Ben Braddock may be the most selfish character ever idealized on the screen. An adolescent with no regard for others, he goes from being an indecisive college graduate to a degenerate and sadistic creep. He bulldozes and takes advantage of giving people until they’ve served his purpose, and then, like a packet of ketchup or a coiled up collection of trinkets, tosses them aside, eager to conquer and corrupt something else. He does this to his parents, his education, and eventually his lover, so by the end of the film, the award-winning scholar and track star goes from a model citizen to an unforgivable misogynist.
And yet, what’s remarkable is that despite this dubious and defective protagonist, Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate” still finds a way to work; it is an amiable watch; and though we are certainly not walking proudly alongside its lead, we find ourselves impatiently tapping our toes to find out where he’s going next – if only to see what happens to everyone else.
Ben (Dustin Hoffman) returns home from school a conqueror. His gleeful parents (William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson) proudly read from a list of his accolades at the party they’ve thrown for him, filled to the brim with old and painted faces. We’re told that Ben was a great athlete and an achieving student, but coming off the airplane, he sure doesn’t look the part. He seems dazed and confused; as Ben puts it numerous times, he is “worried about his future.”
That worry is what makes this tiresome character transfixing. Ben has been thrown into a paradigm, one which is very much dictated by his parents. What’s fascinating is that he wants no part of it. The brilliant first scene, the party Mr. and Mrs. Braddock throw for their son, is not for Ben; it’s a formality, a pushing stone, where they can display the graduate as the collegiate deity that he is. The young man is practically forced out of his room, “it’s a wonderful thing to have so many devoted friends,” his father tells him. What awaits him downstairs is a mob of affectionate, one-dimensional cronies – you know, business partners (“Plastics”), family friends, a collection of old money if there ever was one.
Overwhelmed, Ben manages to escape the party and retreat to his bedroom. Enter Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the beautiful wife of Mr. Braddock’s business partner. She bursts into Ben’s room, supposedly thinking that it’s the bathroom. She glows. She’s alive. She isn’t like Ben: where he’s disillusioned, she is confident and demanding – or perhaps, she’s just experienced.
Mrs. Robinson manages to convince Ben to drive her home, despite his profound reluctance. From there, she gets him to the front step (because she doesn’t feel safe alone), inside the house (because she’s afraid of the dark), and then at the bar having a drink. Ben has swiftly transitioned from the confides of his bedroom and meditation directly into her trap. She seduces him, and an affair arises.
They move quickly between their lives and their room at the Taft hotel, where the now-regular Ben has grown quite popular. However, though he is certainly having a good time with Mrs. Robinson, Ben is upset by the purely physical and thus, unsubstantial relationship. He stops her one time before they commence their infidelity, “Do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?” Her reply: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other.” Benjamin, whose level of self-worth is exponentially decreasing, assumes that physical sex should coincide with emotional intimacy. Mrs. Robinson, a cougar whose “appetite” is unfulfilled at home, does not.
Things get stranger once Mr. Robinson mentions his and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), who is due to arrive back from college any day. He suggests that Benjamin call her up, a motion seconded by Mr. Braddock, but Mrs. Robinson makes her opposition clear. However, you know what they say, telling someone they can’t have something only makes them want it more, as Ben, who admits to never giving Elaine the time of day, takes her out, and falls in love.
This juggling of mother and daughter is totally absurd, but it works in “The Graduate” because of how straightforward the film approaches it. Dustin Hoffman acts so awkward and jittery that we realize that we’d probably act the same way. And Anne Bancroft, in a difficult role, makes the manipulative Mrs. Robinson incredibly powerful and sexy. So much so that we can buy into the seduction.
I understand that I was a bit direct in my assault of Ben as a protagonist, but I do not want to suggest that he is a defective character. There is a difference. Like all of the great revolutionaries in film like Randle McMurphy, Cool Hand Luke or Jim Stark, Ben’s need to be different is satisfying. And though he turns himself into a despicable individual during his lustful odyssey, at the beginning of the film, Benjamin Braddock is actually worth our sympathy. Thrown into the sea of celebration construed by his parents, we understand his decision to test his new scuba gear (another present from the proud papa) by sitting at the bottom of the pool – a blissful and longed for moment of isolation.
“The Graduate” has evolved into an icon of the 1960s, a touchstone that wonderfully captures the uneasiness of the decade. However, it does not deal with many of the political or social dilemmas found in that era: what we are watching is a boy become a man, trying to leap across that enormous generational gap, and deciding for himself that he wants to be an exception. And for that reason, “The Graduate” could be an infinitely timeless film.
– by Luke Parker