The ending of “The Graduate” is a legend now. And I suspect it’s about time someone is going to “debunk” the mythological greatness of it and attack the whole strange sequence as mediocre, confusing, or trivial.
Personally, I think it holds up extremely well. In fact, I dare say, it seems stronger and more allusive today to me than ever before. But it can’t be denied that part of its effect is due to the expectation of the Hollywood ending, the happy music, the smiles, the suggestion that all is now well. With expectations like that in place, the first encounter with that long, lingering, ambiguous take is rather stunning. And it shifts the viewer’s perception from that empty, trivial, inauthentic kitsch to the rich complex authentic possibilities of their relationship– not all unicorns and hazy meadows.
Some commentators feel that the ending is therefore sad and pessimistic. I don’t think it goes that far. I don’t think we encounter a fateful, tragic mistake. What we have is the real possibility that they will work things out but only after actually learning to cope with life beyond the magic hysteria of their escape from stultifying bourgeois conformity. Maybe Benjamin becomes an environmental activist. Maybe Elaine becomes a feminist.
Incidentally, the story is that both Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross thought that Mike Nichols was unhappy with their performance in that scene and that he was about to berate them, and that’s why they were not looking happy as the cameras continued to roll and they looked around as if they suddenly realized that they had made a very, very big mistake.