Mike Nichols’ coming-of-age epic "The Graduate" is a masterpiece from beginning to end, and while nearly every scene in the film has been emulated by actors, directors and writers since, it’s the film’s iconic, uncertain final scene that’s left audiences walking away from the movie speechless for nearly 50 years. Nichols, 83, passed away Thursday, but there's no doubt "The Graduate" will keep leaving audiences speechless for another 50 years, or likely longer.
"The Graduate," released in 1967, was adapted from the book of the same name by little-known author Charles Webb. The film’s producer, Larry Turman was “haunted” by the book, in particular by the last scene. “A boy in a scuba suit in his own swimming pool, and then that same boy on a bus, his shirttail out, with a girl in a wedding dress. I liked it so much, I took out an option with my own money,” he told Vanity Fair.
In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays Ben Braddock, an apathetic college grad who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He returns to his native California and begins an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Braddock then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine. After the family is torn apart by the affair, Braddock crashes Elaine's wedding in an climactic act of youthful rebellion. A fight breaks out and the two run off from the church and hop on a city bus. Their jubilant adrenaline slowly fades, leaving them contemplating their uncertain future.
It tied up everything the movie was about: impulse, rebellion, the confusion brought on by the beginning of adulthood.
The film as a whole wasn’t an instant classic, and there was plenty of criticism directed at Nichols, but the general consensus on the final scene was largely favorable at the time of its release. Here’s what Tim Hunter at the Harvard Crimson had to say in his review of the film on Jan. 19, 1986: "Safe in the back of a bus from the irate witnesses to their elopement, Benjamin and Elaine stop grinning and stare ahead, each considering for the first time the seriousness of their act and the problems ahead; Nichols' muting of the otherwise conventional happy ending adds some honesty to the denouement, at the same time creating a sense of regret that similarly thoughtful moments don't characterize 'The Graduate's' mindless, largely unmotivated, second half."
The original script by Buck Henry actually had a few lines of dialogue that weren’t included in the film. Once on the bus, the driver asks Ben where he wants to go and he answers: “to the end,” and after sitting down at the back of the bus, Elaine takes Ben’s hand, which isn’t shown visually in the film. It also has no mention of the uncertain looks that wash over their faces as the bus drives on. Would the film have flopped without it?
That will remain a mystery, but either way, the ending went over well at the premiere in New York. “We previewed 'The Graduate' in a theater on 86th Street,” Nichols recalled for Timeout New York. “And in the last five minutes - starting with the melee in the church – everyone stood and cheered. I mean, it was like being at a prizefight. …. Poor Dustin was white as a sheet; it was his first time seeing the movie and he was stunned by the reaction. We all were.”
Hoffman had a similar story. “I was sitting in the balcony,” he recalled for Vanity Fair. “And suddenly it was like a train gaining momentum, and by the time we were halfway through, the film was having a wild response. By the time I’m running to the church [at the film’s climax], the audience was just standing up, screaming and yelling. It was a profound experience — I was literally shaking through the whole film.”
Hoffman mentions later that "The Graduate" got almost no laughs at all from a panel of studio execs. Here's the Nostalgia Critic discussing why the last scene was so impactful.