“Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?”
These are the famous lines from Ben in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967). Hoffman plays Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate who is seduced into having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of one of Ben's father's business partners. He is lured into taking Mrs. Robinson for a ride home after his family’s party where he soon finds out she wants to have her way with him. Though he is completely against the relationship at first, he falls into a trap of lust and sexual desire. Things become even more complicated for Ben when he falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine. Now he is torn between keeping his past affair with her mother a secret, and revealing everything to her, which could ruin their new found relationship.
Hollywood witnessed a revolution with The Graduate. Ben portrayed and does still portray many young students in America. “Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.” “Oh, it’s not. It’s completely baked." Ben is “half-baked”. He exists at that awkward transition of adulthood and adolescence. He has problems communicating, he doesn’t understand love, and he doesn’t really know what he wants from his future. He is most naive, at that early-twenty-something phase, and he knows he does not want to become his parents. But in his ignorance, he tries to use Mrs. Robinson as his way into adulthood and love. Mrs. Robinson is a woman who is completely “baked”. She is disappointed by the life she has made for herself, but uses Ben to feel young again and fill an emptiness in her. They both try to fill emptiness with one another. That in the end that doesn’t work when Ben comes to realize that sex isn’t love. He falls for her daughter Elaine who fills him with a sense of belonging and understanding.
At this point in time, the story was very scandalous. His affair and the views of sex and love in this film was shocking to the audience at the time. Now, this is all very common occurrences, but the story still stands as a classic. He was establishing a coming of age into adulthood. Nichols uses the soundtrack and key shots to help the audience visualize and understand this transition.
Straight from the beginning, something not quite right with Ben. We're introduced to him as he's being pulled along by a moving sidewalk, arriving home from college. Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" plays over the scene. Coming home is supposed to be a happy time for most college students, however Ben is not smiling and this is anything but a happy song. Garfunkel interprets the song as being about "the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other." It functions as the central thematic core of the film.
Ben begins the story emotionally empty. He struggles to make himself care about something. His parents pull him toward Elaine and toward getting a job or going to graduate school. While Mrs. Robinson pulls him toward herself with her sexual appeal. He has a series of emotionless sexual encounters with her, and again "The Sound of Silence" plays over Ben's vacant stare.
Ben is like this because he's "worried about the future". He alternates drastically between doing nothing at all (floating in the pool drinking, drifting between affairs) and jumping head-on without knowing where he might land (asking Elaine to marry him, taking her away from her wedding). He's afraid of the future, so he alternates between hiding from it and running full-tilt toward it. Many students encounter this sort of conflict, but many not quite like in Ben’s circumstances. The film criticizes our cultural tendency to push our young people toward an indeterminate future without helping them deal with their present and with their struggle to figure out their own identity.
The great thing about The Graduate is that none of this plays explicitly on the surface of the film. The fact that it can hide itself as a mainstream comedy is brilliant. It goes far beyond that of a simple comedy. It makes the audience question their own lives and decisions that have brought them this far. Just like Ben at the end with Elaine in the bus, he has a realization that his coming of age has just began and that all his decisions will have an impact on his life.
This film may have ushered in the second “Golden Age” of Hollywood together with Bonnie and Clyde, however The Graduate was an enormous hit all on its own. It speaks to a generation that saw a problem between its younger generation and its elders. It is insightful enough to recognize the real-life complexity that still has great relevance today. The Graduate will stand a classic for these reasons.