“I’m worried about my future.” This is the mantra of graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), one dependably recycled to his parents and their friends during a cocktail party to celebrate his homecoming. Though he assuredly looks the part—smartly dressed, albeit, comically, he does not quite pass as a twenty-year-old—Benjamin comes to represent a misplaced ornament in the aeon of the middle-class, his identity whittled down to a decorated scholar. He shuffles through the crowd, strafed with meaningless gestures of small-talk and sentimentality. For some, he surmises a propitious business opportunity; Mr McGuire dryly pitches “plastics.” “What are you doing now?” another eagerly pokes, to which Benjamin responds “going upstairs.” He darts out of the conversation, exiting the scene and the philosophical double-entendre. Here, the film’s inceptive over-crowdedness, of individuals all unbearably interested in Benjamin’s future, becomes an exaggerated display of claustrophobia. And although Benjamin is pushed to the centre of this space, by the camera and as the object of discussion, he playfully rejects his role.
The Graduate is Mike Nichols’ foray into the romantic-comedy genre, though to define its plot and execution in these terms is, in itself, comical. Fated by the whims and spontaneity of circumstance, Benjamin becomes involved in an illicit affair with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner. During the same homecoming party, we see Mrs Robinson wander, startlingly, into Benjamin’s post-adolescent world. She bursts into his childhood bedroom and observes “I guess this isn’t the bathroom is it?” What follows is a symmetrical arrangement of quasi-courtship, balanced with intergenerational aloofness.
Starting in Benjamin’s bedroom, awkwardly occupying either side of the room, we follow the pair to the Robinson residence wherein Benjamin is confronted with Mrs Robinson in terms novel to their distantly polite dynamic. Downstairs in the Robinson residence, in a courteous arrangement of after-party small-talk, Benjamin nervously awaits the inevitable arrival of Mr Robinson, not before Mrs Robinson thornily confesses her alcoholism. Characteristic of a screw-ball chain of events, Benjamin is thus led by Mrs Robinson into her daughter’s upstairs bedroom. Initiated with Benjamin’s polite acceptance to be shown Elaine’s portrait, followed by Mrs Robinson’s provocative request for Benjamin to unzip her dress, the sequence climaxes with Mrs Robinson barricading her daughter’s bedroom door, nakedly offering herself to Benjamin, her skin adorning tan-lines at home in the film’s quintessentially Californian milieu.
Concurrent to the film’s self-critically Californian malaise, it’s significant that Benjamin cuckolds the tanned golf-course-flaneur Mr Robinson, another addressee of his line: “I’m worried about my future”. As Mr Robinson arrives home, unbeknownst to his wife’s adulterous seductions moments prior, the utterance of this mantra transforms its meaning. Breathlessly caught in the throes of this farce, cornered by Mr Robinson in the couple’s opulent bar-lounge, these words no longer fill a gap in conversational matters, they divert from the now-sensitive subject of women.
At the crux of the film is the affair between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson, and the transgressive charade that cuts their relationship short: Benjamin’s interest in Mrs Robinson’s daughter, Elaine. What was rather striking among critics at the time was the film’s demonstration of 1960s generational conflict—Benjamin’s sudden lust for Elaine as one obvious manifestation. Roger Ebert went so far as to describe Benjamin’s parents as “ferociously stupid”. Harmlessly, they over-indulge in everything Benjamin does; they emphasise a sever between the ‘young’ and, albeit themselves, ‘stupid’, with the preceding generation, both ideologically and narratively out of touch—unaware of Benjamin’s nightly whereabouts as he frequents the Taft hotel for a seamy affair. It is precisely because these buttoned-down, clone-like representations of the older generation laud over Benjamin’s identity, one which must squeeze into the manicured trajectory of the college-to-grad-school pipeline, that Benjamin urges for an alternative. What’s most comedic is that in turning his attention towards Elaine, as narratively transgressive as it may be, Benjamin acclimates to a conventional course of action (one his parents had hoped for from the start).
It is a mistake to overstate the radicalness of Benjamin. He feigns bravado with Elaine; he is disaffected and gauche in a way that owes little more analysis than audiences’ rather simple, somatic response to him: painful awkwardness. He is a timelessly relatable character despite the extremity of his moral decisions. This is, certainly, the genius of his construction. Skating on feeling and existing, his superficial crafting indicates that the film’s bravura is owed to the film’s actual thematic purveyor: Mrs Robinson. Unsurprisingly met with critical acclaim, Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of Mrs Robinson illuminates the film’s depth—it inspires sympathy for what is often taken as a risible, male-centric narrative.
Mrs Robinson is practical, self-assertive, and wounded by the misfortunes of slipping into marital dissatisfaction. She drifts back and forth beneath harsh hotel room lighting, under the illumination of a flickering tv, redressing herself in stockings and fur coats. She traverses the film’s ennui, she confers its emptiness. Her acculturation to the affair is distinct from Benjamin’s. Vulnerable all the time, Benjamin’s ineptitude romantically and his sexual awkwardness are at odds with Mrs Robinson’s perceived finesse. Thus, the outcome to one of the first and only substantial dialogues between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson comes as a surprise. She curls up to Benjamin, who insists they get to know each other better. She reveals the context of her marriage—falling pregnant—and, to the contradiction of her ignorance on the subject, her degree in art. Climactically, she forbids Benjamin to take out Elaine, causing the most confessional interaction between them thus far to become volatile; she earnestly agrees with Benjamin’s accusation that he is “not good enough” for her daughter, only for herself.
When I first encountered this film, my enjoyment was confined to its impressive veneer: of swimming pools, truncated dialogue, complex camerawork, and beguiling suburbia. My appreciation reached an apogee concerned with aesthetics, one I have since re-positioned and now correlate with the arrangement of characters in relation to Benjamin. Mrs Robinson, notably only ever referred to by her marital name, is certainly the film’s most alluring figure. This is perhaps, in part, why The Graduate resonates so immeasurably among young cinephiles, especially young women. It would almost certainly come as a surprise to the filmmakers that fifty years on, a film so plainly a time capsule of the era ideologically and thematically—the young and reckless vs the old and out of touch—has such an impassioned following among young women. As a young woman and recent graduate myself, I can feel the nuance to directionless Benjamin, but the presentation of women in The Graduate is something I am equally, especially cognizant of. In fact, the characters of Elaine and particularly Mrs Robinson, in tandem with their wonderful performances, are now what I find most endearing. The lightness and ephemerality of their design make for a perfect springboard for my own adoration. They impart enough room to fill the gaps, to temper their mystery with identification.
By the film’s denouement, we arrive at the frenzied montage of Benjamin crashing Elaine’s wedding—Mrs Robinson snarls “it’s too late” to Elaine, to which she bitingly responds “not for me!”—thereafter the runaway pair alight a bus full of incredulous passengers, snaking their way to the back row. They revel in fleeting self-awareness, giddily, inarticulately amused by the gravity of what they have just done, only to be bluntly confronted with that same tormenting, irremovable obstacle: the future. Opposite the camera, gazes parallel, their future is allegorised by their clumsy escape; their destination unknown—literally so on the untravelled bus route—combined with Benjamin’s doltish heroism rescuing Elaine, one which hardly seems to constitute a romantic denouement. To paraphrase Ian Nathan’s Empire review, have they escaped together or have they both simply escaped?
Boasting sold-out showings and drawing in viewers who saw the film multiple times, The Graduate is a paean of silliness, a glossy ensemble bursting with aimless characters and their collective despondency. Indeed, it is precisely the film’s criticised meretriciousness that ascertains its longevity. There is little else so presently enduring than the idea that we all, audiences and characters alike, must continue to slouch onward into futures increasingly unpredictable. Whether this semi-identifiable quality is owed to the performances of Benjamin Braddock or Mrs Robinson—or, rather, their harmonic tragicomedy—the pleasure of The Graduate is precisely its devotion to cluelessness.