The Graduate (1967)

“It’s very comfortable just to drift here” – Benjamin Braddock

Story

Benjamin returns home after graduating from college to be welcomed by family and friends of the same as a success with a bright promising future ahead of him, however, he feels quite differently. Ben’s naturally awkward nature painfully obvious in his fumbling body language is the perfect image of his mental state, he has ridden his life on the tracks he was put on so long ago but when the time comes when he is no longer led by the hand to make the important decisions about his future, Ben is lost and aimless. He realizes that he has no idea what he wants for his life, a thought especially disturbing when contrasted with the absolute certainty that his family seems to have not just about their own lives but his as well.

It’s at this important juncture that he is seductively approached by Mrs. Robinson, a long time friend of the family who openly invites Ben to have an affair with her. This emotionally damaged alcoholic woman looking for a distraction from her disappointing life becomes a haven for Ben. She is a mother figure, a symbol of when life was easy and comfortable a time Ben would gladly return to. After initially resisting Mrs. Robinson’s advances, Ben finally gives in to his attraction to her, not just sexual in nature but a breaking out from a life he no longer feels belongs to him. His encounters with his new found lover leave Ben in a state of apathy welcomed to him as Mrs Robinson’s attention.

Ben drifts through this time in his life, uncaring to the usual concerns of his parents wishes or the expectations others have for him represented through Mike Nichols beautiful imagery and Simon & Garfunkel’s breathtaking music as Ben floats without a care in his parents pool, a representation of the maternal womb and as he moves from his home to the hotel, the room where he was once a child to the one where he is a sinful lover with seamlessly any transition or emotional expression. Yet, again, Ben finds himself stagnant, life moves without him and he is alone.

The Braddocks notice their son’s lack of motivation and approach him in hopes he will take action about his future, at the same time his constant nightly absence becomes noticed by Ben’s mother who confronts him, both actions produce no result. Ben starts to worry he might be discovered.

The relationship with Mrs. Robinson becomes unfulfilling but still Ben’s only escape from reality, when trying to get Mrs Robinson to open up and share some of herself with him a nerve is struck. Ben’s prying reveals a broken life interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy and proceeding wedding which clearly has left this woman disillusioned and bitter. Playfully suggesting he would take Mrs Robinson young attractive daughter, Elaine, out on a date Ben opens up a wound in his lovers mind caused by jealousy of her daughter’s youth and chance at the life she wished for herself but of which she could only steal a few moments. The ensuing fight between them, driven by Mrs Robinson’s jealousy and Ben’s hurt feelings as she proclaims him to be unworthy of her daughter is merely a display of pride with no real threat of ending the relationship as Ben does not have the courage to walk away from the only part of his life he can tolerate. Still, Ben is forced by his parents to take Elaine Robinson out.

If you have yet to watch this movie and intend to, this is where you should stop reading.

Despite his objections, Ben quickly becomes aware that Elaine Robinson is unlike everyone else around him and that for the first time in a long time someone understands what he is going through. Elaine’s character is only revealed through reacting to Ben’s actions but it seems as if she is in a similar state of wandering through life and finds in him the same understanding he craves. Benjamin stops seeing Mrs Robinson to pursue Elaine.

After failing to convince Benjamin to stop seeing her daughter by threatening him to reveal their affair to Elaine, Mrs Robinson is left a shell of a woman losing her last thread of dignity and becoming a pitiful rag doll, displayed by Nichols in a beautiful shot of her sinking into the distant corner of a hallway with a glassy despairing look in her eyes. Benjamin pre-emptively tells Elaine about the affair, shocked she ends the relationship immediately.

For once Ben knows what he wants, he says goodbye to his parents and sets off to win back Elaine who ran back to Berkeley to resume her studies. She is clearly drawn to Ben and quickly believes him when he refutes her mother’s story that the affair was not consensual but that she had in fact been raped. His passionate and unyielding chase scares Elaine because Ben now represents her chance to escape the life drawn out for her she is also “playing a game but the rules don’t make any sense to me, they’re being made up by all the wrong people”, she wants to be with him but that means breaking out of a life that even though smothers her is comfortable and holds no surprises.

Elaine: “What are you going to do now?”
Benjamin: “I don’t know”
Elaine:    “Are you going home?”
Benjamin: “No”
Elaine: “Well where are you going?”
Benjamin: “Elaine you’re gonna have to stop asking me that”

Ben is still at a loss about his future but he is sure it has to be with Elaine. She welcomes Ben’s advances but can’t muster the courage to break free from her parents hold on her life and accepts to marry another man. The marriage plans are revealed to him by Elaine and after an impromptu visit from an angry and now informed Mr Robinson he receives her “Dear John” letter and desperately runs after her. This is a bittersweet experience for Ben, he is very close to losing the most significant person in his life but has never been more certain of what he wants and how he feels about her. Mike Nichols shoots the chase as a desperate attempt at moving forward but being unable to do so, however, Ben does reach Elaine and the two run away together, fighting everyone in their path to get out of the chappel.

Two important things about the ending, firstly the exchange between Mrs. Robinson and her daughter reveals that Elaine knew about her mothers feelings of jealousy and secondly when she gets on the bus with Ben, the sedate look on their faces despite finally being together was not intentional during the movie’s creation but was left in by Nichols. Personally I enjoy this ending as this unconventional movie headed towards a very fairy tale ending but is countered by this last shot that left me with the impression that while they both wanted to be together, this by far does not represent a magical end to their uneasy feeling towards the future and where their lives are taking them.

Analysis

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft were both terrific in their respective parts, Hoffmans constant fidgeting and nervous babbling perfectly depicted a terrified awkward Benjamin Braddock and Bancroft as Mrs Robinson seductive and playful trying to regain her past youth and spitefully trying to deny her daughter her own missed chance at life. The scene when Mrs. Robinson threatens Ben with her willingness to tell Elaine all about their affair is especially brilliantly portrayed by Bancroft who looks as delightfully happy when her character convinces Ben her threat is real as she does lost and hopeless when the final measure of her is gone as her daughter is miserable from her doing and she recognizes herself as a despicable woman without even the illusionary fragments of the life she desired.

Mike Nichols’ directing was sublime, constantly trying to convey Ben’s awkwardness by shooting him moving against crowds walking in the opposite direction, providing quick analogies to his state of mind as when he holds the hotel door open for everyone but him to move one way or the other except for him or when he chases Elaine and is seen running seemingly not moving. When Ben arrives home his party is composed of people who know him as a part of a family but know little about him neither does he know much about them, whenever he tries to get away from the party he is accosted by yet another “friend” and drawn back into the mix, he can’t get out and to that effect most scenes are shot very close up with people standing very close to him making him feel constricted. He is inadequate when approaching Mrs. Robinson even after he has decided to have an affair with her, he stumbles through the simple process of getting a room and childishly grabs Mrs. Robinson’s breast as she undresses and then walks away (this was an unscripted move by Hoffman). It is debatable whether Ben is simply a child who doesn’t want to grow up or is genuinely lost, it does seem at times that he is a kid in a grown up world which would account for him not knowing the rules, I feel however that he is simply different and can’t make sense of the world around him, caught between trying to please his family and wanting to break free of this life to find meaning in it for himself.

Ben’s position is further made clear through his status as a source of entertainment during his parents pool party where we’re first shown the calm soothing feel of the bottom of the pool. Ben goes from being embarrassed and nervous walking around in his scuba gear in front of everyone to being at peace in the quiet sense deprivation of 7 feet of water, this womb like sensation becomes recurrent as Ben chases it often going from the backyard pool to the hotel room with Mrs Robinson.

In a way he barely registers with anyone outside this social circle established by his parents, Mr Robinson never remembers what he drinks despite being told the second before he pours by Ben himself, the waiter at the bar doesn’t acknowledge him and none of the people he holds the door open for relieve him or recognise his gesture, Mrs Robinson must be the first person to acknowledge Ben as more than a growing child.

There are some important conversations in this introspective script:

***    Initially when Ben talks to his father and reveals his concern about his future, he reaches out to the person who usually has all the answers and comes back empty handed with the typical superficial concerns that he finds useless.

Mr Braddock: “What is it Ben?”
Benjamin: “I’m just…”
Mr Braddock: “…Worried?”
Benjamin: “Well…”
Mr Braddock: “About what?”
Benjamin: “I guess about my future”
Mr Braddock: “What about it?”
Benjamin: “I don’t know. I want it to be…”
Mr Braddock: “To be what?”
Benjamin: “Different”

Benjamin is immediately dragged down to the party to meet all his “devoted friends” and is swarmed by people of mean very little to him and know him only through his parents. The way the social courtesy between his parents and his parents friends always seems to be the basis to the shared belief of what is right, what defines success indicates that these are the people who determined his life up to now. Ben’s lack of drive to make the changes in his own life happen is more than anything the reason he finds himself lost but never until now has the future been so open and full of possibilities, the way he was carried by his parents through his life is over and even though he was tossed in the “game” without being asked, he was comfortable enough just doing as he was told probably because it gave him direction but now he must decide his own life and this terrifies him.

He doesn’t know what he wants only that it has to be something else.

***    Benjamin’s seduction is a reminder of the old screwball comedies and while it’s well written and very funny I think the acting stands out more than the script here, Hoffman looks so nervous it makes you feel his head is about to fall off and Bancroft’s delightful smile of satisfaction when she stares down at Hoffman as Mrs. Robinson is making Ben sweat buckets is simply priceless. Without the comedy this certainly would not have been nearly as enjoyable of a movie but I think the core of the script is the way Ben and Elaine feel towards their individual lives, not each other and not the affair.

***    Succeeding Benjamin’s first night with Mrs. Robinson there is a sequence in the movie that I feel is as important as anything the characters say, the way Ben seems to sink in apathy, moving from one moment to the next without any visible transition is beautifully pieced together by Nichols, the following conversation happens at the end of the sequence.

Mr Braddock: “Ben what are you doing?”
Benjamin: “Well… I would say that I’m just drifting… here in the pool”
Mr Braddock: “Why?”
Benjamin: “Well it’s very comfortable just to drift here”
Mr Braddock: “Have you thought about graduate school?”
Benjamin: “No”
Mr Braddock: “Would you mind telling me what those four years of school were for? What was the point of all that hard work?”
Benjamin: “You got me!”

Everything his father sees as important for his life now seems useless to Ben and his affair with Mrs Robinson, breaking all the rules gives Ben an infusion of confidence to reveal how he really feels about it to his father.

***    The conversation between Ben and his mother brings his down from his state of apathy as he shows concern over being discovered and that he still cares what his parents think of him.

***    The revealing bed talk between Ben and Mrs. Robinson gives us insight into the state of despair this “broken down alcoholic” is in and drove her into the current affair furthermore it lays clues as to why she resents Elaine, her pregnancy forced her to leave school and marry Mr Robinson ending her possibility of the life she was chasing, Elaine being of College age, young and beautiful inspires in her mother powerful jealousy that especially burns when Ben suggests he might take her out on a date. Mrs Robinson sees Benjamin as a piece of what her life could have been and when confronted with the possibility that Elaine might have it for real it brings up the worst feelings of jealousy that must have been growing in her for a long time.

***     When Ben tries to explain to Elaine why he mistreated her.

Benjamin: “I have this feeling since I graduated. This kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time, you know what I mean?”
Elaine:”Yes I do”
Benjamin: “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 make themselves up”

The gap when one generation is born during a period of accelerated social evolution to the next can be intimidating, Ben doesn’t understand the rules he doesn’t understand why the goals he’s being told to chase are important, when everyone seems to care about things he finds meaningless it makes him feel outcast but he discovers he is not alone as Elaine whose life is revealed later to be equally manipulated by her parents has driven her to the same understanding.

***    A small piece of dialog between Ben and Elaine later in the picture in Berkeley during a basketball game suggests that her marriage is more arranged than of love.

Elaine: “Why don’t you just drag me off if you want to marry me so much?”
Benjamin: “Why don’t I just drag you off? Alright I will, right after we get the blood tests”
Elaine: “I have to see Carl first”
Benjamin: “Carl who? Carl who?”
Elaine: “Carl Smith, he’s a medical student we’ve known him for years”
Benjamin: “Who that guy at the zoo?”
Elaine: “Yes”
Benjamin: “Why do you have to see him?”
Elaine: “Well I said I might marry him”

“…we’ve know him for years” as in a family relation suggests this marriage is a socially pleasing arrangement, Elaine’s blithe attitude indicates she doesn’t take it seriously.

Ben doesn’t analyse his situation, he doesn’t look for the cause behind his feelings he just rides each moment individually to the next without thinking about it and attempts no real solution at solving his dilemma, he sees the superficiality of the people around him but doesn’t point it out or try to explain or even express his thoughts he just sits still as life goes by and if Elaine had not come along he might have drifted in the pool much longer. I think the question the ending leaves is “what’s going to happen now?” they both feel the same way about life, would they be able to help each other cope or just enable each others propensity to stay inert? Is their relationship enough of a goal to strive towards to make their lives fulfilling?

An all around great picture brought over the top with Simon & Garfunkel’s inspiring soundtrack reminding you the world is a weird place when everything is normal and to those who feel like they were thrown into life without a rulebook that you’re not alone.

post by: hotbuns

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