Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Nichols?
Synopsis: A disillusioned college graduate finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter. (IMDB)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross
Writers: Buck Henry and Calder Willingham
Director: Mike Nichols
Rating: 14A (Canada)/PG (United States)
Running Time: 106mins
Benjamin (Hoffman) is completely lost after finishing college. He moves back into his parents’ home to try finding some direction in his life. However he can’t, so he just stays in the pool all day long thinking about… nothing probably. During a totally boring party held at their house by his parents to “reintroduce” him to their friends, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) asks Benjamin to drive her home after her husband goes M.I.A. on her. As soon as they get to her house, she starts seducing him. At first he is shocked but eventually they end up starting an affair until Benjamin falls madly in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Ross).
The Graduate marks a divisive moment in U.S. film history and you can totally feel it as soon as you watch it. Something was changing with U.S. audiences (and with the world in general) and The Graduate represented and surfed that wave beautifully. It was released in 1967 when things were heating up towards the explosive next year’s happenings and people who were feeling uncomfortable with conformity completely recognized themselves in Benjamin. He is a very sheltered man who feels very much unease with the banality of his surroundings. There’s a lot to be said which is not being said at all and although he can’t really grasp what it is he has a sixth sense screaming not to let him be swallowed by it. He can’t really connect with anybody for the first half of the story, not even with the woman he’s having an affair with nor his own parents.
It seems his relationship with Mrs. Robinson only starts because he is somewhat tired of spending his days in the pool. What begins as just a casual affair evolves into a sort of relationship for them both, even though they don’t really know each other. Benjamin tries hard to connect with Mrs. Robinson, he craves for more than just sex, he wants to have a more substantial relationship with her, even him understanding that it can never go forward. He wants to know her better to maybe make just one decision about his life – to go on or to end that affair. But she is long gone.
An alcoholic who drowns herself in her addiction, Mrs. Robinson also tries very hard: to forget her surroundings, her marriage and even her daughter. She’s very protective of her affair with Benjamin but we never know if it is out of love of pride. She is an enigma in a lot of ways and it’s wonderful to see little glimpses of her story and personality that turn her into a very complex character. She got married because she was pregnant, her husband is most certainly cheating on her and her feelings about her daughter are quite dubious. She never says it, but one can sense she blames Elaine’s own existence for the way her life turned out to be – which might be one of the reasons she drinks so much. Mrs. Robinson is a character that has a private world inside her and she almost never sheds it, and one of the most exceptional aspects of the script is the way it presents questions about her in almost every scene. It gives us little hints and asks us to connect the dots – and to question ourselves if those assumptions really make sense.
The only person Benjamin connects with is Elaine. She comes later in the picture but they recognize themselves. She is better in hiding her uneasiness than he is, but it is there. She in uncomfortable too and their romance flows naturally during the second part of the film. Their connecting feels right to us, something we never felt with Mrs. Robinson. When Benjamin looses her, we cheer for him, not just because we want him to be happy with her but because we know she doesn’t deserve the fate she’s being forced to accept. But escaping together by itself is not an answer: they are not better off in the end; they still have a lot of figuring out to do. They are still lost in many ways. But maybe, just maybe, they are finally free…
All the actors here deliver some of the best performances of their careers. Dustin Hoffman was a nobody at the time and Benjamin turned him into a superstar. It’s totally understandable why: he’s perfectly cast here. In the book, Benjamin was almost like a Viking type but Mike Nichols totally understood that, to make us relate to his desperation, Benjamin couldn’t be the embodiment of the perfect man. He needed to look and sound normal, average, and even ordinary. And Dustin did the perfect representation of that. Benjamin is uncomfortable most of the time, almost as if Hoffman himself was uncomfortable being a leading man. Katharine Ross is such a presence as Elaine, she is so open and vulnerable you connect with her immediately in her first scene. She is the emotional balance of the film, which doesn’t mean she’s not lost herself. Ross never again had such a natural and layered performance in her career and is shocking to see how good she was here in retrospect.
Then there’s Anne Bancroft. Dustin Hoffman exploded into superstardom with The Graduate, but the greatest performance of the film is Anne’s Mrs. Robinson. Bancroft was always an intelligent actress and she sheds layers and layers of emotions in every single moment she’s on screen. We hate Mrs. Robinson, we laugh with her, we chuckle, we pity her but mostly we feel her. She’s enigmatic while at the same time being so open, so vulnerable. Anne Bancroft peels her like an onion before our eyes. It’s such a complex work, such a huge accomplishment; it’s totally understandable that Mrs. Robinson became one of the most famous characters in film history.
This is such a strong film it’s almost shocking to notice it is only Mike Nichol’s second directorial effort. His direction is an explosion of creativity on screen, with so many visual elements that takes us out of our comfort zone and most importantly, pulls us into Benjamin’s world. Some shots are legendary (the seduction seen through Mrs. Robinson’s legs), the lines are unforgettable (“Plastics”), it feels like Nichols is taking us to a whole different universe were these things are happening. The soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel works wonders to punctuate this story.
If all of that wasn’t reason enough to watch The Graduate, the movie is hilarious in many many moments. Do yourself a favor and give it a shot.
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