Even now when I watch The Graduate for the first time some forty-five years after its release, many of its themes still ring true; they are as relevant today as they were back in the ’60s. Themes of innocence, misdirection, love, and the ever prominent generational gap still hover around us like an invisible plague. But we know they’re there. Kids are constantly at odds with their parents — sometimes over the stupidest things — and the reason is always the same: “you don’t understand me”. So how do we overcome this problem that has been a problem for the longest time? The Graduate seems to think that there is no way to overcome it, except perhaps by breaking up a wedding and running off with the bride. But even that has consequences.
In this movie we have Dustin Hoffman playing a young track star scholar who has just graduated. The only problem is, he has no idea what he wants to do with his life (another issue that’s extremely relevant today) and it’s eating him alive. His name is Benjamin Braddock and his wealthy, excluded existence has made him incredibly naive and, well, innocent. You could even say he’s become socially awkward; even though he’s a track star he’s far from being a popular jock.
So on the night his parents decide to throw a party for his recent graduation, we catch a glimpse of an older lady staring Benjamin down as he rushes up the stairs to his room to escape the madness of questions below. It’s only a brief moment, but we see it, and at once we know that she has her eyes on him. Her name is Mrs. Robinson, and she’s played smoothly, cunningly, and sexily by Anne Bancroft, whom several years later remained the object of sexual fantasy for a lot of young men (according to her anyway), and I can see why. She deliberately mistakes Ben’s room for the bathroom and then proceeds to smoke in it against his wishes. She is the power and he is — almost uncontrollably — the weakness. She literally forces him to drive her home and then slowly and methodically seduces him, which prompts the famous line: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”, to which she simply says “no”. There is no forgiveness in the way she plays Robinson nor does she show any forgiveness in the way she treats Benjamin. She’s cold and she knows exactly what she wants. The older lady and the young stud.
But there can be common lines drawn between the two characters. As Ben warms up to Robinson and eventually agrees to sleep with her — month after month — it becomes clear that they’re both trying to escape a dismal and boring life by having this affair. We learn that Robinson had no choice but to marry her husband because she was pregnant, and through a perfectly staged and choreographed scene — in which Ben tries to have a conversation with Robinson on the bed as they keep fiddling with the light source — both Ben and us discover that he has absolutely nothing in common with her, that she’s only doing this to satisfy her needs. Director Mike Nichols manipulates light here to fantastic effect by creating silhouettes and placing Hoffman in complete darkness in the foreground as Bancroft remains in shimmering light in the back. His character is the confused one, the corrupted one. He’s not happy about the affair and therefore wants to know more about his adulteress, to make it seem like she’s actually a human being and not some lifeless object of sex. Her character on the other hand, is not conflicted at all. Her conscience is clear, too clear perhaps.
Ben then falls in love with Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), but before their “relationship” can carry past the second date, Mrs. Robinson arrives and ruins everything. She forbids Ben from seeing Elaine and insists that she be the only woman he sleeps with. But Ben isn’t stupid, nor is he 80 years old; he’s young and eager to explore, and so when an attractive Elaine opens up his heart, he leaps for it.
The rest of the story unfolds as a result of things Mrs. Robinson says and does. This happens away from the action and we only find out about it through the mouths of her daughter and husband. She’s lied to them, telling them that Ben has raped her. This sets a whole new series of events into motion, from the husband confronting Ben and telling him he’s filth to Elaine being coerced into marrying some other guy (out of sheer spite no doubt). But what shines the most out of this mess is Hoffman. I know this movie was made some twenty years before Rain Man, but Hoffman still has this quirky innocence about him that’s present in Raymond Babbitt. Whenever he’s faced with a confronting situation, he freaks out in this almost rigid fashion, as if he’s a toddler opening up his eyes to new things and realizing that they are bad. It’s perfect in highlighting Ben’s inner turmoil, because there’s a lot of it, and boy do we sympathize with him.
This journey of sympathy is so strong that the last scene becomes a revelation. As Ben and Elaine sprint from the church, Ben is not only running away from the angry congregation who are ready to devour him, he’s running away from the claustrophobia of his old life, the claustrophobia of his parents and their imposing cluster of friends. He’s running away from the uncertainty of his future by stealing certainty. And most of all, he’s running away from a woman called Mrs. Robinson. At last he can be happy about something he’s done, until the realization of it dawns on them both and foreshadows a whole new world of dreaded uncertainty.
Best Moment | The last scene. It filled me with so much joy to see Ben genuinely smiling for once, to know that he had succeeded. Even when his and Elaine’s smiles disappear when they’re on the bus, realizing the gravity of what they had just done, the great sense of relief is still there.
Worst Moment | There isn’t one.