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


  1. and the way you've written about her character has seduced me...

    thank you, very well expressed. funny i should catch this post at this moment of my own sensational obsession with mrs robinson/anne bancroft. the most disheartening scene is in that hotel room. it is almost too difficult for me to watch. she's unmasked at that moment and plays it tragically well in that sideways glance after benjamin rips the sheets off of her - a performance of the same caliber as vivien leigh, when her voice lowers and she unveils the real blanche dubois to mitch.

    the next we see of mrs robinson is as she really is - no makeup, dressed like a slob, passing time at home with a drink, the tv, and a burning cigarette. she never quite recovers from that scene in the hotel room and i find it deeply painful.

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog and thanks for a very interesting observation that will send me off to view the film again. I'd never taken notice of the fact that the Mrs. Robinson in the scenes following the hotel room is perhaps a slightly wounded/unmasked version of her previous self. If you're just discovering Anne Bancroft, try to dig up a copy of "The Pumpkin Eater," she's great in it.

  3. I also still love to watch this movie and completely agree with you about the slightly annoying character of Benjamin! Plus how ironic their real life age difference is, lol.
    I haven't stumbled over a lot of Anne Bancroft films yet, but there was once a dance film also starring Shirley McLaine, and I saw Bancroft in 'Elephant Man' where she is the loviest. Such a beautiful and warm character, wonderfully played and beautiful on the outside as well.

  4. Hello Eva Mary
    Yeah, Benjamin is a little rough going for me. A reader pointed out to me that in the novel it's made clearer that Benjamin is not so much of a brat so much as one of those kids whose life was so fully orchestrated by his parents: they told him where to go to school and what to study, etc. That softens my perception of him somewhat, but Bancroft is still the jewel of this film. I'm not familiar with a lot of her work, but I did like her in "The Elephant Man" as well. Just gorgeous! I always wonder what "Mommie DearesT might have been had she not dropped out...
    Thanks so much for commenting and visiting from far away Austria!

  5. I couldn't agree more on this Ken - Anne Bancroft simply makes this film what it is.

    As Mrs Robinson she is so self-assured and confident in her pursuit of Benjamin (Hoffman). The little gestures and touches she adds to her performance make me love the one character who is supposedly the morally bankrupt villain in the story.

    The way she conducts her first encounter with Benjamin, pouring his drink, lighting a cigarette, and saying that her husband should be back "quite late. He should be gone for several hours". She has the best lines of the whole film, delivering them with (as you said) a touch of world-weariness and non-nonchalance.

    "Do you have a patrol car in the vicinity? Good. We have a burglar. Just a moment, I'll ask him ... are you armed?"

    Fabulous :)

    1. Isn't Anne Bancroft the best? I read somewhere that she gave Katherine Ross hell during the filming, but she is so much the lifeblood of this movie to me.
      Her seduction of Benjamin is coolness personified, and you're right; she does have the best lines. Just reading the quote you wrote made me smile in remembering. Glad to know you are as charmed by this over-30 "villain" as much as I am!

    2. 'Coolness personified' - couldn't have put it any better! :)

  6. Hi Ken,

    Still working my way through the archives and found your insights on this very interesting.

    There was a period when I was crazy nuts for this film. I think it was a combination of the iconic Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, one of the most well suited scores of a film ever. It sets so much of the mood to not just individual scenes but the overall feeling of the picture. The other component that drew me in was the acting of all but the leads in particular. I'm still a fan of the film but looking at it now Benjamin really is a yutz and Mrs. Robinson, in spite of how appealing Anne Bancroft makes her, is ultimatly a viciously cruel woman willing to sacrifice her daughter's happiness for the sake of apperances. Still the movie is 90% better than most of what Hollywood turns out now.

    So perfect is the cast that it should be a primary example of the felicity of fate. Since not one single performer who is in the film was the original choice for their role it makes you wonder if it would have been as seminal as it came to be with other cast members.

    Just the possibilities for Mrs. Robinson are mind boggling. Jeanne Moreau was the initial choice for the part and both she and second choice Simone Signoret, who was considered once Moreau passed, would have given it a world weary tinge but would have been missing the humor Anne brought to it. Also by being European they would have changed the backstory of the character somewhat removing the relatable aspect to many in the audience of a young college student who becomes pregnant and gives up her dreams of academic achievement or an independent career for a family life.

    Nichols then moved on to the inspired idea of Doris Day, who if she had been game I think would have been remarkable but she demurred feeling her fans would have felt betrayed. With that persepective she probably wouldn't have been able to relax into the role so hers was the right decision.

    With Doris out he then offered it to Geraldine Page. Much as I adore her she would have been all wrong; maybe she felt that too for she declined. He then considered Ingrid Bergman, an enchantress but she just feels wrong somehow and Jean Simmons who would have been an interesting choice but the sense of melancholy that always hung around the edges her persona was the wrong kind of sadness for Mrs. Robinson. He auditioned Angela Lansbury but her sexiness was of a different type than what was required in the role and supposedly Ava Gardner, an almost perfect fit, flew in for an interview but showed up drunk and knocked herself out of the running. He finally offered it to Patricia Neal who with her sexy Southern swagger and knowing way would have been great but she was still recovering from her series of strokes and not prepared to return to work yet. Apparently she mentioned that Nichols should think about Anne Bancroft who had replaced her in the film 7 Women when she had initially been felled and an ideal match of actress and role was made.

    1. Check out Mark Harris' book "Pictures at a Revolution" for a very different story regarding Ava Gardner's meetings w/ Nichols (and suitability for the role).

  7. I don't think the decision about Benjamin was quite so arduous or hit as many walls. Those considered were not as numerous nor as high profile which would make sense since he is a college age student, although the ultimate pick was 30, and at that time there were far more venerated women actresses in the Mrs. Robinson age range than in that one.

    I've always been fascinated that Nichols first pick was Burt Ward, since I only know him as Robin on the ridiculous Batman series but apparently his audition was brilliant and he was offered the role. He had to refuse though because, even though they were not filming at the time, the producers wouldn't release him for the shooting schedule. A very similar situation to what happened to Kate Jackson when she wasn't allowed to be released from Charlie's Angels to costar in Kramer vs. Kramer, ironically to costar with Dustin Hoffman. It effectively screwed both of them out of their chances to break away from those confining characters to long lasting success, though Kate did better than Burt for quite some time.

    After Burt's unfortunate situation prevented his casting Nichols looked at all the pretty boys, Beatty, Redford, McQueen, Peppard etc. and thought they would be too distancing to relate to the character in the way he wanted the audience to so he offered it to Charles Grodin! who said no because he wasn't happy with the money offered. I like Charles Grodin but he would have been a disaster as Benjamin, his dry, recessive personality has a certain similarity to Dustin Hoffman's but he's missing Dusty's dynamism that made him so right for his part and again through circumstances the proper actor found the proper part.

    That left the only other major role of Elaine to fill and many were tested, including Goldie Hawn-the mind reels!, and considered but the eventual frontrunners are a mixed bag. Patty Duke was actually offered the role and declined. I can and can't see her in the part, she's an actress of amazing range when properly directed but her tough demeanor strikes me as wrong for Elaine. But it would have been a treat seeing her as Anne's daughter after The Miracle Worker. It would have been her follow up to Valley of the Dolls had she accepted and could have undone a great deal of the damage VOTD caused to her career.

    After Patty's refusal the role was offered to serial rejector of quality projects Tuesday Weld, who would have worked and Jane Fonda, who wouldn't but the two who seemed the most likely to have fit the part were Candice Bergen, who was most seriously considered and whose patrician breeding would have suited Elaine, and Yvette Mimieux whose fragile air could have been used to advantage considering that for all her beauty Elaine is a very insecure girl. I've never felt that Katherine Ross was as perfect a fit in her role as Hoffman and Anne Bancroft but she got the job done.....

    1. I met Henry Jaglom a few years ago, and he told me that he was given the part, then had it taken away for unexplained reasons, in late 1966. So he was there at the finish line w/ Hoffman and Grodin.

    2. I never knew that! I vaguely remember how he looked back then in a "Gidget" episode...interesting choice.

  8. None of the other roles even come close in importance to those three but there were some intriguing possibilities proposed for the secondary roles too. I can't even envision Gene Hackman as Mr. Robinson though he was cast initially until Nichols realized he was too young to make it work. While Murray Hamilton was great as Mr. Robinson had original choice Gregory Peck taken the role I think it would have added an extra dimension. I mean this is the guy who was the actual Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and his resolute dignity and how it's shredded as a cuckold could have added an additional layer to the picture. His star power however might have skewed the balance of his scenes in a way Hamilton doesn't.

    Speaking of star power the roles of Benjamin's parents must have been considerably larger in the original script since the initial actors considered for Mr. Braddock: Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner and Nichols first choice for Mrs. Braddock, Susan Hayward would never have contemplated taking the minimal roles essayed so well by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson.

    I absolutely concur that Anne Bancroft was one of the few who had that combo of old time movie star glamour and contemporary earthiness. Perhaps because of her initial period of unsuccessful studio filming spending five years in the 20th Century Fox grooming factory before returning to the stage and five years there gathering another kind of experience while still retaining the studio training she was able to merge those two concepts into her style. Patricia Neal had a similar history and the two women share a comparable onscreen persona even if Pat Neal's was impeded by her mobility issues post strokes so she was no longer as rangy in her movements as Anne.

    Sorry I went on so but casting and it's impact on different films and this one in particular always catches my fancy.

    1. Hi Joel
      Whew! That's quite a bit of info! And really, no need to apologize, because what thoroughly comes through is your enthusiasm for movies, and that's what this blog is all about.
      Although I tend to be more into a film's content than the behind the scenes stuff, I must say I have heard from many readers who say the people who comment on my blog (like yourself) are so very knowledgeable and they learn a lot reading the comments section. I learn quite a bit too!

      Many express the sentiment that to just read about a film (it's themes, impressions, a few factoids) presents a welcome change from all the sniping that goes on on IMDB.
      So thank you for sharing so much of your knowledge about the casting of history of "The Graduate". It feels like an academic addendum to my post. In addiction, I'm flattered you've been working your way through the archives, Joel. As one film fan to another, thank you.

  9. Although I much prefer the obscure & slightly earlier ' You're A Big Boy Now ' ( reviewed by Mr Anderson at this site ) , I do like this film, though I must confess that I've never had the same level of enthusiasm which so many had & have. I find both Benjamin & Mrs Robinson to be cold, drifting, solipsistic souls. I can't sympathise nor empathise with either of them, though Mrs Robinson's biographic revelations do come close to evoking the same. The story, though, has a brilliant pay-off when Elaine enters the picture & creates the untenable triangle. The final 15 minutes are rightfully regarded as classic.

    1. It's funny, after so many years being regarded as a classic by critics, of late it seems that "The Graduate" has been appearing on a lot of critics' "overrated films" lists. And for much the same reason you site.
      The overriding principle being that critics were so overawed at its influence on a whole generation of films that followed, that it mistook "influential" for quality. Certainly a valid springboard for discussion!

    2. The Graduate is also hurt by our current inability to see exactly WHAT Ben Braddock's generation found so distasteful about their parents' lives and how they would have designed better lives/environments. Given our advantage of (a) 5-decades-removed-from-the-madness-of-the-late-60's and (b) we know from history that they really did become their parents, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.

    3. Excellent point! The same thing happens when watching some of those "You were never my age!" 1950s juvenile rebellion movies.