The atmosphere in the United States at the time the film was released was unique. It was the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters marched in Washington, D.C., and interracial marriage was decriminalized by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia caseiv. The setting of this time period is not insignificant to my analysis of this film. It was a time when old molds were being broken. It was an exciting time and for women especially, a “brave new world,” or seemingly so. Women in this film hold a particular importance in relationship to the main character, Benjamin Braddock, The Graduate. Also playing a strong part in the struggles of this young adult is the desire for change from current norms. A new generation was rebelling against continuing standards set by the previous generation. Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman is a 20 year old who has just graduated from college and is flying home to southern
In his room with the fish tank and by the swimming pool of his parent’s suburban home, we see a microcosm of Ben’s experience in relationship to his parents and home. The fish tank in Ben’s bedroom and the swimming pool in the next scenes function in combination with the zoom. They compound the sense we have of Ben’s emotional turmoil and his sense of helplessness, both exemplified by the water and enclosures that give a sense of entrapment. A striking close up of Ben’s face straight on with a fish tank clearly visible behind his head, has us face Ben’s alienation head on suggesting that he is “a fish out of water.” He has no idea why he has returned home and wants to hide in his room while his parents have a party welcoming him home as “the college graduate.”
Ben needs some release. From his growing frustration with his dependence on his parents and alienation towards their ideas about his future, he is pushed into the arms of Mrs. Robinson. In the earlier scene at his graduation party, she manipulates him into giving her a ride home and then tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. Now he is calling her, and though awkward and tentative, meets with her at a hotel where he forms a sexual entanglement. At first the affair gives Ben some sense of power and control over his destiny. Ironically enough though, it’s his parent’s pressure on him once again (this time to take out the Robinson’s daughter Elaine) that prompt Ben’s motivation to move out of Mrs. Robinson’s arms and into a more self-possessed young man. The move won’t be without difficulty, as Mrs. Robinson has forbid Ben to take her daughter out.
When Ben arrives at the Robinson’s house to pick up Elaine, Ben’s pov shot is a slow zoom in on Mrs. Robinson, who clearly is very unhappy. The pull of her power over him is unmistakable. When Mr. Robinson goes upstairs to get his daughter, Ben sits down next to her. He tries to explain in a half whispering, part desperate voice that it wasn’t his idea and that he’s just going to take her to dinner and then bring her home. He tries to assure her that it won’t happen again. Ben is very concerned that his lover is so upset and at odds with his parents for forcing him to go on this date with her daughter. Once out on the date, Ben acts out terribly. Acting like a perfect boor, walking in front of his date, ordering her around, and taking her to a strip club. Elaine’s reaction of crying, unleashes a wealth of genuine emotion and feelings from Ben for her, as well as regret at his treating her so poorly. They kiss and we see that they are really attracted to each other. The next half of the date, we see that Ben and Elaine are peers and can relate to each other. Ben has finally found someone who he can talk with and who will understand what he is going through. He can open up to her about his uncertainty about his future, his desire to find his own path and to not necessarily walk in his parent’s footsteps and she can relate to him. When he drops Elaine off finally, there is a sense of a new healthy relationship having been formed with a young woman he desires both in body and mind and who unlike Mrs. Robinson does not hold power over or under Ben. He can be his true self.
The union is disrupted though by Mrs. Robinson’s power over Ben when he comes to take Elaine out on a second date the next day. Water is symbolically used to portray the emotions in the next scene, where it’s pouring rain outside when Ben arrives to pick up Elaine. Mrs. Robinson gets in his car sopping wet and demands that he drive around the block. She threatens to make things difficult and tell everyone about the affair between them. Ben runs to the house to beat her to Elaine. His running is significant in that it prefaces Ben’s taking action on his own behalf. Unfortunately, when he sees Elaine and he tries to tell her about the affair, she spies her mother soaked outside her door, looks at Ben who is soaked too, and puts two and two together. She tells him to leave and as he goes, his pov is a zoom out of Mrs. Robinson, in a black rain coat drenched standing in the corner of the hallway, against the stark white walls behind her were she grows small and alien like, an adult in a childlike position. She says, “goodbye Benjamin.” The zoom and mis en scene function as a symbolic expression of Mrs. Robinson’s loss of importance and control over him. There is no more seduction. This leads the change in plot towards Ben’s personal development and independence.
I think that the older I get the funnier this film gets. The anxieties that college graduate age people are not the same as mine, I'm a middle aged single woman who has worked for 4 decades, brought up two sons, and am now living on my own. Though I still must be young at heart or in some areas the generation gap isn't as relevant because I did watch a film with a 21 year old that we both found hilarious: Horrible Bosses, but that's a discussion for another post.
Thanks for reading. Peace out.
production; directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry; produced by
1 Letterbox 2.351:1 DVD screen format (1 hour 46 minutes), color. 1967.