Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Graduate”

Benjamin: Oh my God!
Mrs. Robinson: Pardon?
Benjamin: Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. Oh no.
Mrs. Robinson: What’s wrong?
Benjamin: Mrs. Robinson, you didn’t… I mean, you didn’t expect…
Mrs. Robinson: What?
Benjamin: I mean, you didn’t really think I’d do something like that.
Mrs. Robinson: Like what?
Benjamin: What do you think?
Mrs. Robinson: Well, I don’t know.
Benjamin: For god’s sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You 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.
Mrs. Robinson: So?
Benjamin: Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.
Mrs. Robinson: [laughs] Huh?
Benjamin: Aren’t you?

“The Graduate” opens with a graduation party. Surrounded by friends of his family, who are lauding his accomplishments and grilling him about his future, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) just wishes to be alone in order to ponder his future. He doesn’t know what it is that he wants to do, but he does know he wants it to be “…different”. He’s been given a sporty Alfa Romeo for a graduation present, and already has people asking him about his career. It’s plain that Ben is all set in life, should he want it.

At the party, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) notices his discomfort. She follows him up to his bedroom and requests he drives her home. Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) and Ben’s father (William Daniels) have been partners for years, at one point, he tells Ben, “in many ways I feel like you’re my own son.” Of course, that’s not how Mrs. Robinson sees him.

Forthright, demanding, and insatiable, Mrs. Robinson puts the moves on young Benjamin. She wants him. He resists her advances, but Mrs. Robinson practically corners him and forces herself upon him. She ignores his continual attempts to excuse himself from her home, badgering him into doing little things for her, like unzipping her dress or bringing her her purse. Eventually she exposes herself to him. She gets naked and stands between him and the door of the room.

He’s saved temporarily by the arrival of Mr. Robinson, which allows him to escape the house.

The next scene is his 21st birthday. Once again, Ben’s Father is showing him off, bragging about his achievements to the friends and family in attendance. Again, we’re shown the pressure Ben is under. He’s given a scuba suit as a birthday present, and his father is demanding he demonstrate it in the pool for everybody. The suit represents how Ben is feeling smothered, constrained. We’re given a point of view camera shot from inside the scuba mask, helping us feel the claustrophobia.

Once in the pool, Ben’s father literally hold him under water.

And so, under the pressure, Benjamin turns to the arms of Mrs. Robinson for solace. A passionless affair begins. Once his initial anxieties are overcome, the two settle into a wordless sexual relationship. As they carry on, Ben spends the summer drifting about in his parents pool. Aimless, directionless. Disconnected from other people.

He attempts to cross the divide with her… he insists on striking up a conversation one night, trying to truly get to know her. It’s then we truly see how sad Mrs. Robinson is, how lonely. It’s not just Ben who’s facing stage of life pressures.

They fail to connect.

One thing they do discuss is her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Mrs. Robinson makes Benjamin swear he’ll never date her. She denies him out of protectiveness and guarded secrecy, but also out of jealousy, envy. Mrs. Robinson envies her daughter in many ways in this film. Seeing her with Benjamin would be crushing.  

Ben agrees not to see Elaine, but soon, his father suggests the two go out together.

Facing conflicting expectations, Ben takes Elaine out, but he’s bound and determined that she won’t enjoy it.

It’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up, they seem to have made themselves up.

He intentionally is callous to Elaine, driving recklessly in his car, taking her to a burlesque show, keeping his sunglasses on. Being cold to her. Eventually she begins to cry.

Ben softens, and confesses that he’s not really like that. He begins to explain to her all the pressures that he’s been under, and the two connect. Soon, a genuine romance is blooming. For the first time, we see Benjamin comfortable talking with someone. They have a great date and agree to see each other again, but trouble looms.

Mrs. Robinson will have none of it. She confronts Benjamin and threatens that if he doesn’t call it off, she’ll expose their affair to Elaine. Benjamin wont be bullied, and instead, tells Elaine himself.

Obviously, Elaine is crushed and hurt. Heartbroken. She screams for him to leave. Mrs. Robinson is distraught as well.

But Benjamin refuses to let Elaine go. He follows her when she returns to college, and insists on seeing her. The two fall in love, but her Father eventually discovers the truth about his wife’s affair and is also drawn into the emotional crossfire of the situation. Elaine rejects Benjamin to protect her father and heads to the altar with a frat-boy from school. Someone who, presumably, could provide for her needs… even if she didn’t love him.

It’s up to Ben to break up the wedding and save Elaine from heading down the same path her parents did.

“The Graduate” is a brilliant movie. At times, especially early, there’s a dark comedic sensibility revolving around Benjamin’s discomfort. But mainly, the movie spoke to the growing dissatisfaction of that generation with the status quo, and their desire to follow the heart as opposed to some predetermined path. It’s a movie about breaking free of expectations. Anxieties about growing up, pressure from society and parents. Both romantic partners face parental pressures. In fact, the movie spends as much time if not more time demonstrating the parental pressures exerted on Ben and Elaine’s relationship than it does on the relationship itself.

Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, and Ben’s parents themselves to a lesser extent, stand as examples that no one wants to emulate. No one wanted to see themselves turn into. Perhaps they didn’t know what they wanted to do or be, but they were certain that they didn’t want to sell “Plastics”.

A number of actors were considered for the part of Benjamin Braddock. Robert Redford screen-tested, but Nichols didn’t think there was any way that audiences would accept him as lacking self-confidence. Warren Beatty was also considered. Charles Grodin was actually given the role, but salary negotiations broke down. Dustin Hoffman thought that he failed his screen test, as he fumbled his lines, and was very awkward interacting with Katherine Ross. It was just type of mannerisms Nichols was looking for.

Hoffman had trained the at the Actors Studio in the early sixties. A dedicated method actor, Hoffman was working off Broadway and had had small roles on television. He was just coming off of his first movie role, starring alongside Eli Wallach in “The Tiger Makes Out”. “The Graduate” would be his first major motion picture, and would earn him the first Academy Award nomination of his illustrious career. Eventually he would amass seven nominations (“The Graduate” ’68, “Midnight Cowboy” ’69, “Lenny” ’74, “Kramer vs. Kramer” ’78, “Tootsie” ’82, “Rain Man” ’88, and “Wag the Dog” ’97), and win two Oscars (“Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man”).

Reportedly Susan Hayward, Patty Duke, Doris Day and Patricia Neal turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson before Nichols eventually offered it to Anne Bancroft. Sally Field, Natalie Wood and Candace Bergen auditioned for Elaine. Ronald Reagan was considered for the role of Mr. Robinson.

The cast was all much different in age than the characters they played. Benjamin Braddock is supposed to be 21, but Dustin Hoffman was 30. Mrs. Robinson is supposed to be twice his age, but Anne Bancroft was 36, only six years older than he was. Elaine is 19 but Katharine Ross was 27 at the time. Mildly ironic, seeing as generational differences are such a large theme of the movie.

There’s a strong argument to be made though that director Mike Nichols is the star of the show, here.

The movie is loaded with symbolic imagery. The people mover channeling Ben at the beginning of the film, the smothering scuba gear, Ben floating in the pool, “drifting”. Mrs. Robinson’s nakedness reflected in her daughter’s portrait. A conversation the audience can’t hear between Ben and Elaine within the car at the drive-in. The shot slowly coming into focus on Elaine as the realization of Ben and her mother’s affair hits her, followed by the zoom out on her mother leaning in the corner of the hall, weakened and suddenly small.

Nichols also utilizes a number of inventive shots. Benjamin in silhouette. Benjamin and Mrs Robinson in the reflective table top of the bar. The flare of the sun behind Ben’s father as he stands above him on the side of the pool. Ben watching the Robinsons in his rear view. Helicopter shots tracking the journey to find Elaine at Berkley. And of course, the iconic shots of Ben and Mrs Robinson’s stockinged leg, with her sitting out of frame.

There’s always something visually to latch on to and think about.

And as you do, there’s music. The music of Simon & Garfunkel is the lifeblood of the film. It establishes a pensive mood and does so much to set the film’s tone.

Mike Nichols was “obsessed” with the duo’s music at the time. Initially, it wasn’t his intention to use their music for anything aside from pacing during the editing process. Eventually, however, he came to associate the music with the movie and decided that a traditional score wouldn’t work as well. He had the producers obtain permission to use their music in the film, and to have three original songs written.

Paul Simon wrote two songs that Nichols rejected for the film: “Punky’s Dilemma” and “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (they would be used instead on the “Bookends” album). In the end only four songs were used, sometimes repetitiously. “The Sounds of Silence”, “April Come She Will”, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, and “Mrs. Robinson”.

The title song, “Mrs. Robinson” wasn’t actually written for the movie. While discussing where they were at with the songs that were being written, Simon complained he was too busy to come up with two more songs. He told Nichols he did have the start of a song he was working on about Eleanor Roosevelt, and he played for the director. Nichols decided to include it, and the name was changed to fit. The finished song wasn’t ready for the film, the version actually used in the movie only has the chorus; none of the verses. The rest of the song was only written after the release of the movie, after it had become an enormous success. The completed version would stay at #1 for four weeks and win three Grammys.

The movie received seven Academy Award nominations in 1968. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman) and two Best Actress nominations (Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross). Mike Nichols won for Best Director, but the film lost Best Picture to “In the Heat of the Night”. It did, however, win that year’s BAFTA Award for Best Film, as well as Best Editing.

Time, however, has been nothing but kind to the film in terms of critical consensus. When AFI released their “100 Years… 100 Movies” list, “The Graduate” was #7. One of the ten greatest movies ever made in America. When the ten-year anniversary edition was released, it slid to #17, but remained in the top 20. It also ranks in many of their other lists. It’s AFI’s #9 on their 100 Years… 100 Laughs, #52 on their 100 Years… 100 Passions, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” is #6 on 100 Years… 100 Songs. Two lines from the movie made their list of greatest quotes. “Plastics.” was voted as #42 and “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” was voted as #63.

“The Graduate” also charts on IMDb’s Top 250 (#182).

The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1996.

Today’s younger generation may not have the same burden of expectations that the baby boomers did to carry on the post WWII American success, but this is a movie that can speak to any generation. There will always be a separation anxiety as young people make their own way for the first time in life, and there will always be gaps between generations that are difficult to bridge. This is a movie that will always speak to that like no other.

It’s a funny film, a romantic film, a thought-provoking film, and a supreme example of how style can support substance.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

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52 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Graduate”

  1. Freakin’ love this movie, man! I think it should be mandatory viewing for every college student and/or recent grad. I have heard of others saying it doesn’t hold up today, but I think it’s just as relevant as ever. Great, great film, and easily a worthy choice for your series. Excellent work, Fogs.

    • Thanks Eric, I appreciate the support as always.

      In all honesty, I went into this with less respect than I should have. I knew it was MTESS material and was ready to “Get it out of the way” so to speak. But it blew me away how good it was… it had easily been 15 years since I’ve seen it. Maybe even 20, not sure. And I didn’t have the greatest recollection of it being a movie I liked that much, so…

      But yes. DEFINITELY still holds up. Its aged like a fine wine, man. No doubt!

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