AFI #17: The Graduate


“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.”

It’s 1967 and you have just graduated from college. You return home to Los Angeles amid the expectations of a generation that represents everything you despise. Your peers are starting to drop out and drop acid. What’s a poor little rich boy like Benjamin Braddock to do? Sleep with your parents friend and run off with their daughter of course. Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson!

I chose the photo above to represent The Graduate rather than the classic visual of Benjamin Braddock as seen through the leg of Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson because the story of The Graduate can really be summed up by the look on the faces of Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus that is taking them not to start a new life together but to avoid the life that was predetermined for them by society and their parents. The look is priceless. Ben has just burst into the church to save Elaine from becoming the wife of fraternity boy Carl Smith and he should be beaming because Elaine has chosen him, but instead he and Elaine both look like deer in the headlights because they have no idea what is in store for them. Is it a happy ending? Who the hell knows. Is there any such thing as a happy ending?

Here are a few things I do know about The Graduate. It’s funny. It’s funny in a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm cringe-worthy way. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is a classic character. His facial expressions make you laugh. When he gets stressed he makes a little “hmm” sound that cracks you up. When he walks out of his parents house in full scuba gear upon being forced to show off his birthday present to his parents friends you laugh out loud. When he questions Anne Bancroft about her intentions: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” he makes us laugh. It’s really a brilliant yet understated performance that is portentous or things to come in Hoffman’s great career. You can’t imagine anyone else in the role and that is a testament to his performance.

Bancroft is of course beautiful and sexy and vulnerable while at the same time mischievous enough to seduce Benjamin — he was doomed from the moment she decided to sleep with him and he was in no position to resist. He was utterly out of his league in this exchange. She manipulated him at every turn. Should we feel sorry for her when Ben chooses Elaine despite her warnings? Hell no. She knew what she was doing. Benjamin was as much a victim as Mr. Robinson! By the way, Bancroft was actually only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson despite playing a woman who was supposed to be twice Benjamin’s age. She created an iconic character that she was never able to top despite a full career.

The Graduate is a classic American film because it captures an era as well as any film ever. It was nominated for a lot of Academy Awards but only won one, for Mike Nichols as Best Director. And while Hoffman went on to win Oscars for Rain Man and Kramer Vs. Kramer, and be nominated for five others including The Graduate, you can see all of his future greatness in Benjamin Braddock. Great film.

Next: Sunset Boulevard


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