If there was ever a movie that reflected the alienation of a generation, The Graduate is it. Like a million other baby boomers, Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock is trapped between two worlds. The easy choice is the shallow and materialistic world of his parents. Marry a “nice girl”, get an acceptable job, preferably something involving plastics, and buy a house in a good neighborhood.
That’s the world in which this drama takes place. Everyone dutifully plays their part. Benjamin is expected to do what’s responsible. But he wants more, something different, something meaningful. But for all his expensive education, he’s clueless.
Mrs Robinson, represents the decadence and moral ambiguity of her generation. She’s in a loveless marriage with a successful man, her fate set in stone because, as a teenager, she got knocked up in the back seat of a Ford. The way Ann Bancroft plays that character, you feel that she was a little wild, and more than a little hot as a teenager. In the 1950s women didn’t have the options they do now. An unwed mother brought shame to the entire family. There was no going to a clinic to get things “fixed.” She had no options other than a marriage of convenience. Now she’s pushing 40 and her life has narrowed to playing the role of the upper middle class wife. She has no life or identity of her own.
Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson may be 20 years apart, but they have this common ground. The difference is that Mrs. Robinson is the one who’s actively trying to escape the utterly boring, suffocating, world of cocktail parties and neatly trimmed lawns. Benjamin doesn’t even know where to begin. Whether Mrs Robinsons’ motives stem from desperation, fear, or a simple need for a few moments of intimacy, she’s the driving force in the relationship. But is she the bad person here? After all, Benjamin goes into this relationship with his eyes wide open. He is a willing partner in the conspiracy. Are his motives about lust, or boredom? He’s certainly ready to use Mrs Robinson for his own amusement, or out of his own sense of desperation.
At their first assignation, Benjamin is eager to bed Mrs Robinson, however, his emotions are dominated by insecurity. He can’t complete the simplest task without guidance. Mrs Robinson, in her matter-of-fact way, gets him through the process.
It’s no accident that when the seduction of Benjamin is about to consummated at the Taft Hotel, he turns out the light and we hear the lyric from The Sounds of Silence; “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…”
Most people, and the critics of the time, thought of Mrs Robinson as evil. That she’s dragging Benjamin into a passionless well of corruption and self loathing. I question that, it’s uncertain to me whether Benjamin a victim or a co-conspirator.
Maybe her seduction is an act of kindness. Lord knows, Benjamin seems to have skipped some significant facets of his Ivy League education.
Of course the relationship ends in disaster, how could either of them ever imagined that this relationship was going to have a happy ending? Mrs Robinsons’ relationship with both her daughter and husband have gone nuclear. There’s no coming back from this affair.
Later, when Benjamin pursues Elaine, he’s prepared to throw Mrs Robinson under the bus in a heartbeat. It’s only after the affair that he’s able to establish a relationship with Elaine. Finally, Benjamin has become assertive and able to make decisions for himself. Now he has become a driving force.
In the final scene, Benjamin and Elaine have escaped. They feel giddy, but after all the drama, neither one of them has anything meaningful to say.
Benjamin Braddock’s rebellion was limited to getting a pretty, but witless, girl to run away with him. Are they truly in love, or are they both fugitives from the middle class? Sadly, I don’t think either of them can escape their destiny. He’s just as shallow as his parents. He was never going to save the whales or become a freedom fighter. More likely, his destiny will be grilling burgers in the backyard of a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, on nice summer weekends.
There’s a reason this film resonates with a certain generation. For Baby Boomers, The Graduate is a time capsule that gives us a glimpse of another time when we dreamed of doing something more meaningful with our lives.
Other Cool Stuff
Mike Nichols won the Oscar for Best Director
Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress, what was her character’s name again?
With a budget of $3 million, The Graduate made more than $43 million