dir: Mike Nichols
[img_assist|nid=1095|title=Probably the most famous image of an outstretched leg in cinema history|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=430|height=396]
What a remarkably good film. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see it. Seeing it for the first time just recently (29//8/2007), I was struck by just how good this ‘classic’ flick from the 1960s really is. For once the link between reputation and quality actually coincides.
Certain phrases have become pop culture stalwarts like “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” “Do you want me to seduce you?” and “Plastics!” said in that conspiratorial voice. And the soundtrack by undead folk troubadours Simon and Garfunkle is as well known and much lamented part of greatest hits commercial radio package played out daily across the globe.
Then of course there was the Lemonheads cover of Mrs Robinson which propelled the song and the flick back into the public consciousness many years after the fact. And it gave Evan Dando enough money to develop a really serious drug habit.
All these artefacts, cultural signifiers and signposts don’t alter a really significant fact: The Graduate is a funny and touching flick about an aimless guy who’s unsure of his place in the world.
Considering the era the flick was made and set in, it would have been easier to make Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) a kind of beatnik or hippy to represent his dislocation from the people around him. They make him more of a Catcher in the Rye – Holden Caulfield type instead. Labelling him as such is a bit deceptive, but it aims at more of the gist of it to indicate that our main character is a chap apart.
He returns from college a feted man, surrounded by his parent’s friends all gagging to share with him their thoughts about what he should do about his life now. Surprisingly, none of these brilliant bits of wisdom and advice really resonate with him in the slightest, and he feels as aimless and uninterested in the contemporary world as possible.
There is someone who comes along with absolutely no desire to tell Benjamin what he should do with his life in the future. But she sure has ideas about what he should be doing right now.
Enter Mrs Robinson (Ann Bancroft). I don’t mean enter her literally, though that clearly plays a role down the track. She is equal parts femme fatale and harridan, who essentially bullies Benjamin into having sex with her after she compels him to take her home after one of his parent’s dull parties. She is clearly the worse for wear, both life-wise and drinking wise, but she won’t take no for an answer, the strumpet.
Ben starts banging her on a regular basis, not caring about the age difference, especially since this is the best and only sex he’s ever known. He bangs her so often that the staff of the hotel they frequent for their trysts all recognise him the abundance of aliases he has signed in under.
This frequency, though, doesn’t change the fact that even after multiple bangings, he still calls Mrs Robinson Mrs Robinson.
This leads to a brilliant scene, consisting of only two shots, where he starts off arguing that they should take some time to have a conversation, and to leave the lights on, as she argues the opposite. By the end of the scene, he’s the one arguing that they shouldn’t talk, and turning the light off.
There are a multitude of scenes just like that: vignettes and almost sketches that work independently but wouldn’t result in a coherent whole in a lesser film. As such, sometimes the flick seems a bit stagey, as in it plays like scenes from a play. That isn’t a negative in my book. Everyone supplies fantastic support in a flick that sounds like it would be a tragic farce, which ends up being a hellishly entertaining trip into a young man’s head and complicated life.
Circumstances arise whereby Ben is cajoled into going on a date with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), against her violent protestations, which leads to him developing a fixation on the daughter. It takes a special kind of guy who can jump two generations of the same family.
Every scene with Bancroft, who plays the aging, alcoholic, depressed sexpot character like it was written for her, is a winner, but other scenes with supporting actors are a treat as well. A scene where Mr Robinson (Murray Hamilton) confronts Ben and keeps urging him to stop threatening him with his aggressive manner, in a scene where Ben is calm and gently apologetic is hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
When Ben becomes what these days we’d call a stalker, it actually doesn’t impact adversely on how we feel about the character too much. Hoffman would go on to play this character a million times again over the course of his career, but this is where he started, where he hit the big time. His portrayal captured a whole level of dissatisfaction not only with his generation, the elder generation and everything else for that matter, he captured an aspect of the post-adolescent, not-quite-an-adult male experience that would be replicated a million times in the years to come in countless films and stories. So what if the character owes a debt to Catcher in the Rye: there’s never been a good version of that story on the big screen, so this’ll have to do.
I was surprised by how funny it was. It wasn’t thigh-slapping material, to be sure, but there are a tonne of absurdly hilarious or genuinely funny scenes throughout the flick. Benjamin’s terror and confusion in the face of Mrs Robinson’s seduction; any of Ben’s conversations with any adult figure; his first date with Elaine where he takes her to a strip club; his scenes with his paranoid landlord when he travels to Berkeley; the climactic and often parodied scenes at the church. They are all pretty funny in a film that knows how to shift the tone from light amusement to outright absurdity without losing touch with the characters.
This is definitely a comerama/dramedy that stands the test of time, and gives hope to stalkers and cradlesnatchers everywhere.
9 reasons it’s possible to see the final scene as anything but a happy ending out of 10
“Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange.” – The Graduate.