The Graduate (1967)


My whole life is such a waste

— Benjamin Braddock

The Graduate

In this classic film backed by a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a clean-cut golden boy with loving parents and the world at his feet. He has just graduated from four years at college and his future lays vast and limitless before him, and at his graduation party all of his parent’s friends are happy to see him and offer their advice. So why is Ben so eager to get away from the people he has known all of his life, to shut himself away in his room? Why does he look as if he is on the verge of a panic attack while his party guests are all smiles? Why is this young, smart kid so worried about his future?

You may have been in Ben’s situation yourself, which is why it may feel so relatable. Young people everywhere feel the pressure to succeed in school, to make something of themselves, to have a clear goal for the future, and not to let their parents down. These feelings of unease and confusion about the future and what to do with one’s life can be hell to deal with, especially for a person who has not yet clearly defined their sense of self. This is where we meet Ben, escaping from a house full of his parent’s friends spouting opinion as if it were an absolute path to success, running from phrases like “There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.” And when Ben finally manages to break away from the crowd and reach the refuge of his own room and the solitude of his own thoughts, he stumbles into something that he could not have prepared for, which would change the course of his future in an instant — Mrs. Robinson.

The beautiful and stately wife of Ben’s father’s business partner, played by Anne Bancroft, persuades a reluctant Ben to drive her home. At every step Ben is reluctant. When Mrs. Robinson asks him to walk him to the door, when she asks him inside, when she offers him a drink, Ben is trying to leave, to get away and back to his own thoughts. But Mrs. Robinson is persistent, and Ben finally realises, breaking out in a nervous sweat, that Mrs. Robinson is not just trying to be nice to him when he says his famous line

Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re trying to seduce me.

In her daughter’s room Mrs. Robinson ambushes him and bares her naked body, and confesses how much she wants him. Ben flees from the house as Mr. Robinson arrives, and from that night onward she is in control of his life. Ben cannot stop thinking about her offer, and after an embarrassing stunt on his birthday where his parents force him into the pool in a scuba suit, Ben decides to rendezvous with Mrs. Robinson at the Taft Hotel.

It is interesting to watch a movie where the main character is so unsure of himself. It made Ben a much more relatable character. As he waits for Mrs. Robinson to arrive at the hotel his nerves are shot, and he looks as though he is ready to flee at any moment. Blustering about the lobby awkwardly he is obviously terrified of running into anyone he might know there or arousing any suspicion, to the point of almost entering a function on the pretense that he was invited. He is so scared that he doesn’t even book a room for the affair. When Mrs. Robinson arrives, she is the one who must take control of the situation.

Coolly entering the hotel bar where Ben is fidgeting over a drink, she orders a drink for herself when Ben fails to even attract a waiter’s attention. She suggests at first, then directs, that Ben should go and book a room for the night, and when Ben calls from a payphone to let her know the deed is done she guides him step-by-step how they should meet in the room. This continues when they are alone together, as Mrs. Robinson guides him where to stand, and tells him what to do while she undresses. One gets the impression that she has done this all before. Ben is almost scared into leaving, but she knows exactly what to say to keep him there. She calls him inadequate.

From here Ben’s summer spirals into a whirlwind of passion as he lounges around the pool by day and visits Mrs. Robinson at the Taft Hotel by night. He avoids thinking about his future at all, and does not pick a graduate school to go to, much to the consternation of his parents. Ben seizes the opportunity to blow off responsibility and have an exciting affair with a married woman, and why not? Many people, not just college students, would jump at the chance to shirk responsibility. Eventually though, this is not enough, and we find that Ben isn’t just worried about his future, he worries about the kind of person he is and he longs for someone to connect with.

Ben attempts to connect with Mrs. Robinson one night in the Taft, though it is in vain. The two of them barely have anything in common, anything to have a conversation about, and Mrs. Robinson would rather not talk. Ben tries to talk about art, but she says she is not interested in art and doesn’t know anything about it. As Ben keeps prying we start to understand why Mrs. Robinson is the way she is. She and her husband sleep in separate rooms. They’ve never loved each other, not really. They met in college while Mrs. Robinson was a student of art. And it turns out that the only reason that they married is that Mrs. Robinson fell pregnant with her daughter, Elaine. Her daughter is a sore spot for Mrs. Robinson, and she forbids Ben from taking her out on a date or talking about her. Knowing her background, we must assume that Mrs. Robinson doesn’t want her daughter’s life to end up like her own, loveless and empty. She would rather have her daughter finish college like she never got to. Ben is upset by the whole conversation but eventually resigns himself to what he is doing and says:

Let’s not talk about it. Let’s not talk at all.

Eventually though the pressures of his family, and Mr. Robinson, win out as they always do, and Ben is forced into the awkward situation of taking his lover’s daughter out on a date. Mrs. Robinson is furious and Ben tries to apologise, but she does not listen. He is so worried about upsetting her that he decides to act like a jerk and upset Elaine instead. He drives like a maniac in the car, barely talks to her at the dive he takes her for dinner, and rushes her through crowds of revelers into a strip club where she bursts into tears. Because of Mrs. Robinson’s hold on him, Ben has turned into someone he hates, and he is more confused than ever about his identity. He says this to Elaine, saying that “my whole life is such a waste”. After apologising to Elaine and taking her out for food they talk long into the night, and Ben finally finds someone to connect with. Elaine even guesses that he is having an affair, though Ben lies and says it was with a married woman with a son, and that it is over now.

Unfortunately for Ben, Mrs. Robinson is enraged by their date and their plans to go out again the next day. When Ben pulls up to the house in a summer shower in his Alfa Romeo with a gift for Elaine. Mrs. Robinson gets in and orders him to drive up the block. They argue, Mrs. Robinson once again telling Ben to never see her daughter again, to prevent her from living the life she has, giving him the ultimatum that if Ben sees her again she will tell Elaine the truth about their relationship. Ben tries to run, fleeing from the car as if Mrs. Robinson is a lioness chasing him, and beat her to telling Elaine the truth. Ben frantically tells her what he has done and says sorry, but it is too much for Elaine to deal with. She screams at him to get out, while her mother looks on from the hallway. The only thing Mrs. Robinson says is “Goodbye, Benjamin”.

From here The Graduate becomes an almost standard story where Elaine leaves for school and Ben follows after the love of his life to try and win her back. But where this film differs is how this story plays out. Ben, for all his admirable traits, is not a completely good person. He sneaks around with a married woman behind her husband’s back, a man who has always been friendly to him, his father’s business partner. He lies about what he is doing to his parents and to Elaine. And then he goes and skulks around Berkeley for a few weeks, trying to talk to a reluctant Elaine and get her away from her own boyfriend. Ben is a young man who does lose his way in the search for his own identity and purpose, going so far as to break down relationships in two families in the process.

A wild drive between Pasadena and Berkeley and Santa Barbara to interrupt Elaine’s wedding day is the conclusion of all this. There are two more iconic scenes (this movie is loaded with them). Benjamin up in the loft of the church screaming “Elaine! Elaine!” as he bangs on the glass, and Elaine eventually screaming back “Ben!”. Their flight out the front door through their families, where Mrs. Robinson slaps Elaine and Ben fights everyone off with a giant cross. Finally the pair make a bus, and hurry to sit down in the back seat, wild with excitement. They look out the back window at their irate families chasing afterwards, laughing, then turn and face the camera. In a brilliant shot, their smiles slowly fade from their faces and their expressions become more worried and unsure. As they both realise the gravity of their situation, they ride off together into an uncertain future. Sound of Silence plays as the bus drives away.

The Graduate was a wonderful movie, I felt I could relate to Ben’s feelings of isolation and uncertainty at the start of the film, even though his behaviour became less rational toward the end. It had a lot of heart and it was funny in so many ways. It was also refreshing to see what was essentially a romantic comedy not end in a traditionally happy way — though Ben and Elaine ended up together we have no idea whether their relationship will last, and their families are both in disarray. Despite the fact it was made in 1967, forty years ago at time of writing, the film didn’t feel aged at all, and the story it portrayed was timeless.

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