Double Take: The Graduate (1967)

Double Take climbs on the bus to who knows where: Swimming pools? Hotel rooms? Plastics? Scarborough Fair? The Graduate was '60s gold. How well does it seduce us today?

Steve Leftridge: I remember when Simon and Garfunkel reunited at the Grammys a number of years ago, Dustin Hoffman showed up to introduce them, describing them as “the voice of a generation”. The same is occasionally said about The Graduate itself — that the film encapsulates essential Sixtiesness, perhaps more than any other film. I know that any such definitive declaration is highly debatable, and that the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, as one of the most popular folk-rock groups of the late-Sixties, has plenty to do with the thought that The Graduate is particularly representative of that decade. But let me open our chat by asking you to identify 1967 in The Graduate, beyond obvious fashionography. That is, what thematic, socio-cultural, psychological elements are here that people who grew up in the Sixties would especially identify with, and why aren’t these elements simply universal to all young people of all eras?

Steve Pick: Well, people who grew up in the Sixties (trademark for the years 1967-1972) tended to myopically believe that everything that happened to them was unique and completely removed from the experiences of every other generation ever. Young people were never alienated from older people before or since. Young people, especially rich and privileged ones, were never unsure what to expect from their future except for that five year “decade”. Seriously, I don’t really think The Graduate is emblematic of that time.

At its heart, The Graduate is about a guy who simply hasn’t figured out how to find his own desires in a world where everything is handed to him on a silver platter. In some ways, Benjamin reminds me of Max Fischer from Rushmore — he is a success at school and doesn’t want to grow up. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t want sex, though it does mean he doesn’t understand sex and intimacy. Heck, 21-year-olds rarely ever have a clue about that sort of thing. If Mrs. Robinson had appeared in my life at that age, I would have been just as awkward, just as scared, and just as capable of making all Ben’s mistakes. (And that’s leaving aside the male fantasy figure that Mrs. Robinson actually represents.) And then, when he has one night of actual connection with another human being, he becomes obsessive to the point of dickishness about her, essentially terrorizing Elaine into submission (though the writing of her character doesn’t let her fight back in any realistic way). None of this is unique to the Sixties, though that was the first cultural moment when that sort of thing could be represented in the movies.

Leftridge: Yeah, the generational angst on display in The Graduate feels pretty universal even though the counterculture movements around the time this film was released have become such famous symbols of young people rejecting the politics, values, ideals, etc., of the previous generation. After all, if these are the people sending Benjamin’s generation off to Vietnam, then the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 sentiment starts to be at least understandable. Not that we get any references to the war or any glimpses of hippies in The Graduate. Instead, we get a privileged kid who feels overwhelmed by the uncertainty of his future and who isn’t sure of what he actually wants, which certainly wouldn’t appear to be a concern unique to a particular era. As he tells his dad at the beginning of the film, he wants his future to be “different”. We can only take that to mean that he wants a life different from that of his parents, which is a bit puzzling in Benjamin’s case. From what I can tell, his parents are happy and pretty cool — they’re loving, supportive, successful, and tolerant of Benjamin’s lazy drifting. And, as you mention, they’ve given Benjamin the kind of life very few have access to — I don’t know too many people who were given a new Alfa Romeo upon graduating from college.

The famous line about “plastics”, delivered by Mr. McGuire at the party, perhaps points the way to Benjamin’s trepidation: Plastic is a symbol for phoniness. I’m not sure if people were referring to credit cards as “plastic” back in ‘67, but, either way, plastics would represent some kind of soulless commerce as an avenue to the kind of prosperity symbolized by the swimming pool next to them during this conversation. The question is, do you sympathize with Benjamin at all, or is he just kind of a spoiled baby?

Pick: I sympathize with anybody being 21 and clueless, to a point. And I certainly sympathize with somebody who feels ready to be acted upon, rather than knowing how to act himself — I spent way too much of my life being that passive. But once Benjamin decides he’s going to get what he wants, he turns into a completely unsympathetic asshole. I don’t think he’s spoiled, except insofar as he doesn’t have to worry about money even when he takes off and moves to Berkeley for an undisclosed amount of time. I guess in a sense I feel sorry for him — if it’s possible to think of himself being sexually abused by Mrs. Robinson (he may be 21, but he’s nothing to her but a working and willing penis), he’s turning that abuse around on Elaine. Only he’s got it in his head that marriage is the answer to his desire. He’s made no more of a connection with Elaine than her mother made with him, but his attempts at wearing her down are the equivalent of Mrs. Robinson’s absurdly commanding seduction technique.

I think director Mike Nichols, whose background was comedy, particularly improv, was more interested in the grotesque humor involved in all the various relationships than he was in trying to capture a particular zeitgeist. Certainly, snaring Simon & Garfunkel with some of their strongest songs of the era gave the film a youth cachet which made the whole thing seem a little more serious. And Dustin Hoffman, though he’d appeared in TV and movies before this, was poised to become one of the most talented and well known actors of the time, which adds a little more gravitas to the film. But for me, the best moments in the film are the laughs, especially when they are somewhat uncomfortable. Am I totally off-base here, or do you think there’s something I’m missing?

Leftridge: It’s definitely a hilarious comedy, one that still makes me laugh no matter how many times I’ve seen it. A lot of it is pretty broad, even physical, comedy: the bit of madcap choreography with the desk bell alongside screenwriter Buck Henry, Benjamin kissing Mrs. Robinson before she can exhale her cigarette smoke, those match cuts in the pool when Benjamin jumps onto the raft but is really jumping Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin nearly crashing the car when Elaine suggests they go to the bar at the Taft Hotel, where he has been regularly doinking her mother. Buck Henry himself has, at least on occasion, dismissed the tendency to overread a theme of cultural rebellion into the script. For instance, when asked about the church scene at the end, when Benjamin swings the cross at the wedding guests, Henry denied that it was an anti-religion or anti-establishment symbol, stating instead simply that, “Benjamin was in a church and needed a weapon”.

On the other hand, the film isn’t without some character study that at least borders on seriousness. I find Mrs. Robinson especially interesting as a character. She’s generally thought of as a villain — and she does indeed have a pretty heinous attitude about her daughter’s opportunity for happiness — but we’re meant to kind of pity her. Aren’t we?

Pick: I love Anne Bancroft, and the way she plays the character, though I’m not certain the character seems believable. Or at least it’s hard to read her motivations. Sure, I can understand her interest in finding somebody other than her husband, with whom the thrill is clearly gone. But why would she pick the son of her husband’s partner, somebody who is at least acquainted with her daughter? Even if we accept that she needs to be in complete control sexually, Benjamin seems a very unlikely choice. She could have found safer sex partners, even in those days long before Tinder.

Like almost everybody else in the film, Mrs. Robinson is not satisfied with her lot in life. That much is clear. But in many ways, she is a classic male fantasy, the older woman lurking in the wings to teach a young man the ropes in bed (not literally — she’s a top, but she’s not into S&M). I don’t get the sense that Buck Henry cares much about what’s inside her head, nor does he care about Elaine as a person. The women in The Graduate move the plot along, presenting themselves for sex or refusing to say yes or no to marriage (despite only having had one long night of good conversation as a basis for connection in the first place). Henry, and Nichols, for that matter, are only really interested in Benjamin, and the experiences he has. That makes for an entertaining film, a funny film, a thoughtfully directed film, but it doesn’t make for an especially deep film.

Prior to this viewing, I had only seen the opening 20 minutes, and the final five. I was looking forward to finding out just what made that ending scene work so well, but Benjamin’s obsession turned out to be less than I had expected of it. On the other hand, I was pleased to see Norman Fell begin to create his later role as Mr. Roper on Three’s Company. I always enjoy pop culture connections of that sort.

Leftridge: Yeah, and that’s a young Richard Dreyfuss who leans in with, “Shall I get the cops?” As for Mrs. Robinson, I think the key scene is when Benjamin tries to get her to talk to him before just hopping in the sack. He asks her about her college major — art — but when pressed about her favorite kind of art, she numbly replies, “I don’t know anything about it”. In other words, she was, at one time, a young, ambitious, intellectually curious college girl. But then she got pregnant and married, became a 1950s stay-at-home mother, wife, and alcoholic, and never had the opportunity to pursue her own career. It’s revealing in that sense that we never hear Mrs. Robinson’s first name. We never know her actual last name either, for that matter. She is simply “Mrs. Robinson”, an extension of her husband.

In that conversation, we also find out that Mrs. Robinson and her husband sleep in separate bedrooms — a loveless, sexless marriage. Under all these circumstances, a midlife crisis would seem inevitable. But to exacerbate, Mrs. Robinson has a living, breathing reminder of her fading beauty and vitality: her daughter. Elaine is a younger version of Mrs. Robinson, one who has not yet settled for passionless, suburban ennui. So how does Mrs. Robinson attempt to recapture her lost youth? She sleeps with a boy Elaine’s age, which explains why Mrs. Robinson is so destroyed by the thought of Benjamin choosing Elaine over her. That’s officially putting Mrs. Robinson out to pasture. The real villainy comes when Mrs. Robinson encourages Elaine to marry Carl, a guy Elaine doesn’t love, in what feels like an attempt to have Elaine repeat Mrs. Robinson’s own mistakes. Elaine, however, is on to her mother. After Ben disrupts the wedding, Mrs. Robinson screams, “It’s too late!” Elaine’s response is a killer: “Not for me!”

Pick: Those are some pretty astute points you’re making, Steve. Maybe I was missing the proto-feminist possibilities in the film, though there is no evidence Elaine loves Benjamin any more than she loves Carl. One has to admit though, seeing a guy stand at the back window upstairs in the church and scream your name just might be at least an incentive to run out and see what happens next, especially if the guy winds up wielding a cross as a weapon against all the satanic forces trying to make you conform to your mother’s twisted expectations.

Bringing it all back full circle, I want to say that the use of the Simon and Garfunkel songs was truly effective, especially that montage to “Sounds of Silence,” with Benjamin floating listlessly in the swimming pool, getting out while his parents barbecue with absolutely no enthusiastic bone in his body and walking directly (cinematically speaking) into the hotel bedroom where Mrs. Robinson is undressing. Then she unbuttons his shirt as his face shows no eagerness, just acceptance and we cut again to him rising up in a dark living room to close the door on his parents brightly lit kitchen. That lovely match between music and image is precisely the kind of thing that makes The Graduate so effective. It’s a graceful and lyrical connection that hits us directly in our emotional guts. We aren’t as disaffected as Benjamin, but, we are certainly not hearing without listening to this sort of exquisite filmmaking.

Leftridge: Those Simon and Garfunkel montages — two songs back to back — are like music videos, which compress the ongoing affair with Mrs. Robinson into a tight set of wistful match cuts. Speaking of the swimming pool, this time I noticed how much water is in the film, which often serves as a barrier between Benjamin and everyone else. The obvious symbolism is that he’s “drifting” or sometimes “drowning”, as in that scuba scene when his dad is literally shoving him down into the water. If we take some figurative liberty, it’s a pretty short leap to an Freudian reading of The Graduate. Could it be that Benjamin, filled with angst over how to move into adulthood, wishes, Oedipally, to return to the womb? Symbolically, Benjamin’s return to the womb takes the form of his floating in the swimming pool all the time. Psychoanalytically, Benjamin sublimates his desire for his mother by sleeping with someone who reminds him of her. Why else should Mrs. Robinson look so similar to Benjamin’s mother? Or maybe I’m getting carried away by all the intoxicating melodies and guitar-picking. Paul Simon, you’re trying to seduce me.