Much has been written about the climactic final scene of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), wherein the young and rebellious Ben and Elaine flee from the church in which Elaine’s just been married and triumphantly escape via bus, only to have their smiles fade away and become replaced by uncertainty. The religious imagery, the humor, the exultation and the terror that lurks beneath great actions – that scene is definitively iconic, and was large in my mind when I sat down to revisit this film.
Yet what jumped out at me most this time around was the impeccable and hilarious first act, particularly Benjamin Braddock’s escalating encounter with Mrs. Robinson. Remembered popularly for the famous under-the-leg shot as Ben stammers, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. …Aren’t you?” the seduction is a masterful 9-minute sequence that starts in Ben’s bedroom and ends in Elaine’s, the daughter of Mrs. Robinson. The writing, performances, set design, costumes, music, camera choices, and imagery all combine in a genius orchestration that is as funny as it is suspenseful.
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sublime in this film, especially in this scene and the later encounter at the hotel. Hoffman’s pared-down, sometimes monotone performance was unexpected and revolutionary at the time for a leading man, and his unusual vocal choices and puppy-like whimpers play the truth for comedy. Bancroft is captivating from her first entrance, and her recalculations and genuine delight in Ben’s fumbling cluelessness are played with such grounded and beguiling confidence that it is truly hard to view her as a predator (even given her wild cat themed wardrobe).
Speaking of wardrobe, the art direction in The Graduate is bold – so on-the-nose that it becomes its own joke, but smart none-the-less. The seduction sequence begins with Mrs. Robinson bursting into Ben’s bedroom, presumably looking for the bathroom. He’s been sitting in front of a fish tank, one of many womb images throughout the movie, as well as an example of the barriers between Ben and the world through which we often view him – panes of glass, reflections, water. Mrs. Robinson calls the whitewashed walls and furniture “a pleasant room,” but in fact it is fairly bland, much like Ben himself.
Soon we’re swept away into the Robinson’s living room, after Ben is persuaded to drive Mrs. Robinson home, and it is all about contrast. Everything is black and white, inspired perhaps by the chess set sitting out on a table, waiting for the games to begin. To lure Ben into her home, Mrs. Robinson asks him to walk ahead of her, saying “I feel funny about coming into a dark house.” Ben replies, “But it’s light in there.” It’s actually a jungle in there, with large plants looming outside the glass door and animal print on everything, even a big cigarette lighter. While Benjamin is all about water, Mrs. Robinson is all fire, lighting cigarettes constantly, turning lights on, and igniting Ben’s fears and passions. She pours them bourbon from an outlandishly huge (and phallic) black decanter, one of a pair that look like carved masculine and feminine figures.
The music in this scene is perfect. Composed for the film by Dave Grusin, “Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha” enters dramatically, startling Benjamin like a trumpet announcing the hunt. The intro gives way to a cloying, playful little tune that subtly spoofs the Henry Mancini movie music of the period with its organ and woodwinds. The soundtrack contrasts this older generation’s foxtrot sound with the youthful strains of Simon & Garfunkel to excellent effect. As the cha-cha plays, Hoffman and Bancroft seem to navigate its rhythms like dancers (Bancroft is, of course, leading).
Once Benjamin comes to his iconic line, confronting Mrs. Robinson about her seduction, the writing shifts deliciously as she brushes off his accusation, and Ben desperately backpedals, apologizing for his words. Bancroft’s incredulous laugh is pure honey. Mrs. Robinson invites Ben up to her daughter’s room to see her portrait, a strange moment of foreshadowing. Upstairs, in the pink and cream-colored bedroom, a girlish dollhouse to downstairs’ African arena, she asks him to unzip her dress for her. The animal-print dress drops away to reveal an animal-print bra and slip. At this point I think Patricia Zipprodt, the costume designer, must have been laughing to herself, wondering how far she could go. At times, The Graduate‘s realism gives way to such total absurdity – the scuba suit in the pool, for instance, and of course the Christ figure of Hoffman in his drooping, robe-like tan jacket sealing up the church with a cross he’s ripped from the wall. I love these moments because they seem infused with that 60s-era feel of play, and rather than taking their “message” too seriously, they seem to be alive with the joy of cinema and a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that’s infectiously fun.
In the final scene of the seduction, Benjamin tries to leave as Mrs. Robinson issues a final request to bring her purse upstairs for her. Ben’s incremental progress up the stairs is brilliantly comic, and feels distinctly like setting out food for a wild animal he’s worried might snatch him. She calls out to him from the bathroom, insisting he bring it to her, but settling for him leaving it in Elaine’s room. As he does, we see Mrs. Robinson’s naked reflection in the glass-fronted portait of her daughter, an inspired and meaning-laden choice. Ben’s head whips around in triplicate, and we watch his tortured face as he avoids (and doesn’t avoid) looking at her naked body. Nichols uses quick cuts, brief flashes of close-ups on her breast and waist to put the audience in Benjamin’s overwhelmed point of view. A car squeals outside and Ben shoves her away from the door, rushing downstairs in terror.
The pacing, dialogue, and editing that takes the viewer from Ben’s bedroom to Elaine’s is an extraordinary achievement in a movie full of Master Moments. I first watched this film as a despairing, soon-to-be Graduate and still identify strongly with its exploration of the expectations and uncertainty of adulthood. I do, however, feel some kinship with Roger Ebert when he updated his review of the film 30 years after its release, singing the praises of Anne Bancroft and questioning his earlier fondness for “that insufferable creep, Benjamin.” He says that Mrs. Robinson is the only character “who is alive – who can see through situations, understand motives, and dare to seek her own happiness.” I agree that Mrs. Robinson is far from the fearsome vamp, and I feel genuine sadness for her, especially after she reveals some of her history to Ben in the lovely bed scene. I also find Elaine’s character underdeveloped, but unlike Ebert, I think the film bears it out that Ben and Elaine are not the stars of a great love story – they are lost souls trying to make sense of the world their parents’ generation has left them. While Ebert claims to have cheered for their escape on his first viewing, I never felt the triumph of their victory was intended to last. That long, slow loss of joy in the back of the bus makes it clear that they may be running away, but they aren’t necessarily getting anywhere.
I wonder, though, at the gender politics implicit in Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin Braddock. Unquestionably, this film would have trouble locating comedy in a portrayal of a young female graduate being stalked by a much older male friend of her parents. I wonder to myself about this question: whether I should root for “older” women (in this context) to be able to exercise their sexuality and be found desirable in a society that frequently disposes with them at a certain age, or whether I should protect the young man’s right to consent and freedom from harassment. Whereas I delight in Ben’s discomfort and laugh (though uncomfortably) at his protestations to “let me out” when blocked from the door by Mrs. Robinson’s naked body, I would be appalled and furious at the same behavior were Mrs. Robinson a man. Is this because I am prejudicially assuming that Benjamin will not suffer trauma, while women must be “protected”? Or does a man’s privilege and societal power enable this unequal judgment until (and if) true parity is achieved? Even barring the age difference, aggressive sexual actions do not fall under the same level of scrutiny for both sexes. I’m interested in thinking about these implications as they relate to art, because fictional narratives can give us a set of “what if” scenarios that can be easier to discuss in the abstract than real-life circumstances. I’m aware, however, that it can also suck some of the joy out of things I love, and that a single film cannot bear the weight of deconstructing all societal norms. I think this film is a complete vision, worthy of examination on many fronts.
If I could pick a third contender for the Master Moment of this film, I’d look closely at the beginning of Act 2, where the use of montage and slick editing take the viewer through the routines of Benjamin Braddock’s days as he drifts through his parents’ house to the hotel and back, propelling himself up onto a raft which becomes Mrs. Robinson’s body, floating in a void outside of time. I could go on and on! There are so many scenes to love in this movie.
What would your Master Moment be?