Hello darkness my old friend
I’m way behind on writing up Alphabetical movie blog posts. In fact, the last movie I wrote about was Dodgeball back in June. Yikes!
I’m now most of the way through the G’s so I’m just going to start with where I am and where I am is The Graduate.
As with most films, I tend to find myself focused on character and story and in my case, I find the character of Mrs. Robinson the most interesting character in the film. Katherine Ross’s Elaine is really just an object of desire. Dustin Hoffman’s Ben is a blank slate and borderline stalker.
I take it back – there is nothing borderline about his stalking.
Mrs. Robinson, on the other hand, goes from a hot middle aged woman who is helping a young man find himself sexualy to someone obsessed – seemingly – with ruining the lives of everyone around her. Including her own.
And the film – cleverly – never really explains why. She tells Ben that he cannot see her daughter and when he asks her why, he doesn’t really get an answer. He assumes that she thinks he isn’t good enough for Elaine and she eventually agrees with him – to shut him up. Later, she simply says she doesn’t think they’d be compatible. If that was all, why go to the extreme of destroying her own life in an attempt to ensure that the Ben and Elaine won’t end up together?
One possibility (and by no means the only one) is that she wants to ruin Elaine’s life the way she feels Elaine ruined hers.
I think the entire key to the world of Mrs. Robinson lies in the one real exchange of dialogue she has with Ben. Ben says he wants to have an actual conversation. She doesn’t but when she finally allows herself to talk to him, we learn a lot.
We learn that she is in a loveless marriage that came about because of an unplanned pregnancy. Ben finds this information entertaining and interesting but the camera watches Mrs. Robinson, who is clearly emotionally scarred.
I don’t think you can understate how good Anne Bancroft is in the movie and especially in this scene. She lets us into a very private world for just a little bit and turns a woman who will end up being the villain of the film into someone who is a little bit sympathetic because we can see that she is miserable.
We see, too, that when Ben tells her that their tryst is the one source of happiness in his life, she is pleased. It is probably the first time anyone has ever told this to her.
So watching this scene, we are left with a lot of options as to what follows because the transformation of the character takes place the next time we meet her.
It could be that Mrs. Robinson honestly thinks that Ben is not good enough for her daughter. That excuse never feels genuine and is, I think, just her attempt to deflect the question. The answer is much deeper than that and, having already shown her unwillingness to keep their relationship at anything but a superficial and sexual level, it doesn’t make sense that she would share it with Ben.
The three most likely theories to me seem to be an attempt to punish Elaine, an attempt to keep Ben for herself or a fear that with Ben, Elaine will repeat her own mistakes.
The punishment theory comes from how Ben draws out the details of Elaine’s conception. We see how angry she is about her life choices in the way she responds to his questions about art. She says she doesn’t like art but it turns out she was an art major. She has taken things she used to love and turned it into hatred because it helps her cope.
Well, is it too far a leap to guess that she hates her daughter for ruining the life she wanted to have? If so, she may be willing to destroy her own life to ensure that her daughter is unhappy. It isn’t as if her own life can get considerably worse.
Could she actually be in “love” with Ben? I don’t think she is in love with him but I do think that he makes her feel young and beautiful and he is the one thing in her life that she feels she can control. She must know that Ben will not be with her forever but it could be that the pain of watching him date her daughter is something she can’t handle.
My third theory, I think, makes sense if we view the film from a more cynical sensibility than I believe we are supposed to. Ben is a blank slate. He is, frankly, boring. He has no ambition and is easily led into a tryst with Mrs. Robinson – seemingly because it is something to do so he can put off all the important decisions he needs to make.
Elaine also seems adrift. She has two men looking to marry her and she keeps saying “maybe” but never says “hey – what about what I want for my own life?” She is sollely defined by who she is going to marry. Do these two kids make a good match?
The movie wants us to think yes – until it gives us that “well, what do we do now” shot in the bus.
Now I know that shot was a last minute addition because director Mike Nichols liked how it looked. Never mind that – it is there and it drives home the point that even as they ride off into the sunset, these kids don’t have a plan.
What if Mrs. Robinson sees that and rather than wanting to punish her daughter, she wants to keep her daughter from making the same stupid mistake she did?
It seems foolish, then, that she would push Elaine into marriage with a man she doesn’t love but still, the possibility is there…
The Graduate is a good movie because it doesn’t provide us the answers. We don’t know how Ben and Elaine will make their lives work. We don’t know if Ben will go to graduate school. We don’t know why Mrs. Robinson was so steadfastly against their relationship.
I have a lot of theories. None of them are perfect. The crafting of the movie is such that you watch and wonder and appreciate that it is good, at least in part, because you don’t have all the answers.
Because the characters in the film don’t have them either.