking, it is really about as close to being smack dab in the middle of the sexual revolution of the 60’s as you are going to get. To refer to The Graduate as a seminal film in the evolution of the sex comedy is almost to understate the situation to the point of the ridiculous. Mike Nichols’ comedy almost singlehandedly contravenes and subverts every generic convention that audiences raised on Hollywood narrative filmmaking had come to take for granted. Among the elements of the traditional sex comedy that The Graduate undoes range from an unprecedented focus on male fear and doubt about their masculinity to a traditional so ingrained in the genre’s DNA that to this day it remains inviolate: the object of the male lead’s not exactly obscure desire is an older woman.
One of the most memorable conventions of the romantic comedy—which is what sex comedies had transformed into with the institution of the Hays Code of censorship and the death of the screwball comedy following the attacks on Pearl Harbor—was and is still is the remarkable amount of mileage that can still be wrangled out of making a wedding the climax of the movie. From The Philadelphia Story through both versions of Father of the Bride to Shrek, ending your comedy with a wedding is a surefire to get audiences out of the theater in a good mood while also succeeding in manipulating them into being happy that the established order remains intact despite all the chaos leading to the nuptials.
It is a truism that tragedies end with funerals and comedies end with weddings and the one place where The Graduate holds firmly to that old-fashioned perspective is by sending audience members out on the emotional high of a wedding scene in which the right couple ends up together to face the happily ever after. Not content to end a movie that sought to subvert so many other conventions by wimping out entirely at the end, however, the filmmakers can’t resist hurling one more curveball at viewers. The emotional peak of The Graduate undoubtedly occurs during the wedding scene where Miss Robinson and Benjamin decide they do belong together no matter what has taken place before. Essentially, what is going on here is the very same thing that happens in The Philadelphia Story, produced a few decades earlier. Despite the odds being stacked overwhelmingly against them, the movie draws to a close with the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant characters tying the knot for the second time in a wedding intended for Hepburn and another man. Whereas that movie ends on a bizarre little freeze frame that ensures the happily-after-ever, the wedding which is the climax of The Graduate refrains from giving the audience such a pat answer to their doubts.
Benjamin’s interruption of the wedding ceremony and success in stealing Mrs. Robinson’s little girl from the wrong Mr. Right may be the climax of the narrative of the film but it is not the emotional climax. What’s more, the emotional climax of the movie is not even a climax in the definitive sense. Only connotatively speaking can the ambiguous nature of the looks on the faces of the two young lovers be described as climactic. All along The Graduate has explored the changes in masculinity facing young men coming of age in the 1960s, but here at the end absolutely everything breaks down for questioning and every aspect of relationships between men and woman become subjects for doubt and confusion. The Graduate ends with a wedding, but not with a marriage. It ends with the right couple intact, but absolutely no guarantee of their being a happily-ever-after in their future.
The subdued and equivocating termination to the nonconforming process by which boy met girl, boy lost girl and boy won girl back has been aggressively eccentric s enough to strongly imply they may not even exit the bus together; the confident assurance that they are going to live long happy lives together battling back forces of opposition even stronger than Mrs. Robinson is nowhere to be found.