Tuesday, March 30, 2010


A favorite film of mine that hasn't aged particularly well for me is Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, a '60s generation-gap social satire about directionless, Ivy League college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), and his struggle to find himself amidst the hypocrisies and false values of post-50s suburbia.

I've seen The Graduate many times over the years and the witty dialog and sharp performances always make me laugh. I have noticed, however, that the character of Benjamin doesn’t wear so well on me after repeat viewings. Hoffman is really quite good, and the character is fleshed out enough to be authentically complex and contradictory in nature. But in the end, a major sympathetic stopgap for me is the degree to which I've come to find the character of Benjamin to be inherently unlikable; his moody self-absorption coming across like a wearisome extension of the film’s simplistic, very late-60s “Noble Youth/Morally Bankrupt Adults” bias.
Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock
Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson
Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson
Perhaps it’s just my age showing, but what grates is the arrogance of a kid who attends four years of college (on his parent’s dole), returns home, contemptuous of both of his parents and their way of life, yet whose high ideals fail to prevent him from exploiting his middle-class advantages and floating the summer away in their backyard pool (rent-free) while figuring out how not to wind up like them.

The main attraction in The Graduate and the sole reason why it ranks so high on my list of favorite films is, simply, the glorious Anne Bancroft, certainly one of the most talented and classiest acts ever to grace the screen. As the embittered, sexually predatory Mrs. Robinson, she is Star Quality personified and in every scene makes obvious how she became the ultimate older-woman crush for scores of young men at the time. Displaying a heretofore unseen genius for comedy, Bancroft is sexy and smart, tough and touching, and gives one of those surprising, nuanced performances that gets better and better with age.

I know that we are not really supposed to like Mrs. Robinson and the film sets her up as this big archvillain and symbol of what is wrong with the older generation, but, as is often the case with movie villains, hers is the best-written and most dimensional character in the piece. She’s a wonderful cinematic creation. An almost feminist deconstruction of the male adolescent fantasy of the older woman, Mrs. Robinson is not the lonely dreamy fantasy pin-up of Summer of ‘42, but a strong, assertive, and intelligent woman who knows what she wants and uses the leverage of her maturity to get it.
"Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

Sure she’s manipulative, an alcoholic and a self-professed “neurotic,” but she’s also the most emotionally honest character in the film and I like her immensely. She doesn’t kid herself (she doesn’t pretend to be in love with Benjamin any more than she does her husband), she doesn’t take any of Benjamin’s guff (love the way she hurls his car keys into his aquarium), and she has a killer fashion sense (the streaked hair and animal print wardrobe are beyond sensational).
Mrs. Robinson: The original cougar
Satires are dicey because, by definition, they deal with caricature. Play it too broad, you have a cartoon, play it too straight and you run the risk of actually being the thing you’re sending up. In The Graduate Anne Bancroft is the emotional anchor which makes possible the arch absurdity of Nichols’ pointed barbs at American suburban rot. Armed with a set of regal cheekbones and a look of perpetual haughty nonchalance, Bancroft lays waste every other character the minute she opens her mouth and lets out with that throaty, no-nonsense voice of hers.
Bancroft imbues Mrs. Robinson with a steely world-weariness that gives way to surprisingly disarming smiles and glimmers of raw vulnerability; reminding us that toughness is often just the armor worn by those most disappointed by life and themselves.

Bancroft is one of the few actresses able to combine old-school movie star glamour with contemporary earthiness. No matter how gorgeous she looked (and she was seriously gorgeous …she was just 35 at the time, Hoffman was 30), Bancroft always exuded such genuine intelligence, humor, and sensitivity. You really can’t take your eyes off of her.

The early scenes between Bancroft and Hoffman are such masterfully choreographed games of sexual cat and mouse (Hoffman’s comic discomfort compliments Bancroft’s droll assurance) that they are what most people recall. But my favorite scene in the entire film is the hotel room tryst that comes after Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin have been involved for some time. Benjamin is eager to take things to a more personal level while Mrs. Robinson is content to keep things strictly physical.

As he badgers her to reveal details of her personal life, for the first time there is a power shift in the dynamic of this couple, and we get a glimpse into the sadness behind Mrs. Robinson’s cool exterior. Bancroft goes through a staggering array of emotions during this scene, sublimely conveying the heartbreaking regrets Mrs. Robinson keeps so well hidden. Bancroft has played many wonderful scenes in many films, but this remains my all-time favorite.

In retrospect, it surprises me to think of how long it took me to see The Graduate. I was ten years old when it first came out, and despite its "recommended for adults" rating, I would certainly have sneaked in to see it were I interested. What I recall most are the newspaper ads that played up the graphic of the dopey schlub accosted by the shapely lady's limb. Seeing this, I was positive the film would be one of those smirky, smutty 60s sex comedies of the type I loathed (the result of too many TV reruns of Tony Curtis movies, I guess). Anyhow, when I finally saw it at a revival theater at age 20, I was pleasantly surprised at how smart it was and how hilarious I found Benjamin’s bemused stutterings in the face of Mrs. Robinson’s determined seduction.

Those scenes still make me laugh, but I can’t say I enjoy the sequences without Anne Bancroft all that much. So, in a way, I guess Mrs. Robinson seduced me, too.

Autograph of Dustin Hoffman. He was in the courtyard restaurant at a dance studio where I was teaching in Santa Monica. Very nice and unexpectedly, such a handsome guy in person!

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2010