Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has returned home from university a star scholar, with his parents and all their friends keen to voice their high hopes for him and his future, but Ben is more uncertain with what he wants to do. Amidst this despondency, Ben finds himself the reluctant object of the affections of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner, and the pair begin a secret and sordid affair, which becomes complicated when Mrs. Robinson’s husband (Murray Hamilton) has plans to set Ben up with his daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), obviously against the wishes of Mrs. Robinson.
This is one of those films that has become famous for a few significant moments that have become integral to pop culture. Moments like Anne Bancroft trying to seduce Dustin Hoffman, him framed in a doorway behind her strategically cocked legs in the foreground, or the ending, which gives way to one of my favourite final scenes in cinema (featuring the second time I’ve seen a crucifix being used as a weapon in recent times, after Liam Neeson cracked skulls with his in Gangs of New York). The first time I watched this film, as I’m discovering is the case with so many films, I didn’t understand it that much or in fact take any of it in, and the true meaning of the ending was lost on me. This time around I’m pretty sure I got it. Maybe I’m the right age now. Maybe it’s because I’ve now finished my studies and, only a few years ago, was briefly adrift in an ocean of directions I didn’t want to pursue. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen (500) Days Of Summer, in which the ending is discussed and potentially ruined for anyone who hadn’t seen it or couldn’t remember it (like me, for example).
That’s the problem with such a culturally significant film; it’s been discussed and dissected not just on film blogs such as this one (and probably a few better ones too), but in many other areas of pop culture. The more famous sequences have been riffed on in the likes of Starter For Ten, American Pie and several times in The Simpsons, whereas the overall plot can be heard in The Player (in which a sequel is pitched, set 25 years later), and in Rumor Has It (which I’ve not seen, but my knowledge of the plot led me to expect certain scenes in The Graduate that never actually came about). Fortunately, even though the basics of the plot have been in the public eye for some time now, there are a great many more charms which this film can rely upon.
Firstly, the acting. I’m starting to think that Dustin Hoffman could well be one of the most under-rated actors of his generation. Now, I know that he’s received two leading actor Oscars from seven nominations (the first of which came from this very film), but he’s always seemed overshadowed by the likes of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro from actors of that age. It hasn’t been helped by his far-from-stellar later work, but then Pacino and DeNiro are hardly innocent of that either. You can pretty much guarantee Hoffman will be the focus of a future Film-Makers series. In The Graduate, Hoffman takes a character who should be sympathetic and runs in the opposite direction, making him quite unlikable; someone who’s been handed everything but couldn’t care less. The true genius of the performance shines when Ben is at his most nervous. His subconscious, subtle nod when Mrs. Robinson asks if he knew she was an alcoholic;
his unintentional little whinny and half-swallow whenever he’s put upon the spot or caught off guard. You completely believe, despite the ten year age difference between Hoffman and the character he was playing, that he could be this bright young scholar, the former big man on campus, who now finds himself in the submissive role of a relationship he has no control of. Anne Bancroft is also noteworthy as the woman Ben was completely unprepared for. She retains a steely demeanour, forever in control of every situation she is in, usually because she pulled the strings to instigate it in the first place.
The cinematography and editing were surprisingly good too – surprisingly because I didn’t remember them being very memorable the first time around. The brilliant opening, following Ben as he glides down an airport’s moving walkway, has been shamelessly ripped off by Tarantino in Jackie Brown, but it’s the cuts that really impressed me. Whether it’s Ben getting dressed as he leaves the swimming pool and walks through a doorway cutting to him walking into a hotel room and being undressed by Mrs. Robinson, or his mounting a lilo cutting seamlessly to mounting her on a bed. The editing from In The Heat Of The Night must have been superb to have beaten this at the Oscars.
The main detracting factor is the soundtrack. I was pleasantly surprised when Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence opened the film, for it’s a song I’m happy to listen to. However, they perform the entirety of the soundtrack, which unfortunately is comprised of only about three of their songs, repeated over and over again, and I became truly sick of it all the second time Scarborough Fair was played in the space of a couple of minutes. I don’t normally mind the haunting, melancholic feel of their songs, but after too long I felt like I was drowning in cold syrup. The main problem is that they always sound bored of singing their own songs, and I’m certainly now bored of hearing them.
There were a couple of uncomfortable moments, but they were played out masterfully, particularly the initial encounter between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, who have known each other all of his life, just not in that present light. After giving her a lift home in his shiny new graduate-present car, Ben is requested to accompany Mrs. Robinson indoors, as she is frightened of entering an empty, dark house alone. He is plied with alcohol and music and led upstairs, torn between intense awkwardness and the desire to be polite and not offend his parents’ close friend. Just as you think things cannot possibly become any more excrutiating for Benjamin, after Mrs. Robinson has all but thrown her naked form at him, of course Mr. Robinson comes home and encourages young Ben to enjoy himself that summer, making sure he has a few flings. This is an embarrassing situation far beyond anything you will find on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The script is also wonderful, and any film that can feature the lines “You’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends” and “I don’t love your wife, I love your daughter sir,” can do no wrong by me.
Choose film 9/10