The Older the Better? Crises of Masculinity in "The Graduate" and "Harold and Maude"

Scientific Essay 2013 9 Pages

Communications - Movies and Television


The Older the Better: Crises of Masculinity in The Graduate and Harold and Maude by Oliver Krause

The time of transition and adaption after the Paramount decree and the decline of the studio system in the 1950s is what many film scholars refer to as the New Hollywood era. Geoff King describes with this term two versions of how the industry approached the difficult economic circumstances at this time (New Hollywood 3). This includes the emergence of the American art cinema, which King calls the “Hollywood Renaissance (3). With this term, he primarily characterizes the 1968 to 1980s approach of the studios to target films “at a variety of smaller, more specific” audiences (34; 48). According to King, there had been a demographic shift and a greater cultural awareness of a new generation since the 1960s (30). As a result, this led to new forms of narrative and style, as well as more critical topics that were addressed in films within the studio system. Many of today’s well-known filmmakers began their careers in this period of a greater artistic freedom and shifts in social awareness.

The comedies The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) both reflect the alienated youth generation of their era through their respective male protagonists. In particular, both characters’ identity crises derive from a not-yet-accomplished masculinity and are coped with through a taboo-breaking love affair. In the following comparison, the use of the cinematic techniques of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and music in both films will be shown to represent this crisis of manhood and its final accomplishment by the principal male protagonist. This theme will be examined, drawing mainly on readings by scholars such as William Indick and Wayne Schuth.

Both The Graduate and Harold and Maude can basically be ascribed to the comedy subgenre of the romantic comedy, which is defined by King through romance as the “main and foregrounded element of the narrative” (Film Comedy 51). However, their classification in this genre is arguable. Considering Lord Byron’s argument that all tragedies end with a death and all comedies end with a marriage, both films deviate from this norm (cf. Tomasulo, Rubrics). The Graduate rather ends in a mere visual marriage of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) in her wedding dress sitting in a bus next to each other after escaping a true marriage, whereas Harold and Maude ends after the suicide of Maude (Ruth Gordon). Hence, not only the former, but also the latter film supports Northrop Frye’s theory that “comedy is close to tragedy” (cf. Tomasulo, Condensed). Nevertheless, in the overall context of the films, they have a more or less “happy ending” that, again, places them in King’s definition of a romantic comedy (cf. Film Comedy 51). This inconsistency in genre classification is significant for the era of the Hollywood Renaissance. In that time period, many films blurred the lines between seemingly rigid conventional categories and what might be described more as a genre mix or hybrid.

The Graduate ’s comic climate, that is its signals as a comedy, relies mainly on “funny, incongruous” dialogue (cf. Mast 9). In particular, Ben’s unemotional bearing of his parents and their friends’ well-meant care and the resulting situational comedy cause laughter. According to Wayne Schuth, the film combines the three comic structures of “lovers finally unite despite obstacles,” “miscellaneous bits of gaggery,” and “the discovery of an error the central figure has been committing” (60; Tomasulo, Rubrics). In addition, the comic narrative structure of a “successful accomplishment of a difficult task” could also be considered since Benjamin seems to have overcome his identity crisis by the end of the film (cf. Tomasulo, Rubrics).

By comparison, the comedy of Harold and Maude is darker and relies greatly on absurdity drawing on the theory by Arthur Schopenhauer when incongruities confuse the expectations of the viewers (cf. Tomasulo, Condensed). This can be seen, for example, in the unexpected deadpan reaction of Harold’s mother to his first suicide attempt (by hanging). The comic climate is also created through the subject matter in addition to dialogue. In the film, the serious issues of life, death and suicide are “reduced to trivia” and, therefore, create a darker kind of humor when compared to The Graduate (cf. Tomasulo, Rubrics). Further, the film also presents “artistic self-consciousness,” which makes the audience aware of the cinematic illusion and the “worthlessness” in reference to Elder Olsen (cf. Mast 9; 11). This can be particularly seen when Harold breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera after he successfully frightened away his first arranged date. In terms of comic structures, the film can be seen as a combination of a “successful accomplishment of a difficult task” as Harold finally finds his place in life, as well as “Reductio ad absurdum,” which is reflected especially through Harold’s multiple suicide attempts that increase in absurdity each time (cf. Tomasulo, Rubrics). Many of the film’s comic situations also derive from the concept of Arthur Koestler’s bisociation (cf. Tomasulo, Rubrics). The most present bisociation is probably between the two main characters. Harold is an introvert, a social hermit, who stands in great contrast to Maude, who is an outgoing, extrovert, and almost “screwball”-type of character.

William Indick utilizes psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s stages of social development in order to analyze a film character’s identity crisis (183). Erikson’s “adolescent identity crisis” is basically the struggle of “identity versus identity diffusion” (183). The challenging process of building a personal identity and “adjusting from childhood to adulthood” cause this internal struggle (cf. 183). This is one of the driving premises in both The Graduate and Harold and Maude.

Benjamin is clearly “experiencing an adolescent identity crisis” when he returns to his parents’ home after graduating from college (Indick 189). He “is in the state of identity diffusion” (Indick 189). This diffusion is greatly shown through water, which is a “visual motif” of the film according to Wayne Schuth (47; cf. Indick 189). Schuth’s reading of the diving suit scene underlines this. In the underwater tracking shot away from Ben, “the blue water obscures him” (51). He is “fading away, becoming nothing” (51) as he visually diffuses with the water – his current identity is liquid, volatile and not solidified just like water. The term “drifting,” which is even mentioned by Ben himself, is especially qualifying for reflecting the identity confusion (Indick 189). It suggests seeing the state between childhood and adulthood as an on-going fluid transition rather than a clear-cut change. Furthermore, the crisis of Ben is mirrored in the exposition, which is characterized by a sole focus on him in terms of cinematography and lightning. In the opening credits scene on the conveyor belt, we see him in profile and, therefore, we see only half of his face. This notion continues when we see him sitting in front of the aquarium and “hatchet lighting” divides his face in half (Tomasulo, Rebellious Sixties). This shows the ambivalence in the state of adolescence and the inner turmoil between childhood and adulthood following Erikson’s “identity versus identity diffusion” (cf. Indick 183). The dark side of his face represents the diffused identity and the bright side of his face represents the identity that he will finally build but is still “half-baked” at the moment. Darkness as a hideaway and a “secure” void is also characterized in the lyrics of the film’s theme song “Sound of silence,” which “expresses his character’s feelings“ (Berliner and Furia 24). In the very first lines of the song, darkness can be read as Ben’s old friend whom he warmly welcomes. He can be anybody and nobody simultaneously in the dark. There is no need to establish an identity within darkness. The song and its melancholic mood, hence, not only “indicate Benjamin’s loneliness, sadness, and fear“ (Berliner and Furia 24) but also facilitate his state of identity confusion.

By comparison, Harold and Maude uses the same “hatchet lighting” to show ambivalence when it introduces its main character Harold (Bud Cort) in the exposition (Tomasulo, Life and Death). When we see his face for the very first time, it is also divided by lighting – the same signifier for the state of identity struggle. Likewise, Harold’s dead-like floating body in the pool in another scene recalls the similar notion of his diffusion of identity in the water. Released four years after The Graduate, this might even be a deliberate reference. Additionally, the long shot from a high angle at the end of the opening credits scene serves as a delayed establishing shot, which literally introduces the “establishment.” Harold hangs in the frame and almost blends in with the exaggerated miscellaneous décor. This visualizes his identity diffusion once more since he has not found his own “space” yet. He is stuck within his parents’ establishment and eventually needs to break out in order to free himself and form an individual personality. Moreover, Indick refers along with this state of diffusion to the so-called “moratorium” defined by Erikson (183). Here, the adolescent is “actively engaged in finding an identity” and tries out different identities before forming his final one (183). This might echo Harold’s fascination with death by going to funerals and driving a hearse. He seeks his identity in another lifestyle, which nowadays may be described as “gothic.”

The identity crises in the films are also crises in masculinity since the building of an individual concept of manhood is an important and interrelated part in the personality of a male adolescent. Sexuality plays a significant role in this regard, since the idea of masculinity is often constituted through virility in adolescence and especially in the state of uncertainty about one’s own sexuality or mere sexual inexperience. Therefore, sexual initiation is a crucial subject dealt with in the two films and can be seen as part of the process of constituting a masculine identity for the main characters.

In The Graduate, the act of initiation is directly depicted through Ben’s affair with the middle-aged Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Particularly significant in terms of masculinity is the scene in the hotel when they meet the first time to have sex and Ben tries to deny that he is still a virgin. When Mrs. Robinson confronts him, she uses some kind of grading terminology and refers to his abilities as “inadequate.” By this, she implicitly questions his masculinity and also literally “degrades” him to the position of a schoolboy – the exact opposite of what Ben would consider a “real man.” His reaction in the following close-up of him is marked by action. We can only see his contour through the extreme backlighting that hides his face and reduces him to a dark shadow. Paired with his imperative call, “don’t move,” darkness once again is a hideaway for his insecure identity this time in terms of sexuality. He finally wants to counter his questioned masculinity and takes action in order to prove his manhood by sleeping with Mrs. Robinson. This supports Schuth’s reading of the scene as “innocence graduating into maturity” (emphasis added, 51) when he shows her that he is better than “inadequate.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Robinson does not lose her power here since she was the one who seduced him and lured him into an affair with her in the first place and apparently teased him just the right way again. Subsequently, Mrs. Robinson also seems to have initiated him into drugs, in particular alcohol and cigarettes, since Ben shifts from coughing when someone is smoking to even smoking himself and casually drinking beer and bourbon. These features all serve as parts of Ben accomplishing his own ideal of masculinity that apparently resembles a kind of stereotypical macho, in which creation Mrs. Robinson perhaps played a decisive part.

In Harold and Maude, Maude also introduces Harold to alcohol (wine) and smoking (marijuana), but the sexual initiation is dealt with in a more metaphorical and implicit way. This is perhaps because the studio refused to show any scene involving twenty-year-old Harold and 79-year-old Maude in sexual activity (Breach 56). But it also may be because Harold himself is an “antithesis of mainstream Hollywood masculinity” (56). Therefore, the masculinity he represents is more subversive and reveals itself and gender as a social concept, which cannot be pinned down to certain attributes or body features. However, Maude is nonetheless involved in the sexual initiation that Harold undergoes. The particularly signifying scene for this is when Harold deliberately visits Maude for the first time. Maude shows him around and briefly leaves him with a wooden object centered in her dwelling that clearly looks like the sexual image of female genitalia. She invites him to “really get close and feel” and “explore.” The following close-up shots of Harold’s hands touching the tactile object are probably the most sexual images in the whole film. The parallel depiction of Maude making tea shows how he is left on his own to make his first sexual experiences. In contrast to The Graduate, Maude is only passively involved in his figurative initiation to sexuality when Harold looks at Maude while his hand rests “penetrating” the wooden shape. The following action of Harold trying to push his head through the vagina-like statue evokes the image of a child being born. This can be seen as a foreshadowing of his “rebirth” through his romantic and sexual relationship with Maude and her influence on the constitution of his masculinity. His being stuck and not able to complete this “visual birth” may mirror that he has not yet accomplished his formation of an own overall identity and masculinity.



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gender masculinity identity crisis harold and maude the graduate new hollywood masculinity in crisis remasculinization mike nichols hal ashby film analysis



Title: The Older the Better? Crises of Masculinity in "The Graduate" and "Harold and Maude"