“The Graduate” As Seen 50 Years Later

by Herbert H. Stein

“Hello Darkness my old friend …”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock is 71 years old. He had his 21st birthday one week after coming home from college. He flew home alone to his parents in southern California. It’s not clear if they simply did not attend the graduation or if he took some extra time in the east after the ceremony.

As I recall it, for those of us who were part of Ben’s generation, the film was spellbinding. I remember my classmates in medical school talking about it long after having seen it, and I presume I saw it more than once. One class- mate pronounced excitedly that he had fig- ured it out. “He’s schizophrenic!”

I decided to see it again with a hope that I might gain some additional understanding of its impact. I don’t think I succeeded in that, but I did see, or perhaps imagine, something that would never have occurred to me in 1967.

Spectrum Cable (formerly Time Warner) gives The Graduate five stars and provides a concise, if lifeless, description of the plot: “An aimless college man (Dustin Hoffman) lets an older woman (Anne Bancroft) seduce him, then finds himself falling for her daughter (Katherine Ross).”

That is the basic plot. It doesn’t sound like much and the film is listed at 1 hour 47 min- utes, not long by today’s blockbuster stan- dards; but even in 2017, watching it on a small screen, I found it riveting, with a sinister tension that I don’t think I felt as a young man. I don’t have a complete and clear memory of my reactions in late 1967 or early 1968, but as I recall it, I was more taken with the second part of the film in which a young man, seem- ingly lost and shy, ends up having the date of a lifetime with Katherine Ross’s character, Elaine Robinson. The ending—in which Ben breaks into Elaine’s wedding to another man, screaming her name through an enormous glass window looking down on the ceremony and then defending her from the wedding party with a large wooden cross—was electric.

But the follow-up to that scene left some people perplexed. Fresh off their victory, Ben and Elaine run to catch a bus, moving to the back with all the riders staring back at them. Elaine is dressed as a bride. At first they are laughing together, smiling, but slowly, as the music starts up to “The Sounds of Silence,” first Ben and then Elaine look forward with a quiet inward stare, unsmiling, unexpressive.

The film begins with that same stare, with Benjamin sitting in an airplane. His face is expressionless. We hear an announcement saying that they are about to land in Los Angeles. I was surprised that the experience of being on an airplane has not changed dramat- ically in 50 years. As we see him going down an escalator to pick up his one small suitcase, we hear Simon and Garfunkel singing “Sounds of Silence.” Ben’s face remains expressionless and when he does move to pick up the suit- case and to walk with it, there is an extreme economy of movement. He is dressed impeccably in a dark suit and tie. There is nothing in his body language or his demeanor that con- veys any sense of affect. The film moves seamlessly to Ben sitting in front of a large fish tank, not moving, still expressionless. There is an eerie quality to his lack of emotion. My medical school classmate attributed it to schizophrenia. I have another thought.

With Ben so impassive, the action must come from others. His father enters the room and asks what’s wrong. In a quiet voice, Ben tells him he is thinking about his future. The sense we get, however, is that it is empty thought. His father urges him to come down- stairs where “All our friends are here.” He clearly means Ben’s parents’ friends. We never see or hear mention of Ben’s friends. Perhaps they are back east where he went to college. In the realm of the fantasy, they do not exist.

The following scene is much talked about. Ben enters a crowded room, filled with middle aged and elderly people who are eager to con- gratulate him and, in one famous case, give him advice, “Plastics.”

He is simply trying to get away from them, but just seems to bounce from one to the other. He finally escapes to his room, but Mrs. Robinson barges in, played by a still very attractive Anne Bancroft. We will learn that she is the wife of Ben’s father’s business partner. We see a little more emotion in Ben in the form of a muted anger at her intrusion.

And yet, in a tense exchange she verbally coerces him to drive her home. It is clear that she does not cajole or even seduce him. She coerces him, using her assumed authority and sealing it with a coda in which she throws his car keys past him into the fish bowl, so that he must retrieve them in what appears to be the first in a series of humiliations.

We don’t question her authority, in part because she plays her part so coolly and effi- ciently, ignoring his muted protest as she enters his room, lights a cigarette and, not finding an ashtray, says in a subtly demeaning manner, “Oh, I forgot. The track star doesn’t smoke” as she places her match beside her on his bed. He meekly picks it up and throws it in the wastebasket.

We accept her authority in part because of her superb acting, but it must have a context for us. On the surface, we see an older woman, a close family friend, with a shy young man, struggling to get past adolescence. But watch- ing it with older eyes, it occurred to me that we also accept it as an adult talking to a child.

There are other cues that help to create that atmosphere. We can start with the direct visuals and camera work. Benjamin Braddock, Dustin Hoffman, is slim and relatively short. In the early scenes, he somehow appears to be smaller than the adults who surround him with kind advice in that opening party scene. He is shorter than both his parents, shorter than Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Robinson. We know that a filmmaker can arrange the cam- era work to even out such discrepancies. I don’t know how tall Katherine Ross is, but when he is in scenes with her later in the film, the difference in height is less pronounced. In the opening scene at the party, Benjamin appears to be surrounded by older, bigger people.

He is also treated as a child by his parents, particularly his father, who parades him in front of family friends, gives him toys, adult toys, but toys nonetheless. In one of the open- ing scenes, he forces him to march out to the pool area to a group of onlookers in his new deep sea diving outfit, replete with wetsuit, flippers, mask, snorkel and oxygen tank. He reluctantly accepts this role.

There is no doubt that this film was designed to capture a sense of the innocence of youth confronting the corruption of their elders. This film was released in the midst of what might be called a youth rebellion. Hippies dominated San Francisco and else- where and the baby boomers were being told not to trust anyone over 30. JFK had been killed in Dallas four years before and older politicians had led us into Vietnam.

But in creating that atmosphere, the film makers have left us the possibility of experi- encing an even darker image, the image of an adult knowingly sexually abusing a child. Throughout the seduction, Mrs. Robinson manipulates Ben, using her authority as an adult who has known him all his life. In all their dialogue, he calls her Mrs. Robinson (we never learn her first name) and she calls him Benjamin.

She plays with his mind, causing him to feel that he is the guilty party. Having gotten him into his house under the pretext of being nervous entering it alone in the dark, but also using her authority, she puts on music, has him pour her a drink and tells him to pour one for himself. She tells him he has to stay with her there because her husband won’t be home for hours and she’s afraid to be alone.

In a moment of anxious insight, he protests,

“For God’s sake, Mrs. Robinson, here we are, you’ve got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music, now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours.”

“So?”

“Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me.”

But he quickly reverts to his child-like position. There is a pause as she stares at him.

In a weaker voice, he asks, “Aren’t you?”

“Why, no, I hadn’t thought of it. I’m rather flattered that you … “

“Mrs. Robinson, will you forgive me for what I just said?”

He continues to plead for forgiveness, castigating himself for having such a thought.

Only minutes later, the seduction begins in earnest in her daughter Elaine’s room with Elaine’s portrait watching them. She has gotten him there to show him the portrait. As he stands watching it, we see her by the bed behind him, taking off her jewelry. Listening to the dialogue, it’s not difficult to imagine an interaction between an adult and a child.

“Benjamin?”

“Yes?”

“Will you unzip my dress?”

After a pause, she adds, “I think I’ll go to bed.”

“Oh, well, goodnight!”

“Won’t you unzip my dress?”

“I’d rather not Mrs. Robinson.”

“If you still think I’m trying to seduce you…“

“No, I don’t. But I just feel a little funny.”

“Benjamin, you’ve known me all your life.”

“I know that, but I’m …”

“Come on.” She turns her back to him, telling him, “It’s hard for me to reach.”

He reaches out to pull the zipper down.

“Thank you.”

“Right.”

He starts toward the door. She asks him,

“What are you so scared of?”

“I’m not scared.” (He clearly is.)

“Then why do you keep running away?”

“Because you’re going to bed. I don’t think I should be up here.”

She lets her dress fall, revealing her leopard spot bra and slip.

“Haven’t you ever seen anybody in a slip before?”

“Yes, I have, but I just … Look, what if Mr. Robinson walked in here right now?”

“What if he did?”

“Well, it would look pretty funny, wouldn’t it?”

“Don’t you think he trusts us together?”

“Of course he does. But he might get the wrong idea. Anyone might.”

“I don’t know why. I’m twice as old as you. How could anyone think …”

“But they would! Don’t you see?”

There is something childlike in his attempt to convince her, as if she just doesn’t understand.

“Benjamin, I’m not trying to seduce you. I wish you’d …”

“I know that. But please Mrs. Robinson. This is difficult for me.”

“Why is it?”

“Because I’m confused about things. I can’t tell what I’m imagining. I can’t tell what’s real. I can’t …”

She steps towards him, not seductively, matter of factly, and asks,

“Would you like me to seduce you?”

She has managed to turn the tables, to suggest that the idea is coming from him.

“What?”

“Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“I’m going home now. I apologize for what I said. I hope you can forget it. But I’m going home right now.”

He is leaving, but leaving with an apology, scared, confused and unsure which of them is the abuser. This is one of the sources of the silence.

She manages to get him back up to the room, asking, then almost ordering him to bring up her pocketbook, then suddenly appearing naked and shutting the door behind her. She tells him that she will be available to him, just as they hear her husband’s car pulling in. He runs down the stairs, goes back to the bar and acts as if nothing happened as her husband enters, maintaining the secret.

We see a confused, innocent young man being manipulated by an older woman, but the effect also suggests the other image as well, the one of a child, dimly understanding what is happening, but unable to hold off the adult perpetrator. As often happens in such cases, he feels a need to maintain the secret from Mr. Robinson, afraid that if the truth is found out, he will be attacked as a co-conspirator. As the sexual relationship develops, he is far more anxious about hiding the secret affair than she is.

This gives a context to understand his strange affect at the beginning of the film. He looks lost and looks as if his thoughts are turned inward. We can easily see someone who has suffered sexual abuse and is partly dissociated. What my classmate labeled schizophrenia makes more sense as the demeanor of someone who suffers from PTSD with dissociated, repressed memories. Of course, that comes before the seduction, but if we see the film as a whole, as a fantasy, in fact, we might see the opening scenes and the later seduction as part of an interior story. It is as if we are seeing a patient who presents with a strange, muted affect and difficulty speaking, only later revealing the early sexual experience behind it.

This may be why the Simon and Garfunkel song, written and popularized before the film was made, seemed so fitting for this film. Here are the opening words of the song:

“Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping                                                                                            

Left its seeds while I was sleeping”

I’ve italicized the last two lines to emphasize the suggestion of an image implanted in dreams, a nightmare that comes as a vision softly creeping. I’ll give the rest of the verse:

“And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence.”

In the context of childhood sexual abuse, the term “sound of silence” takes on an added meaning, the silence, heard perhaps in dreams, that must be observed by the child, the perpetrator and the adults who care for the child.

But the film offers a potential, if partial, cure. After the initial seduction, in which Mrs. Robinson tells Ben that she is available to him, he eventually calls her to meet for drinks. Following Mrs. Robinson’s instructions, a very nervous Ben begins to rent rooms at a hotel for his affair with Mrs. Robinson. We see a montage in which Ben moves from his parents’ pool to the hotel room where he lies on his back while Mrs. Robinson unbuttons his shirt. It appears that that is his life until Elaine Robinson returns from college.

Until Ben meets Elaine, he is like a child living totally in the world of adults. She is the first person around his own age that he interacts with in the film. We don’t know if he had friends in college, but this is a fantasy and in a fantasy, what is relevant is what is there. Ben is isolated and abused in a world of adults.

Ben is pressured into taking Elaine out on a date by his parents and by Mr. Robinson. He is warned by Mrs. Robinson that he must never take her on a date. At one point, when he brings up the idea when they are together in bed, she grabs him by the hair, pulling his head back, clearly frightening him. Nevertheless, pressured by the threat of both families getting together for a dinner for him to meet Elaine, he decides to ask her out with the intention of scaring her away.

In effect, he takes on the role of the abuser, subjecting her to something akin to the abuse he has suffered. He picks her up in the little red sports car with the top down that was one of the toys his father bought him. He drives at breakneck speed, not talking to her, his eyes hidden under sunglasses. She is frightened and asks if he always drives this way. He says, “yes,” slamming on the breaks to stop behind another car and drags her into a strip club. They are seated near the stage, her back to the stage. An exotic dancer comes on, spinning something from her breasts. When she gets right behind Elaine and spins her nipple projections above her head, Elaine is clearly feeling hurt and humiliated. Tears come to her eyes.

Seeing her tears, Ben is suddenly brought out of his own dissociative state. It is as if his seeing her pain and her ability to express it allows him to recognize and acknowledge his own. He gets up, shoeing away the stripper and they both leave the club, she running ahead of him. At this point, he takes off the glasses and begins to talk to her. Somehow, they kiss (it is a fantasy) and go to find a drive- in burger place where we see them talking and laughing together. She later asks if he’s been having an affair and he admits to it, not telling her with whom. She asks if it is over and he tells her “yes,” truthfully. Elaine is a vehicle of cure for him. For the first time, he has come to life and is willing to begin to share his demons.

The next day, Mrs. Robinson intervenes, threatening to tell Elaine that the affair was with her. Ben beats her to it, starting to tell her the truth when Mrs. Robinson appears outside the door, Ben looking at her. Elaine understands and tearfully, angrily demands that he leave. As he does, he looks at Mrs. Robinson and we see her, now looking small, seemingly huddled in a corner of the hallway.

In the aftermath, it is Ben who is accused of being the perpetrator by Mr. Robinson, who tells him to stay away from his daughter. Ben has followed Elaine to Berkeley, where she is in school dating another man who is seemingly more mature and corrupted than Ben. When Ben is trying to find out where the marriage is, he goes to the locker room at the groom’s school and hears him described as “the make-out king.” It is in this context, that Ben races around, finds the church and interrupts the service seemingly at or just before its conclusion. As he screams out Elaine’s name and she comes running towards him, we see Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Robinson and the groom all angrily mouthing some kind of hatred towards him.

Which leads to that enigmatic ending, which I described before. Ben and Elaine run to catch a bus, moving to the back with all the riders staring back at them. Elaine is dressed as a bride. At first they are laughing together, smiling, but slowly, as the music starts up again to “The Sound of Silence,” first Ben and then Elaine look forward with that quiet inward stare we saw at the beginning of the film, a sign of the trauma they have now both endured.

“ … And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence.”

 Published originally in the PANY Bulletin 55:2 Summer, 2017.

 

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