The Graduate: Why You Shouldn't Date Your Cougar's Daughter

Hello!  We're on to The Graduate, a 1967 film by Mike Nichols that earned Best Actor Oscar Nominations for its three leads (Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross) and a Best Director Oscar.  It also gave a voice to whiny, privileged college graduates everywhere (and I include myself among their number).  "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?" ranks The Graduate at #194.

Full Disclosure:  I majored in film...of course I've seen The Graduate. [/pretentiousness]  Ugh it's late guys, I can't think of a better explanation.  Saw it for the first time in high school in a film history class, loved it, very glad that I get a chance to review it.  There's also a possibility that I may or may not have written a paper on this film while I was in school, so the pretentiousness might not be over quite yet.  Sorry. 

I offer you a pile of kittens as an apology.

So The Graduate is the story of Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate who's feeling a little uncertain about his future.  He went to college, got good grades, won awards, what?  Enter Mrs Robinson. (Sorry guys, terrible pun completely 100% unintended.)  She's a bored alcoholic housewife and long-time friend of the family, who has known Ben since he was a baby (creepy).  And apparently, she has decided to become the prototype of the cougar, because she is aggressively pursuing an affair with little Benny.  

I love Mrs Robinson's seduction - it's so well-played.  She pushes him along inch by inch, and her seemingly innocent requests become increasingly bizarre.  She doesn't want to be left alone, so Ben stays with her until her husband gets home.  Reasonable enough.  But then she gives him a drink, turns on some sexy music, and tells Ben that her husband won't be home for hours.  He gets nervous and starts to pace, leading to the mother of all framing shots:
"Mrs Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!"

So let me make sure I've got this straight: Mrs Robinson invites Ben up to see her daughter's portrait, and while they're in her daughter's bedroom, she asks Ben to help her undress.  What?  If I paid attention at all in Psych class, I'm pretty sure I would have a thing or two to say about that.  And then OMG she's naked - this is an odd turn of events, but a pretty hilarious one as we see subliminal frames of breasts and stomach, all while Ben says things like, "Oh my Christ!", "Let me out!" and sometimes just whines, trying not to stare at Mrs Robinson.

He's pretty freaked out to begin with, but it's not too long before he gets so bored that he decides to give her a call.  Which leads to the most awkward sexual encounter I've ever experienced.  He helps Mrs Robinson with her blouse, then reaches in and unromantically cups her breast for about five seconds.  Clearly this is too much too fast for poor Ben, as he promptly walks away and starts to bang his head against the wall.  And then, "Oh no Mrs Robinson, I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends!" God Benjamin, when you say it like that it just sounds wrong.  I also appreciate that it's Mrs Robinson suggesting that Ben's a virgin and somehow inadequate that finally makes Ben agree to the affair.  Because that's actually probably a pretty realistic response.  And thus, the affair begins.

I wanted to include this montage from the film after Ben and Mrs Robinson begin seeing each other, because I think it's a really nice piece of work, and it would be a lot easier to just show you rather than trying to describe it.

As their relationship develops, there is an interesting subversion of gender roles.  This comes to a head in one hotel scene: Ben wants conversation and a genuine emotional connection, but Mrs Robinson just wants sex, and becomes very uncomfortable when Ben tries to make their relationship more than that.  And it's probably Anne Bancroft's best scene in the movie.  She starts off so tough and almost businesslike, but then this wonderful vulnerability comes through when it's revealed that Mrs Robinson only got married because she was pregnant.  The look on her face as they talk about art (or don't talk about art, as the case may be) speaks volumes.  But then Ben makes a playful comment about her daughter Elaine, and the claws come out. They have an argument which really propels all the conflict of the second half of the film, because Mrs Robinson inexplicably demands that Ben promise that he'll never take Elaine out on a date.

But what happens in the next scene?  Ben's parents guilt him into taking Elaine out now that she's home from college.  Uh-ohs.  So basically Ben is a ginormous tool on his date with Elaine.  He drives too fast, gives sharp one word answers to all of her questions, and takes her to a strip club.  Seriously?  I realize Ben's trying to make Elaine hate him,  Well, I guess anything worth doing is worth doing right.  But then the stripper humiliates Elaine by hitting her repeatedly on the head with her boobie tassles (I considered doing a Google search to see if they have a less middle school sounding name, but decided against it) Ben starts to feel bad (jerk you made her cry!!) and they leave the club.  He apologizes to her, kisses her, and takes her on a more normal date.  Mrs Robinson is not going to be pleased.

So big surprise -- Ben and Elaine genuinely like each other.  He tells her about the affair he had with a married woman (conveniently glossing over the fact that it's her mother), and since he tells her that it's over, she seems pretty OK with it.  Mrs Robinson, however?  Angry as a bag of wasps.  She goes into bitch mode and demands that he never see Elaine again...if he does, she's going to tell her everything.  But Ben's sneaky, and he tells Elaine first, thinking that she'll forgive him if he's honest about it.  That idea, it seems, is a supernaturally bad one.

But Ben's not going to give up.  Why move on when you can be a creepy obsessive stalker guy?  He decides that he's going to marry Elaine, but forgoes the formality of actually asking her.  That seems like a pretty dumb idea.  But hey, Ben assures us that it's a completely baked plan, so who am I to argue?  So we're treated to more stalking in Berkeley.  It's fun, in a completely awkward and uncomfortable kind of way.

Woah woah woah...Mrs Robinson told Elaine that Ben raped her?  That's cold.  But I do like that Elaine believes it because she wants to believe it.  She would rather think that Ben is a monster than her mother is capable of cheating on her father and who knows what else.  But now Ben is pushing this whole marriage thing a little too much.  Settle down, cowboy.  You just got her to admit that she doesn't hate your guts anymore...give her some time before demanding blood tests.  To be fair, she's playing very coy with all the "maybe we will and maybe we won't" stuff, but Ben probably deserves to be jerked around a little bit.

And oh no, Mr Robinson just showed up.  Shit's about to get real.  And trust Ben to say exactly the wrong thing.  So Mr Robinson knows about the affair, and he and Mrs Robinson are getting a divorce, and Ben picks now to tell him that he's in love with Elaine?  Bad move, my brother.  You would not be good at chess. And now Elaine's calling off their engagement (Were they ever really engaged?  Did he actually propose or just nag her a lot?).  Ben shows up at the Robinson's, and has a bit of a showdown with Mrs Robinson.  He stays just long enough to find out that Elaine's getting married to Carl Smith.  Ew.

Ben goes on a crazy journey to find Elaine before she gets married, leading up to one of the most parodied moments in film history.  This one:

He doesn't quite make it in time, but she runs off with him anyway.  And they live happily ever after!

...Or do they?  One of the best things about this ending is that after the huge beau geste, after the two lovers happily escape onto the bus...reality sets in.  They realize what they've just done, and a sliver of doubt slips into their minds.  The camera lingers on them just long enough that their triumphant smiles fade, and you can see them both start to think, "Now what?"

Random Musings:

  • So about a minute and a half into the movie I'm already appreciating the reliance on the Simon and Garfunkel's brilliant at capturing the alienation of Benjamin Braddock.  I mean, Paul Simon is Mr Alienation, after all.

  • I'm impressed with the shots where Ben is moving forward but doesn't seem to be.  In the opening, he's on the moving sidewalk, but he stays at exactly the same point in the frame.  Also, later in the film when he's running towards the camera but doesn't seem to ever get any closer to it.  I think it helps to emphasize that Ben's just sort of treading water, so to speak.

  • Love the fish tank imagery.  At the beginning, he has the fish tank in his room, and later when he's given the scuba suit and spends time in the pool.  It shows how Ben is drowning and trapped, and also feels incredibly isolated from his loved ones.

  • Speaking of Ben's loved ones, holy crap Ben's dad is Mr Feeny!

  • I love Anne Bancroft, but when she struts into Ben's room with a lit cigarette, she kind of reminds of Cruella De Vil.  Seriously.

  • Ben's a little bit of a jerk - he doesn't have very good manners.  He acts very put out when anyone asks him to do something.  Subtle rebellion against tradition and the status quo?  Or is he just kind of a douche?

  • So how many times a week do Ben's parents make people come over to their house and celebrate their son?  A graduation party is one thing, but I would annoyed if I got invited to some random acquaintance's house just to see their adult son in a scuba diver's outfit.  Also, who gets their kid a scuba suit?  That's the oddest birthday present ever.

  • "Are you here for an affair, sir?" Classic.

  • "Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for, what was the point of all that hard work?"  Ben doesn't have an answer.  I think we all go through that period after college when we just sit and think, "OK...what do I do now?"  This film was so significant for its time because in the 60s, middle class kids started going to college in huge numbers, and this was something that spoke to them.

  • No offense Elaine, but I think you can do better than this yuppie dork who showed up to the party a decade and a half early.  Look at him:

Also, I don't trust any college frat boy who smokes a pipe.  I mean, one that's filled with tobacco, not just seems suspicious.

  • Wait a minute, did Richard Dreyfuss just show up and volunteer to call the cops?

Yes, that totally is a 20 year old Richard Dreyfuss!  Wow.

  • Now hold on just one second.  When Ben shows up at the church, he's trying to fend off all the crazed wedding guests, so he takes a crucifix off the wall and uses it as a weapon.  Fantastic!

So, The Graduate.  I love it.  It's a film that I can identify with, and I think the emotions that drive it are ones that can transcend the time it was made it.  Yes, it's the ultimate late 60s alienation film, but I don't think there's a single recent college graduate who can watch this and not feel a certain kinship to the story it tells.  We were raised believing that things in the world work a certain way: you go to college, and you get a good job.  That's how it works.  Only right now, in the current economic slump, that's not how it works.  People who payed $120,000 to get a degree are lining up to get minimum wage jobs.  There's definitely a sense of disillusionment that comes with that.

More than that, however, it's a really well crafted piece of film.  Its visuals are effective, and Mike Nichols packs so much meaning and emotion into every single shot.  This is only Dustin Hoffman's second film role, but it's probably one of his best performances, and Anne Bancroft delivers one of her finest as well.  Katharine Ross can sometimes have the tendency to come off a little shrill, but despite this she is an intensely likeable actress, which is absolutely essential in a film like this when the other two leads aren't exactly the best people in the world.  And I can't think of another film where the music is so completely intertwined with the movie, to the point where it's difficult to think of The Graduate without hearing Simon and Garfunkel in your head.  For me, that's a good thing.  For others, well...maybe not.  But I love it.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll come back for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!

Want to know more about the Top 1000 List?  Check it out and see if your favorites are here! They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

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