The Thinker

Review: The Graduate (1967)

There are a lot of things on my bucket list. Some of them include movies I never got around to seeing. In some exceptional cases, like The Graduate (1967), it was because I was too young to see it. When I was old enough, well, I never quite found a reason to rent it. Forty-seven years after its release I finally got around to it.

Looking at it so many years later, you have to wonder what all the fuss was about. The movie gets 8.1 out of ten stars on but I ask myself why. There’s not much to this movie, and it fails to satisfy on so many levels. However, if you can wind your mind way back to 1967, and I sort of can as I was 10 at the time, I can understand why it attracted controversy. First there was the subject of infidelity, a hot button topic in the movies back then. Second was the issue of women being sexual creatures at all. Women were allowed to have a sex drive in 1967, but not publicly, and women were never portrayed as being aggressive toward men, particularly younger men. And then Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) shows up and seduces poor 21-year-old Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who actually tries quite hard not to fall into her trap. But he’s 21, he’s full of hormones, and men his age will screw any woman they are lucky enough to seduce. When the woman does the pursuing, even if she is twenty plus years ahead of you (but hot), you just can’t say no to that persistent erection.

Ben is back home in California after earning his bachelor’s degree from a prestigious eastern college, but mostly he wants to hide in his old bedroom. His parents want to show him off because he won all sorts of academic awards, and his dad (William Daniels) in particular doesn’t want him loafing around too long. He wants him in graduate school. The last thing Ben wants to do is to be shown off to friends of his moneyed parents. Ben is nice, but conflicted. He has been busy getting his ticket punched all of his life, and is the perfect gentleman with a clear complexion and perfectly cut hair. He even gets to drive a foreign sports car, a gift from his affluent parents, who like to give pool parties. To the extent Ben gets out of his bedroom, it is to hang out in the family’s pool where underwater he can try to clear his mind and figure out just who the hell he is.

He doesn’t get a chance for much reflection, because Mrs. Robinson swiftly reenters his life, senses his vulnerability and goes right for his jugular. She does a masterful job of seducing him without appearing to seduce him. Before Ben can summon his inner resources he is helping unbutton her dress. Within a day they are screwing at a local high-class hotel. Behind the counter is Buck Henry but the hotel is actually full of staff that have developed the ability to look the other way. Ben awkwardly has to learn the art of infidelity, although technically he is not guilty, being unmarried. Before long he and Mrs. Robinson are boinking every night at the hotel.

It must be great sex but this is 1967, so we don’t see any of it, although we do get to see Anne Bancroft in a bra and in one famous scene taking off her stockings and putting them back on again. The illicit affair helps drain Ben of testosterone but it also feels emotionally empty. Just who is Mrs. Robinson? She’s really hard to figure out. She is someone he has known all his life but never intimately until now. What little he can figure out is not flattering. She’s an alcoholic and a smoker.

When he tries awkwardly to move them to something that might approach emotional intimacy, he keeps hitting a brick wall. About all he can get from her is that she and her husband sleep in separate bedrooms, that their daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) was a premarital mistake and that although everyone else wants Ben and Elaine to date, Mrs. Robinson does not. She has claimed Ben as her gigolo. Moreover, for a woman with compromised moral standards, she sure knows how to wield a host of psychological tools over befuddled Ben. Ben can’t say no, is not happy, gets his rocks off every night without fail, and really wants to take her daughter Elaine out on a date. The mere suggestion has Mrs. Robinson ready to pounce on him like a cobra.

In short, Ben is way over his emotional head and does not begin to have the skills to deal with the emotional mess he is in, for which he is largely not at fault. All his naughty affair does is screw him up even more inside. And then Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine enters the picture and just one date, which begins uncomfortably in a strip club, has him falling hopelessly in love with her. However, Elaine is at least emotionally perceptive, and quickly figures out that he is involved with someone else. Unsurprisingly, this house of cards must eventually fall. Ben eventually follows Elaine surreptitiously to her university and tries to convince her to marry her. Given his relationship with her mother, it doesn’t sound like their relationship will end up very healthy. Ben pursues Elaine anyhow.

With the now infamous soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel frequently in the background, we spend ninety minutes or so watching Ben mostly getting buffeted around by events bigger than he can master. His love for Elaine makes no sense, and we don’t see enough of their relationship develop to get any understanding why she should marry him, but that’s all he wants. Elaine tries to stay emotionally distant, but she finds Ben cute for his perseverance.

This movie has become something of a classic, but it largely does not deserve its status other than perhaps being the first movie to tackle previously taboo subjects. This is Hoffman’s first movie of note, and he plays Ben’s befuddlement honestly. Anne Bancroft deservedly won an academy award for her MILFy acting in a time when the acronym MILF was unknown. Mostly the movie feels more surreal than real, which was probably director Mike Nichols’s intent.

Even all these years later, it is an uncomfortable movie to watch. Its appeal at the time was likely in its taboo-breaking. It’s no wonder that Ben is befuddled given the plastic people that surround him and the plastic way he grew up. To escape will require a lot of metaphors that are hard to miss at the movie’s conclusion. Ben and Elaine’s escape together is wholly ludicrous. It suggests that they have traded in one confused life to start another one. I just hope Ben stays far away from Elaine’s mother. She is one messed up woman.

I’ll leave this classic movie unrated, but I do think with modern eyes it is overrated. I am glad I finally saw it to discover that all the fuss was about, well, not that much. I guess you just had to be there in 1967.



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