I actually saw The Graduate for the first time while I was still in college with a group of friends. We liked it quite a bit, but though we don’t really see anything of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock’s college experience, it sure didn’t seem like any of ours. Then again, we were middle class kids from New Jersey. Ben here looks to be fairly well off, going to college on the East Coast while his parents reside on the West.
Of course, we may have had other things in common with Ben that we probably didn’t see at the time.
What might that be? Well, the thing that jumped out to me the most is Benjamin Braddock has absolutely no plan or direction for his life, and that seems to come from not really knowing what to do.
Look at how this film starts: recent college graduate Ben comes home where his parents are throwing a party to celebrate his graduation. But who comes to this party? Well, his parents’ friends. Does Ben have any friends? I don’t know. We don’t really see any. Does he want to go to that party? That doesn’t seem likely. His parents insist he attend, someone reads his yearbook for him, and he gets the famously cryptic advice of “Plastics!” Yeah, that helps. His parents got him a bright red convertible, and it would seem Mr. Braddock is doing quite well in his law practice. He does have a law partner in the form of one Mr. Robinson, and that leads to the main attraction of the film: Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson. And yes, Ben you boob, she is trying to seduce you.
By the by, I just love how messed up the actors’ ages are in this film. Ben in the film celebrates his 21st birthday. Hoffman was at the time of filming 29. Bancroft the “older woman” was 35. William Daniels as Ben’s father was 39. Katharine Ross as 19 year old Elaine Robinson was 27. Heck, director Mike Nichol’s comedy partner Elaine May appears briefly as a college friend of Elaine’s, possibly her roommate, and May was only a couple months younger than Bancroft. And that’s not even going with the 38 year age difference between two supporting actresses playing a pair of sisters.
As it is, Mrs. Robinson does–eventually–seduce the hapless Ben who initially makes a run for it but then changes his mind, blundering his way into a hotel room to meet with his father’s partner’s wife.
Cut to Ben lounging around his parents’ pool, basking in the afterglow of getting his cherry popped. If he actually had something to do, he’d be in the perfect position.
But through it all, I am struck by two things: Mrs. Robinson wants something but I can’t say exactly what, and Ben wants nothing specific and doesn’t seem to realize it.
Bancroft is excellent here. The looks of regret and loneliness that cross her face when Ben finally tells her off (only for him to take it back when he realizes she’s still Anne freakin’ Bancroft), along with a her insistence that he promise not to date her daughter Elaine, makes her a rather cryptic character. Why doesn’t she want Ben to be with Elaine besides the fact he’s already been with her? Ben breaks that promise, preferring to be with someone his own age for some reason, and then she gets her revenge by…telling people stuff.
Now, if Ben wasn’t such a big dumbass, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into that mess.
But is anyone really pushing him to do anything?
Sure, his parents ask him about grad school, but they aren’t pushing very hard, and not only does he get that nice car, but he was also given a SCUBA suit because…well, his father wanted him to have one and then show off by jumping into a pool. Clearly, these are people who aren’t worried about money.
And even when Ben does decide what he wants (he wants to marry Elaine), he has no plan to do so, hasn’t discussed it with her at all (big red flag there), and doesn’t seem to have any idea of what to do afterwards. Heck, at the moment he makes that decision, she hates him because she falsely believes he raped her mother.
This being a comedy, I won’t question too much why she accepts his explanation for what really happened and falling for him because…ewwwwww….
So, here we are: Elaine and Ben are in love for some reason, and Mrs. Robinson…does she want Ben for herself? Does she just want Ben to not go with Elaine because he was with her first? Does Mrs. Robinson realize just how dumb Ben actually is?
This, more than anything else, is what jumps out at me watching this film in my 40s as opposed to my 20s. It’s like when I finally got around to reading Catcher in the Rye as a grad student: I kept thinking Holden should just shut up and go back to school. In the case of that book, I thought the narrator foolish and irresponsible. It would have been something I would have enjoyed much more had I read it in my teens. And while I don’t hate Ben Braddock, I can see easily he’s a directionless young man. He has an education, so he is presumably full of book smarts, but he completely lacks the sort of common sense he’d need to actually, I dunno, get a job and start the family with someone who maybe even likes him. No wonder his parents’ enthusiasm for his announcement of his intention to marry Elaine gradually dips away to nothing. He’s very typical for a young man his age, of course, but that doesn’t make him less foolish. It’s something I recognize better twenty years after I was that age myself, similarly uncertain about what I wanted with my life.
If anything, Nichols holding the final shot, as Ben and Elaine both realize they have no idea what they’re going to do next may be the sort of brilliant move that makes what I consider a really good film into a great one. Benjamin Braddock spends the run time not sure what to do, feeling like he’s underwater (hence all the aquariums and pools and SCUBA gear), and he doesn’t get any better in that final bus ride home, and all the Simon & Garfunkel songs in the world aren’t going to fix that any time soon.
NEXT UP: It’s what is probably the most beloved children’s film of all time, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.