Benjamin Braddock is a little worried about his future. He’s a recent college graduate who moves back in with his upper-middle-class parents and feels smothered by their vapid, materialistic lifestyle. But he begins an affair with a woman from his parents’ circle… And then he falls in love with her daughter. Like Benjamin, we wonder what the future can and should hold for us. Can it be free of the negative trappings of our society and culture, of our parents’ influence, of the past? Wes and Erin discuss Mike Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate.”
Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: So I thought we would begin by reading a little bit from a review I found. I found a hilarious review from Dialogue, a journal of Mormon thought, and this is from the spring of 1969.
Erin: And are you a long time reader of this journal?
Wes: Yes, of course, of course. [laughter]
Erin: I figured.
Wes: I don’t feel like I’ve had a satisfying month until I’ve read my issue of Dialogue. But this is not to make fun of Mormons or religion, obviously, because you can imagine what’s about to come. But I don’t know. There’s something very telling about this review, so I’ll just read little excerpts of it. “This is a very disturbing film. Members of the church ought to be warned to avoid it and to keep their children away from it. Its philosophy is (quote-unquote) loaded! (exclamation point). It assumes that the immoral is acceptable and that proven American values are not worth observing…”
Erin: That’s true.
Wes: “…The film is about what appears to be a Jewish family in Los Angeles. [laughter] The son looks Jewish anyway. [laughter] It talks about the homecoming party. Everyone there is perfectly nice to him, but he stalks off to his room and sulks. Nobody can figure out why, including the audience. [laughter] I talked to at least fifty people in Rexburg, who saw the film the same night I did, and none of us knows why he stalked off to his room.”
Wes: And then he’s surprised that the movie makers show them in bed together. That apparently was extremely shocking that Benjamin Braddock and Mrs Robinson, um…
Erin: Do the part about Mr Robinson knowing something.
Wes: “Supposedly, the husband doesn’t know what’s been going on, but I think he did know because when the boy asked for bourbon, the husband pours him scotch. The husband is no dummy. He is a successful lawyer. That’s one of the gags in the movie, that the husband is so distracted and not paying attention to Benjamin. And so he keeps asking for a bourbon…” Is it… doesn’t that happen twice in the movie? He asks for a bourbon and gets a Scotch…
Erin: I think so.
Wes: …something like that, so… “which clearly is meant to signal something about the relationship of the adults in the movie to Benjamin, the fact that they ignore his desires. To this reviewer, it suggests that the father is retaliating for an affair by giving him the wrong drink.” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Well, no booze is good booze, to a Mormon, I guess.
Wes: Right. And then there’s a final part. “Elaine finds out that Benjamin has been having an affair with somebody, but she doesn’t seem very concerned about it, probably because she’s been going to school at the University of California at Berkeley.” [laughter] Oh, those Berkeley students. “He finds himself competing for her affection with a nice-looking, neat, blond-haired, blue-eyed medical student. By contrast, Benjamin is slovenly, footloose and a college dropout. The Hollywood producers want to show that a Jewish hippie is more attractive than the finest example of traditional American young manhood.” So…
Erin: Wow! Yeah, the old make out king.
Wes: That’s right. Now the family is not supposed to be Jewish, right?
Wes: Yeah. Though they’re supposed to be a WASPy family, and this is the way it’s written in the novel as well, and it was a big deal that Dustin Hoffman ended up getting chosen for this part because one of the people who was up for it was, say, Robert Redford, among a lot of other very handsome, attractive, typical leading men. And I think it was kind of unheard of to cast such an ethnic actor in any sort of leading man role, correct me if I’m wrong, much less in a role where he’s specifically supposed to be playing a WASPy character in the suburbs of L.A.
Erin: You know, it’s a sort of niche films, like Ernest Borgnine and Marty, maybe, and she had your gangster films with Edward G. Robinson and all that kind of thing, but as an attractive leading man… no. I guess, in a way, Hoffman really opened the door for Pacino and DeNiro and all those guys.
Wes: Yeah, so Mike Nichols did a very courageous thing. And the director, Mike Nichols, and he’s relatively new to directing, right? I know you’re a big fan of him and Elain May, from their days as doing improv…
Wes: …incredible improv skits, and Mike Nichols turned out to be an incredible director. So a new film director and he’s doing some very experimental things with the style of shooting the film. It shows some obvious influence from, I guess, French New Wave cinema, maybe among others, and he is hiring actors who are not necessarily the most well known doing things like firing Gene Hackman and making decisions that people thought were gonna ruin the marketability and the economic viability of the film. And then it turned out to be, for its time, one of the highest grossing films ever. Young people would go see it multiple times.
Erin: Yeah, so Nichols and May… It was maybe my favorite comedy team. I have all their albums. I know they were a really big influence. They’re not very well known today, unfortunately, outside of people who, like, listen to 1960s sketch comedy albums, but they were really influential on Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, regularly list them as influences and lots of other… I mean, basically anybody who became famous from the mid ‘60s on. And Nichols and May, they met each other at the University of Chicago, and they had this really successful stand up career, which only lasted for a couple of years before Elaine May pulled the plug on it. But their sketch comedy was notable because it was the first time that anyone really used improv in sketch comedy, and most of their skits were notable for sort of lampooning consumerism, a kind of, I guess, you could say bourgeois morality. They would send up adulterers, teenagers in parked cars, there was lots of black comedy… And one of my favorite albums of theirs, Nichols and May Examine Doctors, they do a great sketch of a surgeon who’s in love with his nurse, and mid surgery he won’t continue with the operation and save the patient until the nurse will admit that she loves him. They do like lots of really fun, zany things. But certainly a lot of the subjects of their stand up comedy are going to be re examined in The Graduate. And there’s even some suggestion that Mrs Robinson is supposed to be kind of a stand in for Elaine May, like there’s a lot of speculation there. They even do… there are a couple of Nichols and May classic gags that are actually in the movie like, for instance, when Mrs Robinson takes a drag of her cigarette, and then Benjamin kisses her and she’s kind of straining. And then when he finally lets her go, she exhales all the smoke…
Erin: …that was from the Nichols and May routine. So Mike Nichols went on after he split up with Elaine May. He became this really well respected Broadway director, he directed a lot of Neil Simon plays. And then he made the movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which was kind of a stagy feel to it, that movie. But he did direct Liz Taylor to her second Oscar, so he was already kind of getting this reputation as a wunderkind, I guess, at 35, and…
Erin: …he very smartly signed on Robert Surtees to be a cinematographer and told him to go crazy and make a very… not stagy, a very filmy kind of film.
Wes: You know, in some of the research I was doing for the film, I found an article in Vanity Fair, which I thought was actually pretty incredible, mind-blowing, a lengthy article called Here’s to You, Mr Nichols, The Making of the Graduate. And I sent that to you, saying, you know, “I think you’re gonna love this,” and you’re like, “Well, I already know that article inside out.” [laughter]
Erin: Actually, I had the issue of Vanity Fair that that came out in. I mean, I was like, really…
Wes: That’s hilarious.
Erin: At that time in my life, I was looking for any kind of secondary material I could get on Nichols and May. Very disturbed teenager… [laughter]
Wes: There’s so many astonishing things about this film. Maybe we’ll refer to some of the things in this article and the background of the film, and maybe some more of it will come up. But… so, I recommend that to the listeners. It’s a groundbreaking film, right, in the sense that it showed that there is commercial viability to films that were willing to go in a somewhat more artistic direction. So there’s a lot that happens with the filmmaking and cinematography that’s very creative and even is influenced by some of the avant garde stuff that’s going on. And there are casting decisions, other sorts of decisions, that make it a truly remarkable film.
Erin: In that article, which I really recommend to listeners… it talks a lot about how the inspiration to make the movie really came from Lawrence Turman, who was the producer, who read the novel and thought that it would make a really good film. And he was originally from New York, he was Jewish, from the garment district. Mike Nichols came over from Germany when he was a kid, but he also grew up in New York, he was also Jewish, and then they signed on Buck Henry to really do… even though Calder… what is his name? Calder Willingham or…? Willingham, yeah.
Wes: Yeah, they had someone write up a script first that was not good.
Erin: And so Buck Henry ended up writing the actual shooting script that they worked with, and Buck Henry, also from kind of like an improv background, also from New York, also Jewish, of course, actually had already at that point… he had been famous with Mel Brooks. They co-created Get Smart, but he had also done a lot of TV writing for The Steve Allen Show and everything. So you have these three guys, all from these New York Jewish backgrounds, two of them from improv comedy backgrounds and from Broadway and all of them kind of feeling this affinity for Benjamin. So in their minds, anyway, they said that it wasn’t really about the generation gap per se, though that’s kind of the element of it that resonated with the audience, but it was really about what it’s like to be a (quote-unquote) “ethnic” person in, you know, the most American place of all Southern California and what it’s like to be an outsider in that sense.
Wes: I think that’s why they identify so much with the character of Benjamin Braddock. In the novel it’s not clear, you know… in the novel he’s very robotic. And then some of that comes across in Dustin Hoffman’s performance. He’s robotic and disillusioned and there’s a bit of social commentary about that. But in the film, it seems far more personal, so you can read it as social commentary. But it’s a little bit strained if you do that. So even though Benjamin Braddock is played by Dustin Hoffman, but he’s not technically an outsider because he’s ethnic, there’s some way in which he’s an outsider. And those are the things that Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, I think, identified with him in the character. And Buck Henry, incidentally, right, he’s not also not a veteran screenwriter. I think he had written one screen… unproduced screenplay at that point, so that’s another really interesting thing about the film. But so there’s… they strongly identified with this character, and probably that accounts for some of the success of this. But yeah, I think what we should discuss is what kind of critique this is. It was really popular among college audiences, but when they took it on the road for publicity to various colleges, Nichols said, “Everyone wanted to know why it wasn’t about Vietnam,” because everything was supposed to be about Vietnam at that point, if it was gonna be a social commentary. And that actually irritated students and yet they were attracted to it in spite of that, in spite of the higher political expectations that they had for it. And that’s the kind of thing that Nichols just scoffed at. You know, this is really just about a particular person, not emblematic of a generation. But I think, you know, we can read it more broadly as Benjamin Braddock is in the predicament that we all have faced at some point, and maybe we continue to face it to some extent throughout our lives, And that is this whole question of what happens in the future, or being worried about our futures. We continue to have that concern throughout our lives. It’s especially pressing right after college graduation. So Benjamin has… it sounds like he’s had all sorts of success, he’s a track star and so on. But he’s left uncertain about his future, worrying about his future, and I think that worry comes from the feeling that now he’s about to be launched into the same sorts of lives that he sees his parents having, and his parents’ friends having, and these lives are not so meaningful, they’ll be focused on material comfort and well-being and doing what’s expected of you, and it’s a little bit mysterious in the beginning, but it looks like Benjamin wants something more than that.
Erin: I just want to say also before we get into it. One of the things that makes the film so successful is the fact that I think it predicted the kind of 60s that we now have in our minds as the 60s. I’m sure a lot of our listeners will already know this, but I think a lot of what people associate with the 1960s is actually the 70s. This is something my mom always talks about too, that, you know, the psychedelic clothing and that whole, like the Woodstock world of America, that was really the late 60s, like gateway into the 70s. So what Benjamin is and what he’s experiencing is really more like the madman 60s. So even though this is, you know, 1967, relatively late. So even though it is after, you know, the Kennedy assassination, which is normally considered the sort of, you know, the gateway into the New World or whatever, it’s also, you know, before RFK’s assassination, before Martin Luther King’s assassination, before the riots, before Age of Aquarius, before Woodstock, all that stuff. So Benjamin is very much not a hippie. He’s seeing his parents, and their way of life is still being, in a lot of ways, really, culturally dominant. And he’s not really involved from what we can see in any kind of counterculture, because that counterculture is not really fully formed yet. So in a lot of ways, I think this film helped to inform and even produce that burgeoning counterculture that would really come to the fore around 68.
Wes: Now, if you’re writing for dialogue, the journal of Mormon thought he is a hippie. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Right.
Wes: Which is interesting, actually, because this, kind of, is a window into the various blends, it’s true, which you can see in someone like Benjamin. Like the novel’s set in 1962. So presumably the film could be as well. I don’t think that even though it’s made in ‘67, right, you know, it’s not clear that Nichols or Buck Henry have a specific year in mind for the setting of the film, which is important because a lot changes between 1962 and 1967 and then, as you said, the early 70s. So the most we see of counterculture in the film is that… you wouldn’t even call it a counterculture. Maybe they look a little bit beatnik, right? So when him and Elaine are sitting, eating in their car and that drive-in, there are some wild kids in the car next to them. And when Benjamin asked them to turn down the music, they turn it up, and then you get this great scene where he puts the roof of his car back up. And so you’re watching him in Elaine talk, but you can’t hear their words while they’re sort of being teased a little bit by the kids in the other car. I think that’s the extent of counterculture in the film, if you could even call it that.
Erin: It’s also a little bit telling that Buck Henry and Mike Nichols are both, you know, they’re not Boomers. They are from that generation between the World War II generation and the Boomers that I think it’s called the Silent Generation, so they didn’t really go through… I mean, they’re all too old to be experiencing the 60s the way someone who’s 18 or 20 or 22 is experiencing the 60s. They are kind of firmly rooted in more of their parents’ sensibility. So that’s why it gives the impression of being more about… or not necessarily more about, but that they’re reading it as this idea of forging an ethnic identity in America that doesn’t necessarily comply with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed standards of the country rather than, like, the counter-cultural dimension.
Wes: And then the question is, how does that translate to Benjamin Braddock? It’s a reading of the spirit of the film and the type of thing that Benjamin Braddock is going through, but specifically, what is he going through? What is he so jaded about? That’s what’s so confusing to the reviewer and Dialogue. He doesn’t know why he goes up to his room and sulks, and I think we kind of don’t know that either, because when he’s talking about being worried about his future, it’s not clear how sincere that is, it’s not clear what specifically he’s worried about. Mrs. Robinson asks him if it’s about a girl, and I think it’s only gradually and only through the relationship with Mrs Robinson that we figure it out, although we have the first inklings in the wonderful coming home graduation party scenes where he’s being fawned upon by all the adults. So let’s back up and talk about the wonderful opening scenes.
Erin: Yeah, so there’s an opening shot. It’s a close up of Benjamin’s face on a white backdrop, and he’s a little bit off center. He’s to the right of center in the frame, which is a shot composition that Robert Surtees uses a lot in the movie that gives us the impression that Benjamin is not quite certain about things. He’s a little bit displaced. But anyways, and this white backdrop that turns out to be the headrest of plane, and the voiceover is of the stewardess who’s giving that usual speech they give you when you land: “we’re about to begin our descent into Los Angeles…” which is, you know, sort of in hindsight, kind of ominous, I guess. So we figure out that he’s coming back to California from college. The Sound of Silence starts playing underneath. And then he’s on a moving sidewalk in an airport, again on a white backdrop. And this black and white look is going to be another thing that keeps running through the whole movie. And again, there’s another voice over of an automated voice saying, “Please hold the handrail, Stay to the right” the moving sidewalk voice. And then he seems sort of happy to see whoever is coming to pick him up as he leaves the airport. But then there’s a fade into another shot of him, just sitting, looking, sort of reflective or even sad in front of his aquarium in what turns out to be his bedroom. And again he’s off center. There’s this little plastic scuba man that’s decoratively sitting at the bottom of the aquarium, that sort of parallel to him in the shot.
Erin: And then the bedroom door opens. Cast light on the wall behind him, which we see is white with gray vertical stripes that kind of look like bars. So this opening sequence is so amazing and so clever because almost every shot so far has been of Benjamin in medium close up, except for the suitcase, I think, and the wide shot of him on the plane that does establish that he’s on a plane. But despite that, we know exactly where he is and what’s happening to him and how he feels about things. And there’s also this establishment of the dominance of his perspective. As we move through the film with him. We’re seeing everything from his point of view, and we’re really, you know, as audience members, I think we’re trained to really identify with him and feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for him, which I think we do up to a point in the movie where maybe our association with him starts to kind of cloud our judgment of his behavior, which on a 2nd, 3rd, 4th watch after he meets Elaine starts to become actually really kind of unbalanced and bizarre. But we don’t really… I mean, at least I didn’t the first time I watched it, we don’t really notice that because our sympathies have been so identified with him from the very beginning and seeing everything from his perspective, including those great shots where the camera is inside his goggles when he’s in that scuba man suit and his parents hands come and push him down into the water. And we’re seeing the world from his point of view. And so it’s not until after the fact that we realized, “Oh, he actually is kind of, like, maybe a stalker, like, maybe he’s kind of disturbed.” [laughter] This doesn’t really occur to us until, for me, maybe the third time I saw the movie.
Wes: There’s a fine line between being a stalker and just being persistent. [laughter] And it works out in the end.
Erin: Right, that if you stalk a girl long enough, she’ll suddenly say, “Oh, wait, I do like you.” [laughter]
Wes: It’s not stalking if you wanna be stalked. Anyway.
Erin: That’s true.
Wes: He’s somewhat sympathetic in the beginning, although he is kind of odd in the beginning. I think he’s always awkward, right, and at some points in the film, they’re even… there’s even Rain Man’s vibes that we get from him. I was watching with someone who had never seen the film, and I said, “This is a prequel to Rain Man” at one point, and they’re like… they believed me for a second. [laughter] Yeah, some of the stuff he does with Mrs Robinson, like putting his hands mechanically on her breast, kissing her awkwardly. His general level of nervousness around her is robotic. Quality is woodenness. It gradually, I think, interferes with your sympathy for him. I think that, you know, the high point of sympathy is at the very beginning at the party to get back to that where you know, his parents are so excited and so proud of him, and he’s encouraged (even though he’s very reluctant) he’s encouraged to come down and see all the people who have come all this way to see him in some cases… and his father says something. What does his father say before they go down? “It’s a wonderful thing to have such good friends,” something like that.
Erin: Yeah, he says, “These are good friends. Most of them have known Benjamin practically since he was born, and it’s a wonderful thing to have so many devoted friends.”
Wes: He’s saddled with all of these expectations. These people aren’t exactly friends. And I tweeted about this before recording and said it’s almost like a horror movie. They’re almost like vampires trying to, as adults do, trying to live vicariously through young people and somehow become young in some sense, by living through them. But it really comes across as exploitative, and you could see why he’s overwhelmed, right? All these people coming up to him and touching him. You get the sense that [laughter] he could be even a Christ figure. And of course, at the very end of the movie, the crowd will turn on him and he’s at that point… he has a cross in his hands. So he’s… the Christ figure aspect of the story is accentuated, right? It turns into the possibility of people wanting to destroy him or sacrifice him. But it’s really creepy in the beginning, the way he’s treated.
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. There’s also a lot of set-up for how creepy Mrs Robinson is, right, that all these people know him since practically… practically since he was born. We know later on that Mrs Robinson has been there since he was born. She’s down there lying in wait. But there’s also… there’s some moments with these older women where they come in really close to him, they touch his face, and it does feel kind of predatory. I mean, it’s hard to kind of watch this with fresh eyes, because we know what’s going to happen, but it does kind of predict what Mrs Robinson is going to do. And the whole time that he’s coming down the stairs and he’s just getting ambushed by all these people, men, women, you know, couples and then these groups of women, the camera stays really close on him, and then he keeps… his face keeps getting eclipsed by his parents, friends who come in so close to him that then he’s blocked from the camera. And so you really… it gives this sense of claustrophobia where we feel like we’re in the trenches with him. We feel sorry for him, we feel like we want everyone to take a step back. The women come up to him and hold his face in their hands and say, “Oh, we’re so proud of you” and give him kisses on the cheek and guys go past him and tousle his hair and… so everybody is like in his space and you get the sense to that. I think, this is another thing that I was talking about with my mom, which was actually really useful, since she was a boomer, she was kind of coming up at the same time and she said, you know, sometimes you’d go over to friend’s houses where they would have these pool parties or whatever, and there was really a sense that people were just showing everything off, like it was a whole culture. I think that World War II generation, when they escaped the Great Depression and they finally got all this stuff and became successful and entered the middle class, or even the upper middle class, that they were constantly looking for ways to show off their materialism and that that kind of extended to their children and to their children’s successes. And so it seems as though the whole point of this exercise, this graduation party… it’s not for Benjamin, because he’s not having a good time. It’s really for the parents to show off their son and to show their friends what a success Benjamin is.
Wes: Yeah, I think this is a realistic concern that adults have about young people, right, because young people… there’s always a tendency to be focused on certain impractical dreams, and many adults have had the experience of those dreams, such dreams coming to not, or having friends for whom they have come to not. And they’re much more attuned to the actual importance of being able to make a living and to survive and not being stuck with a job you hate later in life because you’ve made those types of risky decisions. So I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that sort of attitude but, of course, it can go too far. So it’s not like Ben arrives and he’s saying, “oh, I just… I wanna be an artist” and everyone saying “No, you can’t be an artist. That’s so impractical. You’re never gonna make any money.” We don’t really find out what he wants to do because it seems like he doesn’t know. He just knows that he doesn’t want it to be this ordinary, and he doesn’t, I guess, wanna end up like his parents and friends have ended up. But one of the things we should mention, this whole scene of people worshiping him and touching him and saying how proud they are of him is, of course, the iconic scene where he’s taken outside, “We’re also proud of you. Proud, proud, proud.” [laughter]
Erin: “Proud, proud, proud, proud, proud.” [laughter]
Wes: Yes, that’s great. Then someone reaches over and rubs him on the head. You know, rubs his hair like he’s a little baby, your child, that you can touch at will, without permission. “What are you gonna do now?” And then he says, “Go upstairs.” You know, someone asked him what’s he gonna do and he says, go upstairs. “I mean, with your future, your life.” And then he says, “that’s a little hard to say.” So he’s uncertain about these things, and you get the sense he doesn’t really want to be put on the spot like this. He doesn’t have any good answers, and then he’s taken outside by Mr McGuire… is that his name?
Wes: So this is… also has, I think, the kind of feel the Nichols and May type sketch where Mr McGwire comes up to him and says,“Ben.” He’s like,“Ben!” And then Ben says “Mr McGuire.” And then they do that.. they do that again…
Erin: “Ben!” [laughter]
Wes: “Mr McGuire.” And it’s this very awkward Dustin Hoffman [laughter] affect going on. So it’s a really funny scene, even though they’re just, you know, repeating each other’s names to each other. And then Mr McGuire gets him outside, and this is the scene that everyone knows: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.” “Yes, sir?” “Are you listening?” “Yes, I am.” “Plastics.” So that makes explicit the thing that perhaps he’s worried about, which is that he has a future in plastics, at least metaphorically so in something that’s artificial and lacking in real vitality, shallowness in commercialism. And I think that’s the concern.
Erin: Yeah. And that scene, that plastic scene is Buck Henry’s invention entirely. That was one of the scenes that he added into the script that was not in the original novel.
Wes: Right. It’s not in the original novel. A lot of the dialogue is actually in the original novel, so there is a lot of good funny dialogue in the novel. As a whole, I don’t think the novel’s actually good [laughter] as I looked at it. The writer, Charles Webb, was 21 or something when he wrote it, and it shows. So it’s not a very good novel, but the dialogue, a lot of it works very well in a screenplay. So Buck Henry judiciously lifts a lot of that dialogue, but then adds some wonderful touches, and this is one of them.
Erin: Yeah. So then after that scene outside, Ben escapes this group of two couples by the pool and makes his way back into the house past the crowd. And this woman is saying in voice over, she’s sort of announcing to the crowd all of Ben’s accomplishments, all these wonderful things about Ben, and we hear that he is captain of the cross country team and head of the debating club and editor of the college newspaper. And she’s reading all this as Benjamin is running upstairs. But as the camera tracks through the crowd, it lingers for a second on Mrs Robinson, who’s alone. She’s the only one who is not in a clump of people, she’s not part of a couple, she’s not part of a gaggle of, you know, middle aged women. So she’s sitting in this white chair, she’s turned around in it so that she’s facing Benjamin and she’s smoking and just watching him and doesn’t seem to be impressed in the way that everybody else in the room is impressed by Ben’s accomplishments.
Wes: Yeah, This is something I noticed as well, and I think it’s really great. The dink is on her and she gives him this very, very intense look. And I don’t know if the word is rapacious or angry. Even she’s very fixed on him. It’s interesting because the way he’s being treated by everyone at the party is, in a sense, rapacious and like I said, exploitative and seductive.
Erin. Mmm, mm-hmm.
Wes: You can see what happens with Mrs Robinson as a… externalizations at her. It’s something that makes explicit the psychological dynamic of what’s going on with the adults in the party. But of course, Mrs Robinson is going to be also doing something else there, because we’ll learn that she has had her own problems with her future. She lost her future, right? We learn later on that she had been interested in art and got pregnant and ended up marrying someone that she now doesn’t have sex with, they have separate bedrooms, and I… presumably there’s no love there, either, and she’s stuck and jaded and unhappy because of that, and so what she sees in Ben, you know, where others wanna live vicariously through him, it’s unclear what she’s trying to do with him. It’s not just that she’s attracted to him as she tells him, because she can do this with a lot of different types of people. There’s a reason to do this with Ben in particular, there’s a reason to do this with someone who, you know, a kid who’s newly graduated from college. It has something to do with what she has lost. And it’s unclear if she’s trying to completely squander his future and destroy him or if, in a way, she’s giving him a kind of warning, if she’s trying to show him what her reality is, teach him about it, induct him into it very rapidly so he sees the contrast. So whether she’s trying to save him or destroy him is unclear. But the look that she gives him… well, she’s sitting on that… What is it she’s sitting on? It’s like… almost like an Ottoman or something. She’s leaning back smoking but gives him this very cat-like look and there’s lots of things that really accentuate the cougar aspect here, you know, they give her leopard prints and a den that looks like a kind of jungle in her own home. I love that point in the film because it just lingers briefly. You see that… this is before you know who she is at all. And then he goes upstairs.
Erin: I think it’s important for a second to take a step back and just talk a little bit about the casting of the Mrs Robinson character…
Wes: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Erin: …because it kind of also sheds light on the perspective that Nichols and Chairman and Henry are bringing to the film. So there’s a lot of talk about Doris Day, whether or not she was actually offered the part, or whether or not her husband actually turned it down for her without ever letting her know that she was being considered. But Doris Day is pretty much acknowledged as being one of the people they were strongly considering. So Mike Nichols was never really keen on Ava Gardner. And I should say like I love Ava Gardner, because I think she’s like the most gorgeous woman ever, but as an actress, I mean, she herself knew that she really couldn’t act. But anyway, should this ridiculous movie star routine that she used on Mike Nichols, where she insisted on talking to him about this graduate thing, and so she brings him to her. She brings him to her house and she says, “Oh, wait, Oh, I have to call back. I had Papa on the phone.” She was referring to Ernest Hemingway, who she was friends with. But Hemingway had been dead for like, five years when they had this conversation. And then, she said… and then she sat there and, according to Mike Nichols, went through every movie star cliche. So she said, “Well, first of all, I strip for nobody,” [laughter] and it was just this ridiculous routine that she was taking him through, which I mean, in hindsight is, I guess, like a little bit sad because her looks were fading at that point. Her career had really been on a really steep decline, really since the mid fifties. So this whole exchange between them was… maybe, I don’t know, maybe she was clever than Mike Nichols thought, and she was actually doing some sort of interpretation of a Mrs Robinson routine with him. So then they decided to cast Anne Bancroft, and I think that the Anne Bancroft casting is kind of just as interesting as that of Dustin Hoffman’s. I think the two are kind of parallel. So you see that, like in that scene that we’re talking about, that she’s also isolated from the crowd, there’s something different about her, and certainly she doesn’t look like the other people in this Southern California blonde kind of atmosphere. And Ann Bancroft was the best known, I think, of everyone who was cast in the film. She had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker in 1962 and she was fairly well respected. But part of her achievement of this great career, in which she played Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and had a bunch of big roles, was by changing her name from Anna Maria Italiano to Anne Bancroft and she got a lot more roles. And there’s a moment when I think it’s Mr and Mrs Carlson who meet Ben as he’s coming down the stairs where Mr Carlson says to Benjamin, “Is that your car out there? That little red Wop Job”
Erin: …which is something I didn’t really notice until this time going through. So he’s obviously using, you know, an Italian ethnic slur to talk about his… Benjamin’s Alfa Romeo sitting outside.
Wes: That’s funny, cause in the novel, it’s called… It’s “Italian Job” is the phrase in the novel, So they obviously changed them, yeah.
Erin: Yeah, to make it a little bit more jarring. Sure. So, you know, Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman are both not part of this Southern California culture. They’re both sort of oddities and the whitewashed Hollywood of the time. And so the fact that they’re both supposed to be these outcasts, I think, is kind of supposed to be subliminally important to us to show some affinity between Mrs Robinson and Benjamin by their very natures, maybe.
Wes: It’s interesting that Hoffman and Bancroft are actually pretty close in age, right? She’s playing a 45 year old, but she’s 35 I think, and he’s playing a 20 year old. But he’s 31. Is that…? Did I get that right?
Erin: Yeah, and they really tried to play that up. I mean, he… I think she does a really amazing job of acting older. I know they gave her some age makeup and let her sort of unflatteringly to make her appear older than she was.
Wes: Yeah, and then, as Mike Nichols said… I think it’s Mike Nichols who said, “That’s acting.”
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Wes: Some of the involved in the film said that, you know, that for her to pull that off is amazing and…
Erin: Her performance certainly comes off. Even the first time I saw it, I was most impressed with her performance in the movie. Even though Dustin Hoffman’s so iconic, it’s almost like his woodenness…
Wes: He does his Dustin Hoffman thing. And even through the woodenness, there’s just that Dustin Hoffman… [laughter] Dustin Hoffman is Dustin Hoffman. It’s funny because he was right, he was a stage actor and had not been in a film and had only after 10 years of trying, it only started to come into his own as a stage… as a theater actor and was very nervous about this part and always thought he was going to get fired and even thought, you know, “This is wrong for me. Why am I doing this? This is… you know, I don’t really fit the part..” had all those sorts of anxieties, and I think perhaps some of that comes off in the performance. It might be part of what makes it a great performance. So I think, you know, as you’re getting at, the choice of actors is well thought out when it comes to the goal of getting people who are… who will be able to play these sorts of outsiders.
Erin: And it’s funny that you say that he does his Dustin Hoffman thing because you’re right. I think… I wonder if the reason why he only had an unsuccessful, sort of off-Broadway career is because he was really meant to be in movies because he’s so very much himself. And his persona is already well established in this, whereas Anne Bancroft did have a really successful and varied Broadway career in between two bouts as a movie star, so she’s more of the chameleon type, typically associated with the stage actress.
Erin: So Mrs Robinson sees him. Benjamin goes upstairs, and then he closes his bedroom door behind him and, you know, leans back against the door, relieved, and I noticed that the colors in his tie, his striped tie are the same as the colors on the dart board on the wall next to him. So I guess that sort of prefigures the fact that he’s about to be the target of Mrs Robinson’s attentions. [laughter]
Wes: So Richard Sylbert, the production designer, paid a lot of attention to all these little details in collaboration with Buck Henry and Mike Nichols. They thought through all of this, through the visual elements of the film and spent a lot of time on it. So including everything down to Mrs Robinson having tan lines, then the use of color in the film, there’s a lot of use of black and people’s clothing and yeah. So you’re getting into the scene and in the room where Mrs Robinson is about to barge in.
Erin: Yeah, you know, she comes in even though she’s clearly not wanted. She pretends that she thought that his room was the bathroom. And then just sort of makes herself at home, immediately goes over and sits on his bed and lights a cigarette. She lights a match, lights her cigarette and she has this match in her hand and she says, “Is there an ashtray in here?” And he looks around like he’s looking for an ashtray and then he says, “Oh, no.” And then she says, “Oh, yes, I forgot. The track star doesn’t smoke.” This is the first indication that she’s really not impressed with him.
Wes: He doesn’t smoke yet. We will end up seeing him smoking later after, of course, he’s been seduced and seduced as well into the evils of smoking. [laughter] But of course, yes, Mrs Robinson smokes constantly through the movie in the most wonderful way, in a way, it’s so expressive of her character.
Erin: And then she says, “Is it a girl?” And he says, “Is what a girl?” And she says, “Whatever it is that’s upsetting you.” She’s the only person who takes a dim view of his (quote-unquote) “accomplishments” and feels free to mock him for them and then who actually notices that he’s upset. Because I guess nobody else and at this entire party has noticed his efforts to evade them, to run either outside or back up to his room over and over again. She’s the only one who’s getting the problem.
Wes: In a way, it should be a welcome thing, right? Part of what’s bothering him is the way people are idolizing him because of his accomplishments. So for her to minimize them ought to be, in a way, a relief. And, of course, she’s objectifying him in a different way. And maybe that should be a relief as well, right? She’s starting on this project of trying to get him into bed. And maybe there’s a virtue there, maybe that’s a way out of his predicament. This is what I was trying to get at before. It’s unclear what she’s trying to do, destructive and vindictive in a way, is she trying to rob someone else of their future? or is she a warning, in a way? Is she trying to warn a younger version of herself?
Erin: Like one of the hints that we get about her intentions, maybe, is the fact that when she gets him to drive her home and she throws the keys at him, they land in the aquarium and she throws them like, almost deliberately into the aquarium. [laughter]
Wes: Oh. Definitely it’s deliberately. Yeah.
Erin: And throughout, I mean another one of those visual themes that comes up again and again in the movie, is that aquarium in his room. And then, you know, the scuba man and the pool in the backyard. And one of the quotes from that Vanity Fair interview that I found really telling was Mike Nichols saying that he wanted to show people drowning in their own wealth.
Erin: So perhaps this water is supposed to be a kind of dangerous representative of this culture that Benjamin does not want to, you know, stick his toe into, or in which he feels as though he’s drowning, especially in the scene when his parents are pushing him underwater. When she throws them into the aquarium, the keys, into the aquarium and he has to, you know, lift up his sleeve and get his hands wet and fish them out, that’s maybe a hint that he’s about to, rather than get away from this drowning kind of atmosphere, maybe he’s going to drown in another vice, if not wealth and materialism, maybe something else.
Wes: This is exactly what I was about to bring up, because it’s such a great little piece of symbolism. So as you mentioned, yes, this whole submersion and water theme will be important throughout the movie. And we… at the very beginning of the movie, we see him… a shot of him against the aquarium. As you’ve mentioned and before Mrs Robinson arrives, I think we see a cool… one of the many cool shots in this film. We see a shot of him through the aquarium, on the other side of it, looking into it. That happens again after the keys were thrown into it. When he fishes the keys out, right, the camera shot is going through the aquarium, and I think there’s another one of those before she even arrives in the room. And the question is, what’s happening there? First of all, why is she doing that? Why is she doing something as vindictive as telling the keys into the… because he’s just trying to get her to drive herself home in his car, and I assume it’s pretending that she can’t drive a stick shift. That’s the sort of punishment of that, you know, his first attempt at rejection of her. She’s punishing him for it by throwing the keys into the tank. It’s kind of a power move, so now he’s gonna have to go fish them out. And it’s the beginning of a long series of manipulations, very, very aggressive manipulations that she engages in to get him to sleep with her, despite the fact that he keeps saying no and… or keeps trying to evade her advances. But I also think there’s an important piece of symbolism here involved in throwing the keys into the tank because the car is a graduation present and it’s a sports car, it’s a fast car, and in a way it’s meant to be representative of his future, of future success, of speeding on to success. And they’re having a life that in some way is free. It’s a convertible sports car, that sort of thing that you associate in advertisements with a kind of freedom. What I think the submersion in water and the possibility of drowning represents, apart from drowning and materialism, is just more generally drowning in other people’s expectations. So that’s part of what’s so overwhelming about the party, is that all the adults have all these expectations for his future, and it’s suffocating. So by throwing the keys into the tank, she’s illustrating something, which is that the fast driving car, in a way, is a lie. She puts them into the suffocating water where things actually move slowly. They’re no longer fast, and they’re no longer so free. They’re confined and submerged.
Erin: Yeah, so Ben drives her home, they go into the sun room, which, as you said, has that jungle vibe with all the foliage and the plants. The bar is this kind of stark, black and white, and Mrs Robinson is in this tiger striped dress that… it actually has this metallic overlay, so it’s not obviously apparent what the pattern is, it’s kind of subliminal. But then later, when she’ll start to undress in front of him upstairs and the dress peels off, we see very clearly that she’s revealing herself as a tiger upstairs. And she also has that leopard print matching bra and slip set. So she keeps giving him all these excuses as to how he has to stay longer, that she doesn’t wanna be in the house alone, that she wants him to wait until her husband gets back. So Benjamin starts accusing her of seducing him. She lifts her leg up and puts it on the bar stool next to her and is kind of laughing at him. And Benjamin says, “For God’s sake, Mrs Robinson. Here we are. You’ve got me into your house, you give me a drink, you put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours,” and Mrs Robinson says “So?” and Ben says “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” And there’s that famous shot under the leg where you see the outline of her leg and Ben is shot underneath it, looking like he’s going to be crushed by the leg or something.
Wes: Yeah, I think it’s funny that, you know, before he gets to that point, he’s saying things like, “Oh my God,” “Oh, no,” “You didn’t think I’d do something like that.” So he’s telling her in so many words that she’s trying to seduce him before he actually explicitly says it, and that’s when she puts her leg up. So she starts laughing. And then she puts her leg up in that very revealing way that’s even more seductive. So she just amps up the seductive quality, and then you get the shot through the leg and “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” which she then, of course, denies. So she’s, you know, she’s like I had thought of it. I’m very flattered. This is a very confusing thing. I think today people would call it gaslighting, although I think I’ve probably said before that’s a term that I really hate. But she’s explicitly seducing him and yet denying it at the same time, which is part of the power of all this. Once she gets him upstairs and we don’t have to go through every detail of that, but it ultimately ends up with him in Elaine’s room and her barging into the room coming back from the bathroom and you get also iconic shots, very brief in some cases, almost subliminal shots of nudity. When he sees her, he sees her in the reflection of her daughter’s portrait, of Elaine’s portrait, which is very telling. And then you get largely what’s a shot on his face, looking very uncomfortable but also not being able to resist looking her up and down. And then you get the briefest shots of, you know, these flashes of her different parts of her nude body.
Erin: Interestingly, I read that Anne Bancroft had every intention of doing the nude scene, and then when the day of shooting came, she actually chickened out and decided that she couldn’t do it, and Mike Nichols was really angry because he had to get a body double at the last minute. So that’s actually not Anne Bancroft.
Wes: Dammit! That ruins everything for me.
Wes: Many times I had to pause to… They could stop on the… Sad. Yeah, I was wondering about that.
Erin: So this all goes down in Elaine’s bedroom ultimately, and the portrait of her, which looms large over the scene, is disturbing. [laughter]
Wes: It’s a telling kind of shot, because Elaine is closer to his age and she’s a candidate for a really romantic relationship with him, not just because the parents in the film are gonna encourage him to ask her out, but because they turn out, actually, to have a lot in common. So part of what Mrs Robinson seems to be foreclosing for Ben is this type of possibility of having a real relationship with someone. So this is part of the evidence that what she’s doing is vindictive. She… in a way, she’s trying to squander his future, her nude body appearing in the reflection of the portrait of her daughter is a way of displacing that possibility, so you get that represented graphically.
Erin: Yeah, that’s really good. And then they’re interrupted by the sound of Mr Robinson’s car in the driveway. And then we see another potential future, maybe for Ben in Mr Robinson who comes in curiously with a golf bag, which makes you wonder… I mean, we learn that he’s the father’s business partner. So what was he doing golfing while there’s this big party going on for his partner’s son? And he comes in and Ben is sweating because of everything that’s just happened and he’s trying to act cool and so that Mr Robinson doesn’t know what’s going on. But he doesn’t need to sort of waste any effort on Mr Robinson because Mr Robinson himself is kind of sweaty, sort of glassy-eyed. I don’t know if we’re supposed to get the impression that he’s an alcoholic, but it seems pretty clear that he’s probably been out drinking all day or doing who knows what. You know, he thanks Ben for standing guard over the old castle and immediately gives him a drink, which, like we said earlier, he doesn’t listen to Ben when he asks for bourbon and just gives him scotch. And the decanters, I noticed, are these really weird… it’s like two black figures of what looks like a king and queen, and one with the word Scotch and the other with the word Bourbon blazoned in white like necklaces around their necks. And, yes, it’s a little spooky. It’s a little spectral kind of version of Mr and Mrs Robinson. And then Mr Robinson advises Ben to sow his wild oats, take things as they come, (and as he says this, Mrs Robinson comes into the room) have a good time with the girls and everything. He asks Mrs Robinson if she thinks that this is good advice and he does so kind of bitterly, like we get the sense that his own future was squandered by the fact that he got Mrs Robinson pregnant, and now he’s stuck with her. So he says, “So don’t you think this is a good idea?” And she says, “Yes, I do.”
Wes: Yeah. In a very cold, monotone way. And well, I think one interesting thing about the scene with Mr Robinson is it’s also quite seductive, right? So he’s trying to leave, and Mr… it’s another case in which he’s trying to leave and he’s not being let to leave. And then there’s this stuff about him feeling like Benjamin as his own son, and he’ll say something like, “I wish I were your age again. So remember, you’ll never be young again.” So I think this gives us a pretty key insight into the interest of the various adults and Benjamin: this idea to relive their lives, to be young. And also this impulse to impart wisdom to young people because part of what happens as you get older, as you gain the benefits of experience you lose a youthful body and you lose youthful vitality and the time that you have for fulfilling your aspirations shrinks. So if only you could go back to that time with all your knowledge and experience and relive life with all the benefits of being young. And as they say, youth is wasted on the young. So that impulse is always really hard to resist. But you get the impression that what people are trying to do is they’re trying to enact that wish, in a way. They’re trying to enact it by injecting this experience into young people, which, of course, they can’t do, because wisdom can only come by way of suffering and by way of trial and error. And it’s just obviously a failing tactic, right, to pull a young person aside and say, “Do this,” “Do that,” “You’re never going to be young again.” You just give them all these directives, and it’s not something that works. And everyone kind of knows that it doesn’t work. And yet adults have trouble resisting doing that. So I find that very interesting because I think that’s the primary sort of seduction that goes on between adults and young people. And what Mrs Robinson is doing is just a more explicit basic variation on that. And that seduction, I think, that gets us to the next scene in the movie, that’s probably… cannot avoid talking about, which is the scene at the pool where he’s forced to wear his deep sea diving suit, which is a birthday present. So this is his birthday and come out and do an exhibition for everyone where he is going to plunge into the pool, holding a spear gun. And as you’ve mentioned, and this was a difficult shot, technically, that I think they had to rehearse for two days, but they filmed part of this from his perspective. So he’s coming out in the suit and people are saying things, but he can’t hear them, and you just hear this very Darth Vader-like breathing, and then he’s in the pool and you’re seeing it from his perspective. And he’s floating back up to the top, and you see his parents laughing and exciting and pushing him back down into the pool by putting their hands on his head as if they are drowning him. So a lot of very explicit symbolism here. But again, I think we are back to the sense that what he’s drowning in is the expectations of older people and the ways in which they wanna exploit him and live vicariously through him.
Erin: Hmm. And again, we see that underwater shot of him, like he’s in the tank of the pool, off center, and then there begins the voiceover of Ben calling Mrs Robinson, and we get the impression that he’s trying to make a connection with her. Maybe as an answer to or a temporary stay against the alienation that’s signified by the pool. But then there’s a cut to Benjamin in the phone booth where he’s calling her from, and that also is kind of like, you know, he’s also putting himself in a different kind of glass tank by making this connection with Mrs Robinson. And there’s this this great like it really is just out of the Nichols and May routine, this great exchange with the concierge who’s played by Buck Henry, who asks him if he’s there for an affair and Benjamin starts and looks super guilty, and he says, “Oh, you know, for the Single Men party.” The Single Men party! He cannot join the single men party. [laughter]
Wes: That’s a kind of gag you would see in an older film. Some of the stuff is a really a throwback to older Hollywood films, I think. And I’ll write about that.
Erin: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And Mrs Robinson joins him at the bar. I love the part where Benjamin tries to get the waiter’s attention and fails, and Mrs Robinson just immediately says “Waiter,” and he comes back. The confidence and the sexiness of Mrs Robinson is just undercut by Benjamin’s incredible awkwardness. But even she is amused by him. She laughs at his antics.
Wes: Part of what’s so fascinating about her character is not just her cynicism and her jadedness, but there’s a kind of confidence. So in a way, she’s an exaggerated expression of experience, this sort of thing I was just talking about and maybe a bastardized version of wisdom, right? We’ve become too wise. We’ve become cynical and nothing is new to us anymore, and everything is blasé. So you wonder why she is interested in him, as you mentioned that she’s amused by him in various ways, and I think we’ve talked a bit about why she might be interested in him. It’s a variation on the reason that other adults seem to be interested in him, in his future. It’s a variation on that. It’s a different type of exploitation, and as I said before, it might even be a kind of warning. So one of the important moments in the films is where he learns that she was once interested in art and gave that up because of her pregnancy and marriage, and you get this anguished look on her face at that point, they’re in bed together. And that’s one of the really humanizing moments for Mrs Robinson, where you start to understand her motivations.
Erin: Her facial expressions throughout are just such a welcome relief from Dustin Hoffman’s bemused, awkward face that he uses throughout the entire thing. There’s such a range that you get with Mrs Robinson’s feelings being projected onto her face. They go into the hotel room, where they’ll carry out the affair and there are blinds on the windows of the hotel room, same as in Ben’s room. There are even blind-like slats on the doors of the room. So it really gives that prison kind of feel, that feeling of exchanging one prison for another. And then there are those three great gags in a row. The first one about the kissing her during the cigarette (that was stolen from the Nichols and May routine) and then the gag about what he should do while she’s changing. So she suggests that he watches. And so he steps back and crosses his arms like he’s looking at a painting and then the gag when she takes her top off and he grabs her breast and then she, completely oblivious to him, or just, you know, not even caring, starts like rubbing at a stain.
Wes: Yes, exactly.
Erin: And he goes back and starts banging his head on the wall. There’s a lot of… in The Graduate mythology, there’s a story that he was… started doing that to keep from laughing, because he was giving her all this stuff to work with, and in response to her rubbing at a stain on her shirt, he just, like, started laughing. So he went over and started banging his head on the wall because he was trying to stop laughing. And then the exchange about “Don’t you find me desirable?” Mrs Robinson asks him, and he says that he thinks that she’s the most attractive of all his parents’ friends? [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, that’s a great line. Completely up to thing to say.
Erin: Only by mocking his apparent virginity does she get him to finally go through with the affair. The suggestion that he might be sexually inadequate.
Wes: As I said before, that type of manipulation, that’s just the staple of the film, where she’s constantly doing one thing or another to get him to do exactly what she wants him to do until she can no longer control him and he is going to escape her clutches, escape her direction and pursue Elaine.
Erin: I kind of wanted to talk about like, if Mrs Robinson gives the reason for why she thinks that Benjamin and Elaine should not go out.
Wes: This is right after we’ve learned about her interest in art. And Elaine comes up because Benjamin has learned that Elaine was an unexpected pregnancy.
Erin: And then she doesn’t even want him to talk about Elaine? Ben asked, “Why shouldn’t I take her out?” And Mrs Robinson says, “I have my reasons.” He offers her a reason that he’s not good enough to associate with her or even to talk about her. He says, “I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough to associate with your daughter. That’s it, isn’t it?” And he pulls the covers off of her. She’s in bed and naked, I guess. And so he kind of exposes her and she pulls the covers up really sadly. There’s a long beat, and then she says “Yes.” I don’t know that that’s true. I also don’t know why Ben doesn’t think that it’s just inappropriate to go out with Elaine, seeing as he’s had a sexual relationship with her mother, which seems to be the most pressing problem.
Wes: Exactly. It’s odd that he doesn’t understand why that would bother her.
Erin: Do you think that she’s being truthful when she says that she thinks he’s not good enough, or that perhaps that the only reason why he isn’t good enough is because she has now tainted him?
Wes: Well, what becomes clear is that for her own daughter, she does have these orthodox aspirations, right? So she wants Elaine to marry the blonde-haired, blue-eyed doctor, whatever the guy is. And she presumably would want Elaine to go into something like Plastics, if that’s what women did, or to become a housewife, if that’s the future. So it sounds like she wants, despite the fact that she squandered her own aspirations, what she really would have loved to do, something to do with art, for the sake of a more ordinary existence. That safer ordinary existence is something that she wants for Elaine. So Benjamin, in a way, it’s like an experiment with a surrogate child, even though it’s sexual, and even though that sounds kind of sick, she’s initiating him in a way, and it seems to me, as if she’s not just trying to exploit him, but she’s trying to warn him and trying, perhaps, to put him on a different path. You know, what would have become of him if she hadn’t entered the picture? If his jadedness and ennui had not come into contact with Mrs Robinson. He might have just shaped up and done what he was supposed to do. So she seems to be experimenting with the idea of giving a young person the possibility of a different kind of future, even if that happens in the most sordid sort of way. But that’s not what she wants for Elaine, so it kind of shows that she still stuck in that mentality, even though it’s hurt her so badly.
Erin: The strange thing is, I mean, outside of the fact that she has now, you know, personally tainted him, what really makes him any different from the blonde guy that she wants Elaine to marry? I mean, it’s almost as if everyone sees Benjamin as Robert Redford, and we and the filmmakers are the only ones who can see him as Dustin Hoffman, because everyone treats him as though he is Robert Redford. I mean, from the first time that he comes down the stairs in that party, everybody says, “Oh, I bet you make out really well with the girls and that you use your Alfa Romeo to pick up all these women,” and Mr Robinson advises him to sow his wild oats. And so there’s the suggestion that he’s so wonderful that he looks like this ideal that they’re all treating him as. And certainly his college record is extremely impressive, and he is headed into a career in some sort of top field. He comes from a good family. He’s kind of ideally positioned to be a match for Elaine since their parents are business partners. So except for Mrs Robinson personally tainting him, there’s no reason why he’s any different from this blond guy. Even the blonde guy has this sordid sexual past, and we can imagine, perhaps, that he’s also had an affair with an older woman in the string of many conquests that he seems to have had. So it seems as though what makes Benjamin different is his association with Mrs Robinson and his appearance, which seems like almost like kind of a private joke that he, Mrs Robinson and we, the audience, are the only ones that know about.
Wes: But I think the appearance, you know, like the Jewishness, is just a metaphor for the fact that he is, in a way, an outsider. So what taints him is, regardless of whether he’s blond and blue eyed, yeah, if he had come home and been happy to be at the graduation party and had been schmoozing with people and socially adept and all of that stuff, I doubt she would have gone for him. I doubt she would have tried to make a victim of that sort of guy. So she already knows that there’s something different about him and that he is going to do something riskier with his future. He is going to, or at least there’s the possibility, that he would pursue doing something that he loves, even if it might endanger his financial future. So this is a conflict between comfort and survival and libido or as Freud would say, between ego instincts and libido? Do you do the safe thing, or do you do the risky thing that’s more passionate? So I think what she sees in him, ironically, is… she was interested in art, he’s like the guy who’s interested in art, even though he’s undeclared, right, through the movie. So he’s not good enough for Elaine because he’s chosen to go a different route than the route that he’s supposed to go, and maybe she should think, “Okay, he’s probably just going to get back on track, and he comes from a good family, and he’ll probably shape up.” But I think his relationship with her has solidified that idea. So that’s the interesting contradiction. Other people are trying to recreate the safe version of themselves who don’t pursue their passions but pursue something more material. She’s trying to recreate the risky version of herself, the version of herself that did go into art, for instance. But then, by virtue of turning him into that, she’s made him unsuitable for her own daughter. So the conflict is still there, inside her, I think. You know, I think that brings us to the finale in the church where you get a kind of inversion of the party scene that begins the movie. So he’s showing up to prevent the marriage of Elaine and her blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. But he shows up too late and ultimately begins, you know, first, Mrs Robinson looks at him with amusement, and the husband’s getting upset and she says, “No, he’s too late,” and he begins banging on the glass from where he’s standing, and then you see Elaine start to walk towards him as if she’s been hypnotized. And then people are getting angry and very angry looks on their faces. At least Mrs Robinson, Mr Robinson and then the husband, cursing and saying all sorts of nasty things. But you can’t hear what they’re saying. Until Elaine finally calls out to him, and then he comes down and has that melee with all the church people and uses a cross to fend them off. And Mrs Robinson says to Elaine, “It’s too late” and Elaine says “Not for me.” And then Mrs Robinson slaps Elaine, so you get that whole fight scene. But it makes more explicit again the exploitative relationship between the older people and the younger people in the film. I was reminded of Rosemary’s baby, actually, because this is sort of an initiation rite into their mundane, safe world, and it makes it look almost like a satanic ritual, at least the emotions that come out towards the end of it.
Erin: Oh, that’s really good.
Wes: Rosemary’s baby, which we’ll talk about one day. It’s like everyday middle class life. There’s something sinister about it, [laughter] and that’s what the devil worship represents in that movie. And here that sinister stuff comes out. So when he uses the cross, you know, I think the Mormon reviewer thought that there’s something sacreligious about that or other reviewers have seen that sort of a dig against Christianity. But really, it’s like someone holding up a cross to ward off a… (I don’t know, do you do that with vampires?) to ward off a vampire or someone who’s possessed. I think he becomes, in a way, a more genuine representative of religious passion. And he’s holding up that cross in the end, to ward off evil spirits. And that’s what the ordinary world comes to represent. So…
Erin: Yeah. And Elaine, like Benjamin in the scuba suit mask, can’t hear anyone’s voices. Elaine looks around at her and sees her father, her mother and her, I guess, now husband making these angry faces and muttering, and it’s almost like they’re performing the satanic ritual where they’re muttering curses or something.
Erin: But she can’t hear them. She’s now, maybe, like gone into the scuba suit with Benjamin and is going to escape with him and block them out. It is extremely scary. And their teeth, they’re, like, gritted, and they, you know, yeah, they look like they’re cursing. And then they do escape. They run down the street together and onto the bus. And then there’s that famous, you know, the famous realization of what they’ve done, the fact that, you know, they’ve never had a meaningful conversation. Um… [laughter] they really don’t know anything about each other, and they have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into. So…
Wes: Yeah. You get a wonderful series of… at first they’re ecstatic, and then he smiles while she’s looking contemplative. And then shesmiles while he‘s looking contemplative. You get it sort of something out of sync, and they’re different reactions. But they’re going through a lot of different emotional reactions and sequence at the end, and they do that all without any dialogue. It’s really wonderful. But in the end they both are looking ahead. You know, she looks at him seriously, at one point. I think they both glanced over to each other while the other one is looking away, at some point. But in the end, they’re both looking ahead towards the front of the bus and they’re both looking anxious. So you get the sense that the movie is not a simple satire. It’s not directed at older people per se, it’s not directed at the preceding generation per se. It’s not some kind of naive denial of the necessity of attending to more practical concerns. What it does seem to endorse… I watched it with someone who is like, “What is this scene?” “This guy is terrible in this movie.” He thought that the movie was terrible because the main character was terrible.” This guy has nothing going for him,” he said. You know what’s…? And I said, “what he has going for him is that he is willing to pursue what he loves, and he’s willing to be persistent about that.” That’s the stalking part. The message is, you gotta be a stalker for the sake of what you love. You have to stock it relentlessly. And of course, Mrs Robinson is a stalker, too. She knows what she wants, and she is the ultimate cougar. But, you know, he’s willing to pursue that with abandon and in a very risky way, and that is something that not a lot of us would do. But I think it is something that we would be better off doing despite the risks. So it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be happy, that they know each other very well, that they’re as suited to each other as they think, that they won’t have to get jobs. But it’s not an endorsement of the end, it’s more an endorsement of the means and the means involve this passionate pursuit of what you love. And I think that’s part of what explains… you know, there’s a movement in the movie. This concern about the future seems to begin, you know, when we talk about our futures, we’re usually talking about… well we’re talking about work and love. But I think the implication is that he’s worried about what he’s going to do for a living. It’s in the context of his graduation. But it is a kind of weird movement in the film because that’s never resolved. And again, as I’ve said before, we don’t even know if he has any interests: you know, is he interested in art, is he interested in… what? That’s just all left to the side. And the resolution is kind of oblique. The resolution comes through a relationship with a woman, but the unifying element there is just this love factor, you know, whether it’s doing what you love or being with someone that you love. What’s endorsed here, I think, is pursuing what you love relentlessly despite all the risks. That’s the only way out of the satanic cult. [laughter]
Erin: And I think you’re right to say that there is no endorsement of the ends. And what the ends are, it seems to me, is something that’s gonna look an awful lot like what his parents are in. Ultimately, what has he done? He’s gotten together with the girl his parents wanted him to get together with, and though there’s going to be this messy period of her having to get divorced from the blonde guy and possibly both of them alienated from their families for at least a time because of what they’ve destroyed in order to pursue their own relationship, I mean he’s going to have to get a normal job at some point and support her, and they’re going to be wealthy and, you know, I mean, ultimately, it’s not like he ran away with the circus.
Wes: At a surface level, we all end up in the same circumstance, which is just an ordinary existence with the person that we have to get along with over a prolonged period of time under stressful circumstances that include having a job, and raising children, and things like that, and most people seem to end up in that circumstance. But at an emotional level or at a psychological level, all those cases that might look the same on the surface, of course, can be very different. People can be in a loving, workable relationship or they might not be. And I think where they end up at that emotional level does depend, in a way, on the means, on the way they got to where they were. So was this originally about a passionate pursuit? Were their risks taken? Those things are important, even if the surface exterior existence is gonna be the same as what the adults end up with? Part of this is about maturation to kind of get back to something that I always like to talk about. One of the challenges of adolescence is to become an individual and to achieve some sort of separation from your parents and their values. And you do that by, right, figuring out what it is you want and what it is you desire. But all that is accomplished by identification. So this is kind of another classic Freudian thing. The resolution of the Edipus complex is really about moving from a certain relationship with parents in which they are nurturers and caretakers towards an identification with them where you develop aspirations. So your libido is turned away from just simply getting fed, for instance, or basic pleasure. It gets directed towards having a conscience, right, so you can get pleasure out of being a good person and pleasure, your libido, gets directed towards values. And then, of course, the guilt is a factor there, too, but then also having aspirations, they’re redirected towards aspirations. But where do you get those aspirations? Well, they come from, to some extent, from parents, right, we can’t avoid. We sort of incorporate them. We take them into us from the environment that includes parental influences, that includes societal and cultural influences. And that’s the problem, right? Supposedly, we’re gonna escape and become an individual. How do we do that? We do that through this process, where we are essentially being possessed by others, we’re being injected with their views and their values, and we’re supposed to adopt some of them. So it’s paradoxical. Or do we really become an individual by doing that? You know, I think there’s a way out. You navigate that and you find within that a way to identifications that legitimately harness one’s passions, that legitimately redirect your libido, and are not just you fulfilling the expectations of others, right, not just you being submerged and drowned in those expectations, but that’s a very tricky thing. So regardless of where they end up, but that’s the task, and it is better served by love than by ambition, than by trying to meet the expectations of others.
Erin: Right. So his relationship with Elaine, then by not being explicitly set up by his parents, which actually, he does reject her when the purpose of the date is the set up that he doesn’t want to be involved with, because he’s been threatened by Mrs Robinson. But this actual genuine love for her and pursuit of her, which I think couldn’t have existed in the bounds that his parents wanted it to exist in which is, you know, that having both families have dinner together, and maybe this sanctioned relationship is not something that would have inspired love in either of them. So by the means that Benjamin goes about wooing and pursuing Elaine, it’s a way of getting to a result that happens to coincide with maybe what his parents wanted, though he can also be satisfied with the outcome because of the fact that he’s gone about it in his own way.
Erin: Yeah, so one of the things I just want to talk about, I really recommend that our listeners read Roger Ebert’s two reviews of The Graduate and those of you who have listened to past episodes will know that I’m like a really big Roger Ebert fan. He gave The Graduate a four star review in 1967, and then 30 years later, in a retrospective review, he gave it three stars and basically went back on everything he said in his original review, except for the embarrassing part of his original review, when when he said that the Simon and Garfunkel songs were not memorable and nobody would like them. [laughter] So I think it’s useful to compare these two reviews and then to say, like, in my own mind, as far as my opinion of this film goes from me… I kind of went through a similar progression as Roger Ebert, where I was down on the film for a while, and then I sort of came back around and got to, you know, the third phase, maybe that Ebert would have possibly gotten to eventually, which is to recognize the film’s greatness and universality. He gets stuck in this second phase where he says, not to, like, put too fine a point on it with these phases. But he gets stuck in this sense that this film was a product of its own time, that Mrs Robinson is really the only cool one, that Benjamin is a dork and that he’s, you know, he reminds him of… he says “occasionally, I will meet an almost adult son of friends and notice that he behaves like a mute savage in company, responding to conversation with grunts and inarticulate syllables. He’s now, you know, an adult looking back on The Graduate and his enthusiasm for The Graduate with embarrassment and recognizing that The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter.” [laughter] So he has this parental rejection of his original enthusiasm for the film. It’s certainly a good film, but lesser than he thought, but I have since gone through that and come out the other side, thinking that it actually is deeply applicable.
Wes: In the background reading I did, I saw a lot about people becoming… once they become older, becoming more sympathetic to the Mrs Robinson character and less sympathetic to Benjamin Braddock. But I never felt a stronger sympathy one way or the other. It doesn’t strike me as a heavy handed social countercultural critique or a heavy handed endorsement of youth at the expense of the prior generation, despite the fact that, you know, we see things through Benjamin Braddock’s perspective and we see his feelings of suffocation. But I don’t think the adults in the movie come across as seeming like such terrible people. I mean, what Mrs Robinson is doing is genuinely terrible, in a way, but even she is sympathetic. You know, you get to see her pain and the things that are motivating her. And as I’ve mentioned, I think there might even be an altruistic motive in all of this, and she’s serving as a kind of warning to Benjamin. She identifies something in him that has more potential, and she’s trying to encourage him to take those risks. But when I was younger, I was just… I thought, “wow, this is really the perfect movie.” I was so taken in by the cinematography and the performances and the themes, some of the symbolism, the stuff with him being… the scene where he comes out in the wetsuit and gets into the pool, I just think is really one of the most incredible scenes in cinema. So I had a very high opinion of it when I first saw it, and I still do now that I’m older.
Erin: It’s kind of what happened to me, too. I mean, I always had a real affinity for Mrs Robinson from the beginning, because I always like Anne Bancroft as an actress, and I think that her performance is the best in the film by far, but also you just sense that this is a deeply unhappy woman who has been dealt a bad hand. So I never had that anger, I guess, about the older generation or its effect upon Benjamin, though I did identify with him to a certain extent in a way that I no longer feel. I think maybe my opinion is more balanced than Roger Ebert’s was when he really, really identified with Benjamin as a younger guy and then really, really identified with Mrs Robinson as an older guy.
Wes: Yeah. Okay, well, that was fun.
Erin: It was fun.
Wes: Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.