US (1967) Dir. Mike Nichols
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
I recall first watching this film many years ago and was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Since it was screened on BBC 1 the other night, I decided maybe I should give it another go, now that I have “matured” (for wanting a better word) as a film fan.
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home after finishing college to a party thrown for him by his parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson). Overwhelmed by people trying to give him advice for his future, Ben retreats to his bedroom, into which Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Mr. Braddock’s business partner (Murray Hamilton), walks, asking Ben to drive her home.
Mrs. Robinson invites Ben in, where she confronts him naked but he runs away. Soon after they begin an affair, until daughter Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) returns from college. Ben is encouraged to date her by his parents despite Mrs. Robinson’s express demands not to. After a rocky start, Ben and Elaine fall in love, spurring Mrs. Robinson on to destroy their relationship.
The Graduate is one of those films that come with a huge amount veneration and status as a bona fide classic which often means its ability to connect with everyone will be relative to how much they respond to the hype. As I said above, the first time I saw it, nothing clicked, but this time was much different, from realising how witty the script is to the superb presentation.
Like many classics, it has a storied background. Based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb, director Mike Nichols was known for his Broadway successes but not cinema, so he couldn’t get financing, until he directed the Oscar Winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. Casting the film saw a veritable Who’s Who of legendary names up for the key roles, but they either turned them down or didn’t work out. Just as well because it is unimaginable to see anyone else playing these parts now.
Resembling most people fresh out of education, Ben begins the film wondering “what next?”. Whilst the main theme of the story is choose your own direction in life, there is a subtle hint in the subtext to suggest it is also encouraging us to reject the conventions of our parents in the process. One could argue having a fling with a woman old enough to be your mother during the Summer of Love is very on message, and it definitely made a man out of Ben.
Naturally, Ben is shocked by the advances of Mrs. Robinson; she is no rapacious cougar, remaining measured and calm, whilst Ben is flustered and gauche. Much of the early humour comes from this louche scenario of Ben flustering around his coquettish older lover. Eventually, Ben becomes a regular at the Taft Hotel, where he books their room under “Mr. Gladstone”, which comes back to haunt him when he starts dating Elaine.
Admittedly, the relationship between Ben and Elaine blooms far too quickly, something which maybe should have been introduced earlier in the story, and not after an hour. Then again, the original seduction of Ben happens within the first ten minutes, and we still ever know why Mrs. Robinson chose this awkward 21 year-old, even if it was to spite her husband – unless it was to prove she still had “it”.
Subsequently, nobody really comes across as completely likeable, except maybe Elaine, but even she makes some rash decisions and forgives Ben too quickly after their falling out; yet this is necessary as Elaine is Ben’s redemption. Despite not being the instigator of the affair, he is complicit in the damage caused, although he too is a victim of parental pressure when all he wants to do is figure out his own life plans.
Even the iconic ending of Ben gate crashing the wedding, lampooned by The Simpsons, is laced with a bittersweet aftertaste as the fugitive couple find themselves once again wondering “What next?”. We are on their side but should we be? It’s a valid question, the only help we get is to look at the actions of the parents before answering, topical for 1967 and in some territories, still relevant today.
What stands out from watching this film through a critical eye is being able to appreciate the production. There is a great scene single take shot entirely from Ben’s POV from behind a diving mask, following his path from the kitchen to into the swimming pool and underwater. Elsewhere, precision editing takes us across the first few weeks of the affair with just a close up of Ben’s face as the anchor – advanced and clever stuff indeed.
Dustin Hoffman was on the verge of turning 30 when he was cast as Ben, but his small stature and boyish looks made him a perfect fit for the role, along with his extraordinary performance. Holding his own against the legendary Anne Bancroft (only 36 at the time), this put Hoffman’s star in ascendance but he was not alone – musical duo Simon and Garfunkel got a huge boost from this film too.
Paul Simon was hired to write three new songs for the film but only managed one – hence The Sound Of Silence being played three times, and Scarborough Fair twice – but did have an unfinished song entitled Mrs. Roosevelt about American History. Simon’s producer told him to change it to Mrs. Robinson and submit it for the film. The rest as they say…
I can’t deny I am glad I chose to rewatch The Graduate. Morally it might be a little on the askew side with its pervasive zeitgeist attitudes and hampered by an uneven second half, but it has timeless quality in its relatability for aimless people, as well as the visual lyricism of the presentation, earning the right to be called a classic.
Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!