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Cornell’s Steve Ludsin: “The Graduate” and the end of youthful optimism

Last week,  the New York Times ran an opinion piece entitled “Why the Graduate is a Vietnam Movie. ”

In the piece, author Beverly Gray explains that  “in June 1967, while the film was still in production, President Lyndon Johnson signed a revamped Military Selective Service Act, signaling that within the year deferments for most graduate students would come to an end,” making them  “draft fodder. ”

“On its surface, ”  Gray writes,  “The Graduate  seemed to be an escapist film about love, sex and the potential for happily-ever-after.
“Its story, of how a new college graduate is seduced by the wife of his father’s partner and then runs off with …her pretty daughter, makes no claim to profundity. Still, it spoke loudly to a demographic that found itself embroiled in a war mandated by a previous generation.”

Many found the film a  ” perfect illustration of a young man struggling to cope with a social landscape over which he had no control…”  Clergymen, politicians,  pundits and military brass found it “subversive.”  Soldiers “embraced it as a comic howl against a status quo they were risking their lives to preserve.”

For my  classmate Steve  Ludsin (ILR 1970) of East Hampton,  New York, who saw the film as a Cornell undergrad, the film  provided  a new perspective on the era–opening his  eyes to the complacency of his upbringing and to the contrast of values once he entered college.

As he writes:

I was traveling on a winter break in Florida with upperclassmen and fraternity brothers from Cornell when I saw the film.

There were rumblings on campus about Vietnam along with our fears about the war and when we might be drafted. Nevertheless I did not perceive the movie to be about Vietnam. It was about being something other than the generation that raised us.

We didn’t know what that other was but we knew we were searching. Just hearing the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel still brings deep nostalgic feelings.

Perhaps the movie was the end of youthful optimism that was part of the baby boomer outlook.

We managed to get front row seats at the Supremes’ nightclub act during that trip.The picture of our smiles and clean cut Ivy League look is a time piece. Vietnam was on our minds but there was something bigger than that: an admission that our lives were not going to conform to the previous script. We didn’t know what the plot was but we knew we were going to Scarborough Fair. 

I also saw the film when it first came out and understood  it as a  commentary on a shallow,  materialistic society….but would never have imagined that people would still be talking about it 50 years later!

Anita M. Harris