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Essay The Graduate Movie

So here's to you Mrs. Robinson — you certainly cut a swathe through Hollywood's middle-class American value system at the fag-end of the 60s. Hooking up with primordial Generation X-er, Benjamin Braddock (son of her husband's partner) stunned, appalled and excited cinemagoers (it was a huge hit) and created a classic tale of social dysfunction and trashing weddings. We're all fucked up, Nichols' bravura poem sang to us, is there any hope? This was satire at its most biting.

Benjamin Braddock is a startling creation, his disassociation and disaffection carry shades of Salinger's miseryguts Holden Caulfield, but Benjamin is portrayed in a much more heart-on-sleeve fashion. He is set apart from the wealthy vacuum-packed world of his parents (summed-up by Walter Brooke's terrifying single word of advice: "plastics") and distanced from the loved-up world of his peers. Adulthood and the future beckon, but he can only float, finding solace at the bottom of the pool (water serves as a constant metaphor for separation) and escape in the clutches of Mrs. Robinson: saviour, parasite, devil.

Nichols first approached an ageing Doris Day for the part of Mrs. Robinson, but she was horrified by the subject matter, terrified of ruffling her clean-cut 50s persona. Still, it is hard to imagine anyone but Anne Bancroft in the role. In reality merely seven years Hoffman's senior, she locates the dark heart of a character consumed by self-loathing and armoured in cool cynicism. She shifts from tragic to malicious, certainly a vampiric figure but in the face of the buttoned-down platitudes of their suffocating suburban deadzone her bitterness makes her real. She represents a Benjamin or Elaine (Ross) that has given in ("It's too late," she growls at a fleeing Elaine. "Not for me!" her daughter cruelly returns).

Hoffman was also a second choice. Nichols had mulled over Robert Redford as Benjamin but surmised that playing a bit of a loser would be a stretch for an actor that beautiful. In a career defining turn, Hoffman (then I 29), filled the angsty loafer with ; a nasally self-absorption, equally misfit and arsehole. Katharine Ross was blessed with the ideal American sweetheart looks for Elaine — the counterpoint to all the vulgar goings-on at the Taft Hotel. As the film shifts into its more romanticised second-half, Elaine is transformed into an elusive, angelic figure — another symbol of rescue for the hangdog loner Benjamin.

Though the film frequents painful areas of life, it is very funny. The infamous seduction sequence allows Hoffman a twitching realistic terror, further exacerbated by the almost knockabout humour of the first hotel liaison ("Are you here for an affair, sir ?"). In the bedroom his nerves reduce him to madly banging his head against the wall — a scene improvised by Hoffman and maintained as he noticed his director screaming with laughter. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham's adaptation of Charles Webb's novel, is a bounty of observational wit from screwed-up individuals. Benjamin is forced to show-off his new scuba gear at another vile parental shindig and Nichols shoots it all POV with heavy Darth Vader breathing as his dad (William Daniels) submerges him in the pool. The opening dinner party is a smear of cloying chitchat from the gauche neighbourhood zombies until the phantom presence of Mrs. Robinson beckons him to drive her home.

Mrs. Robinson, the song that is, is never actually sung in the movie, serving only as a jangly instrumental backing to the race-to-stop-the-wedding finale (Nichols later encouraged Simon to apply the lyrics). Simon And Garfunkel's legendary songs that do feature are integral to the themes of isolation and yearning, as much a part of The Graduate vibe as Nichols' mannered I direction. From the intro as : Benjamin arrives at LAX airport = (a travelator scene nabbed by " Quentin Tarantino for Jackie ( Brown) to the balladeering of * The Sound Of Silence, the songs constantly establish and fix his state-of-mind. The ending has been the cause of endless debate. Having clutched Elaine from the jaws of mediocrity, they flag down a bus and in the face of the passengers' incredulous looks make their way to the back. Here Nichols pulls his finest, radically unromanticised trick. At first they giggle and gasp at their foolhardiness, then they look apart and the movie fades away. Spirtually they have separated, the comfort has broken. This is not a fairytale ending, this is an uncertain voyage into the future: have they run away together or have they just run away? Coo-coo-ca-choo.

Cruel comedy with a delicious light touch.

  • 1

    What are some of the ways Mike Nichols aligns the viewer with Benjamin Braddock's plight?

    Nichols uses perspective, camera angle, soundtrack, and the performances of his actors to align the viewer with Ben's situation. Often shot in close-up, Benjamin's facial expressions reveal his inner life and make the viewer feel a closeness with his situation. Some scenes are shot from his perspective, such as the scene in which he goes scuba diving in the pool. Quick zoom-ins create suspense in the more tense scenes of the movie. Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack often underscores Benjamin's dilemmas and emotional life, and give us a window to his more contemplative or anxious states of mind. Finally, Mike Nichols' casting of Dustin Hoffman and the performance he was able to encourage give Benjamin a dimensionality that is easy to relate to and sympathize with.

  • 2

    Why does Mrs. Robinson forbid Benjamin from dating Elaine?

    While Benjamin suspects Mrs. Robinson of not thinking he is good enough to date Elaine, this is likely not the only reason, and her forbidding is more probably the result of jealousy and a desire for control. Mrs. Robinson is unable to sympathize with the complicated situation Benjamin finds himself in when his parents and Mr. Robinson coax him into taking Elaine out. Rather than try and understand where he is coming from and understand Benjamin and Elaine's mutual attraction, Mrs. Robinson goes to vengeful lengths to prevent their connection, even accusing him of rape. Mrs. Robinson reveals herself as the true antagonist of the story, even if the viewer can sympathize with her unfortunate lot in life, by taking her jealousy and bitterness out on her own daughter and the boy with whom she initiates an affair.

  • 3

    Why is Benjamin so aimless after graduation?

    As he explains to Elaine in the car at the drive-up, Benjamin feels an almost unconscious drive to be rude after graduating from college, as a reflection of his irreverence towards a world that seems like a game that doesn't make any sense. Benjamin doesn't want to just follow the path that has been prescribed to him by his parents and their friends, but rather wants to break free from the strictures of society and find an authentic path. The only problem is he doesn't actually know what kind of path he wants to take, and as such remains unmotivated and limply rebellious, embarking on a risky affair and lounging around in the pool. It is not until he meets Elaine, a worthy confidant for his existential fears and concerns, that Benjamin is able to access a sense of purpose and become a proactive agent of his own future.

  • 4

    Is Mrs. Robinson sympathetic at all?

    Depending on your perspective, Mrs. Robinson can easily be seen as a vengeful and cruel antagonist. When she accuses Benjamin of rape, a patent lie, the audience gets a glimpse into the lengths she will go to assassinate his character and thwart his love for Elaine. The movie also paints a more complicated portrait of her, however, as a frustrated and blocked housewife with addiction problems and a loveless marriage. When Benjamin presses her for more details of her life, we learn that she was once an art student who was forced into her marriage to Mr. Robinson because of a pregnancy. In this light, we can see her more sympathetically, as a young person who had to enter an ambivalent union before she was ready and is now suffering the consequences. Mrs. Robinson is bored, blocked, and frustrated, and her only outlet is the seduction of a young contemporary of her daughter. Mrs. Robinson is unable to reflect on the sadder portions of her life, however, and takes out her frustration on those around her, positioning her firmly as an antagonist, if a complicated one.

  • 5

    In what ways is Carl Smith a foil for Benjamin Braddock?

    Carl Smith is the clean-cut, pre-professional fiancé of Elaine, after she has rejected Benjamin. Where Benjamin is awkward and aimless, Carl is polished and prepared. Benjamin was a literary and contemplative student, while Carl belongs to a fraternity of blonde and hyper-masculine jocks. When Benjamin visits the fraternity to investigate where the wedding is taking place, one of the brothers objectifies Elaine and sends a message to Carl to "leave some for the rest of us," which disgusts Benjamin. While Carl might be a model citizen and the image of a heroic male, the company he keeps is sexist and disrespectful. Benjamin and Carl are polar opposites, which only increases the tension when Elaine must choose between them.

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