If there’s one thing I wish I had done more of in my life, it’s watch good movies. Not just any movies, but good movies.
Unfortunately, that eliminates the vast majority of junk films made over the past thirty or so years. I’m not the least bit impressed listening to a bunch of young hotshot actors spewing out dialog drenched in verbal filth or watching random violence that seems intended only to shock audiences.
Nevertheless, I occasionally catch a good movie on television, and, when I do, it’s like a relaxing trip down memory lane. Other than the most somber, true-life stories — such as Gandhi and Schindler’s List — good films are perhaps the most relaxing form of escapism. They remind me of Ashleigh Brilliant’s classic line, “I have abandoned my search for truth and am now looking for a good fantasy.”
That’s precisely what a really good movie is — a fantasy. From love stories to comedies, from Westerns to musicals, good movies offer a welcome respite from the harshness of day-to-day life.
I once complained that a movie I had taken my children to see wasn’t realistic, to which my youngest daughter replied, “Dad, for crying out loud, it’s only a movie.” She was right, and I never forgot her ten-year-old words of wisdom. At their best, good movies are just fantasies that provide great entertainment.
That said, the other night when I got in bed, I checked out TCM to see what was playing. I often do this to help me fall asleep. But on this particular evening, one of the greatest movie fantasies of all time, The Graduate, was the featured film. So much for falling asleep early.
I had seen bits and pieces of The Graduate many times over the years, but hadn’t watched it from beginning to end since it first came out in 1967. As much as I wanted to go to sleep, I was hooked.
The Graduate is a film that fit the turbulent Sixties perfectly because it was, first and foremost, a story of two upper-middleclass kids rebelling against their materialistic, hypocritical parents. But it was also a classic example of tragedy and comedy.
Dustin Hoffman, who had never had a major film role before, earned an Oscar nomination with his fumbling, stumbling portrayal of young Ben Braddock, fresh out of college, mouthing such unforgettable lines as, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” (This is when audiences were treated to that now famous shot of the very nervous Ben framed by Mrs. Robinson’s arched leg.)
The tragedy, of course, was Ben’s steamy affair with the alluring Mrs. Robinson, his subsequently falling in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), and all the ugly family fallout that followed. As events unfolded, the one law Mrs. Robinson laid down with an iron fist was that young Ben was to stay completely away from her daughter.
To many young men who have testosterone squirting out of their ears, the thought of having an affair with Mrs. Robinson was the ultimate fantasy. But not for me. My fantasy was the (then) young and breathtakingly beautiful Katharine Ross.
The climactic fantasy of the movie, of course, was when Dustin Hoffman, with a Rocky-like determination to win his girl, snatched Elaine away (just as she had finished exchanging wedding vows with a supercilious Ivy League bridegroom!) by beating back the angry wedding crowd with a menacing wooden cross, locking them inside the church by jamming the cross between the handles of the double doors, running down the street with his princess, and hopping on a bus (that just happened to be passing by, as one would expect in any good Hollywood fantasy) to … well, no one really knows where they ended up going.
Okay, so it’s a fantasy, but, as my daughter said, it’s only a movie. Even so, there’s one thing my daughter did not understand at the age of ten — that movies are also reminders that time is relentless, because the fictional characters in them age right before our eyes with the passage of time.
In The Graduate, Katharine Ross will always be a twenty-year-old at UC Berkeley, but in real life she is now a seventy-eight-year-old woman with five marriages under her belt. Likewise, the beautiful and sexy Mrs. Robinson may still exist on celluloid, but, sadly, Anne Bancroft left us in 2005 at the age of seventy-three.
Unlike people, however, the lessons that great film scripts teach us — fantasies and all — never grow old or die. And the first and most obvious lesson we can take from The Graduate is a reaffirmation of that age-old, but all-too-true maxim: Never give up! Like Rocky Balboa and Detective Colombo in the long-ago TV series, Ben Braddock was a classic antihero, who, notwithstanding his ineptness, somehow managed to find a way to pull victory from defeat.
But perhaps an even more important lesson we can glean from The Graduate is to not be afraid to live out our fantasies. Fantasy and reality are not mutually exclusive propositions, because relentless determination has actually turned many a fantasy into reality.
As the tapestry of life unfolds, you’ll only have so many chances to jump on a fantasy bus in search of a better life. A young and beautiful Katharine Ross may not be part of the deal, but who knows where the bus might take you?
As the erudite Joseph Campbell once put it, “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” Have a good trip.