The ending of “The Graduate” is a legend now. And I suspect it’s about time someone made the traditional attempt 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, while the rest of the second half of the movie does, at times, seem aimless and rote. The uncanny momentum of the first half, up to when Elaine learns about the affair, suddenly deflates and wanders, until it seems to gather itself up again into some kind of raucous crescendo with the wedding.
But it can’t be denied that part of the marvelous impact of that last scene on the bus 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.