By Rosalie Tirella
Watching THE GRADUATE, that iconic ’60s film that stars Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross for the 20th time – at least. Haven’t seen it in maybe six or seven years – the movie that we Boomer kids felt so strongly about when we first saw it as teenagers. This late afternoon, here in Spencer, the film still feels true to this 61 year old – true and exciting! And funny! The film whose Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack carried me away at 19 still filled me with wistfulness this afternoon, still out me in a place I was at years ago. Tears welled in my eyes. The essence of the movie, for me, is still the rejection of the depravity of American society. Back then, we kids wanted to be free of it all – the materialism, the stultifying world view of our parents, our boring, clueless pointless parents, the ladder of success. The Generation Gap was real back then! Many of us students, including me, ended up quitting college and living on hippie communes where we made lots of zucchini bread and became vegetarians and dabbled in Buddhism and got our hands on THE WHOLE EARTH HANDBOOK and MOOSE WOOD COOKBOOK. We hated the big plans our parents had for us and the houses in the suburbs that didn’t ensure, engender, real happiness. We kids were free spirits! The Vietnam War, the phoniness of our lying politicians, America’s underclass … We knew the system was rigged and stank to high heaven. We wanted to flee, hop on our motorcycles and go our own way, be different. The “ladder of success”… leading to nowhere. We weren’t going to climb that ladder, play “the game.” We were going to do and be something better than our parents – something meaningful and healthy and artistic. Most of us wrote bad poetry and tried teaching ourselves acoustic guitar. Check off both boxes for this gal. No regrets …
Anyways, the movie begins with Benjamin Braddock’s (Hoffman’s) triumphant return to his upper-middle-class California home after a stellar college career. Graduation day! Dean’s list! All-star athlete! Managing editor of the school newspaper! A fellowship waiting! Graduate schools beckoning! Mom and Dad give Ben a shiny new red sports car – a convertible – a “wop job” as one of their creepy friends declares – and they all throw Ben a welcome home party that has him in full blown panic attack mode. One old guy advises Ben, away from the others, almost stealthily: “One word, Ben: PLASTICS.”
I remember how the audience I was with reacted back then when we were all around 20 years old: hoots and hollers filled the Clark University auditorium at the word “PLASTICS.” My boyfriend and I were mesmerized by the film.
But I digress … Ben needs to escape, so he flees to his bedroom where Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) pretty much demands that he drive her home. Ben feels funny about this and funnier still when Mrs. Robinson asks him to come into her home after he sees her to her door. Once inside Mrs. Robinson serves him a drink at the family’s bar and sits seductively on a bar stool. Ben is getting nervous, and the next thing you know, he’s in a bedroom alone with the sexy, predatory, pathetic Mrs. Robinson, who’s locked the door behind them. She’s naked, out of her slip, panties and bra – black and see-thru …Ben is panicked.
Hoffman is great as Ben, this basically good kid feeling “mixed up” … unsure… unsettled. Is one of his parents’ friends actually trying to seduce him?! Bancroft is a hoot as the manipulative, sad, middle-aged lady whose ideals – she was an art major in college – have been ground down to dust, thanks to her loveless marriage and unrealized dreams. Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman when they made this film, but her makeup, hair style and clothing here make her seem much older than Hoffman. Very sophisticated and sexy.
Ben turns to Mrs. Robinson after the degrading 21st birthday party his parents throw for him. Bragging about the cost of his gift, Ben’s future fellowship Dad has his son “perform” – walk out wearing his birthday gift – a full scuba diving suit – urging him to dive into the family swimming pool to showcase the new gear that he paid big bucks for. Ben does jump in the water, clumsily, his harpoon and oxygen tank encumbrances. Then he plants himself firmly on the cement bottom of the swimming pool and refuses to come back up … Finally, some peace.
So the Mrs. Robinson affair looks pretty good after this tawdry affair. Their trysts at the town hotel are funny – the guilt-ridden and goofy Ben, still a virgin, the dead pan facial expressions of the hotel’s front desk guy – the brilliant and hilarious Buck Henry, also the co-writer of the film – and the annoyed, impatient Mrs. Robinson who’s been to this rodeo many times before … There is very little tenderness or romance here. You don’t even get the feeling that there’s a lot of sex happening … The virginal Ben is deflowered by Mrs. Robinson – Ben never feels he should call his lover by her first name – she’s in his parents peer group. After this first fu*k cue Simon and Garfunkel’s SOUNDS OF SILENCE. Isolation. Robotic lovemaking. Despair. Ben is lost.
Then comes Mr. Robinson pressuring – the adults are all very controlling here – Ben to take out his and his wife’s beautiful daughter Elaine when she comes home for college break, from Berkeley. Of course, Mrs. Robinson freaks out – she threatens, forbids, sneers and snarls … DO NOT GO OUT WITH ELAINE, Benjamin! Yet Ben, after beginning the date from hell with Elaine , culminating in a stripper doing a strip tease with boob-encrusted pasties directly over Elaine’s head and Elaine runs out of the club sobbing…he discovers Elaine is real, easy to talk to, has the same anxieties about adult life he has … and is very beautiful. Ben falls in love.
So many things about Ben and Elaine to love! – even though a reviewer hated their relationship when he first saw and reviewed the film in ’67 and, 30 years later, reviewing the film again, still mocks Elaine and lionizes Mrs. Robinson! The only honest person in the film, according to this reviewer! I get it: Mrs. Robinson is the only person in the film living outside the world that Ben is rebelling against. She’s not a good housewife. She’s not a good friend. She’s not a good mother. The money, vacations, fancy home and swimming pool keep her in her unhappy marriage and away from self-actualization – but she knows this. The other adults in the film are oblivious. Mrs. Robinson is self-aware – and, in the words of her increasingly restless, young paramour, “a broken-down alcoholic.”
The second half of the movie revolves around Ben stalking Elaine in Berkeley and persuading her to marry him – after Mrs. Robinson breaks up the young couple, telling Elaine that it was Ben who seduced her – and raped her. An emotionally frayed Ben takes a room in a rooming house by the university to win back his Elaine. It’s a plan. It’s honest. It’s given his life a purpose. Much more than anything in his young adult life has given him – this plan to wed the beautiful Elaine. His parents are on board – thrilled when he tells them he’s going to get married.
Katherine Ross, co-starring in another iconic Baby Boomer flick, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUN DANCE KID, was the it girl of the late 1960s: the dream girl who embodied all the coveted attributes of the era – long hair, long legs, a natural beauty, looking so lovely in those maxi dresses and fry boots … the coltish it girl – with a college degree. Ross was great with Redford and Newman in SUNDANCE, a pillar of dignity and very sexy. She always, in my opinion, held her own with the greatest male actors of her generation.
So at the end of the film – during that iconic scene in the church when Ben busts up her wedding day Ross is excellent. Her marriage to a tall blond waspy frat boy – the opposite of short, dark, Jewish Ben – is a no go…We see her wooden acquiescence at the church altar, then, seeing Ben, hearing his cries for her, her realization, her rejection of all the “perfect ” man and the wild scream for the crazy little guy who’s pursued her for months …Then the wild fight that ensues in the middle of the church. Mrs. Robinson telling her daughter “It’s too late” and a defiant Ross looking her mom straight in the eyes to say: “NOT FOR ME!!” Then her mother slugs her. The cross-wielding Ben keeping them at bay and then locking them all in the church with that big gold cross. Then their mad rush after the old bus – Ben’s coat in tatters, Elaine’s wedding gown torn. But they’re so young and so fleet of foot! They run down that bus heading into the rougher part of town hand in hand, Elaine’s wedding veil whipping in the wind behind them! … And then that final shot, the both of them in the last seat of the bus, both laughing, smiling, feeling TRIUMPHANT! Then Ben’s smile fading, Ben looking serious … then the giddy Elaine looking confused and … frightened.
What did they just do?
They followed their hearts! The only thing any of us can – and should! – do when we’re young.