By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Emotions run high and fast as The Graduate approaches its finish, and nowhere is the gamut of emotions so evident as in the scene in which Mrs. Robinson learns about Ben’s relationship with Elaine–and Elaine about Ben’s relationship with her mother.
In beginning to analyze this scene, it is extremely difficult to know where to begin. The Graduate is a cinematic legend, a cornerstone in film history, and in my humble opinion it is as near to a completely perfect film as has ever been created. In everything it attempts to do it succeeds, and in a way so innovative that it becomes a film far ahead of its time. I feel that the artistic and cinematic merits of The Graduate are worthy of a book all their own, but this scene stands apart as one of the more fascinating moments in the entirety of the film.
One of the most creative aspects of this movie is its treatment of the unusual plot structure–instead of following the traditional dramatic structure of rising action, climax, falling action, denouement and resolution, the film instead continues at a calm and still pace (flowing much like the water in the Braddocks’ pool that serves as a metaphor throughout the movie) until the final 30 minutes, in which the plot turns into a maelstrom, rising like a tsunami and crashing down in its last moments to create a sudden resolution. This scene, in which Benjamin’s relationships with the two Robinson women disintegrate, is the beginning of the storm.
By this point in the movie, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has been maintaining a reluctant and secret relationship with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a family friend who seduced him during his graduation party. Their relationship is based solely on sex, and when Ben tries to draw her out through conversation she refuses–except to make Ben promise that he will never go out with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, who is Ben’s age. But when Ben’s parents set him up with Elaine, he is forced to break his promise lest his relationship with Mrs. Robinson be exposed. Ben intends on taking Elaine out once to placate his parents, but he ends up falling for her and they make another date to go for a drive the next day.
When Ben arrives at the Robinson residence, it is raining. Instead of Elaine emerging from the house for the drive, it is Mrs. Robinson, wearing a startlingly youthful outfit and soaking wet from the rain. She angrily orders Benjamin to drive around the block, and threatens that if he ever sees Elaine again, she will expose their relationship to her. Though he initially brushes off Mrs. Robinson’s threat, telling her that he doesn’t believe she would reveal their exploits to Elaine, he stops the car and runs up to tell Elaine himself rather than take the risk of having Mrs. Robinson do so.
Elaine is in a great mood, getting ready for her date with Benjamin when he rushes in, panicked that Mrs. Robinson is also on her way up the stairs to tell Elaine. He grabs her and begins to tell her about his relationship with her mother, but before he can get the story out, Mrs. Robinson appears at the door and Elaine begins to understand the situation. She screams at Benjamin and orders him out, and outside the door stands Mrs. Robinson, looking sickly and pale. She feebly says “Goodbye Benjamin” and the camera zooms out, showing Mrs. Robinson against the large, empty white wall before it fades out. Mrs. Robinson’s figure lingers on the screen for a split second longer than the rest of the scenery as the camera fades.
The heavy rain in the scene is another example of the water symbolism throughout the movie. Up to this point, much of Benjamin’s time is spent in the pool, signifying the calm and uneventful nature of his postgraduate life. Even his secret relationship with Mrs. Robinson is calm and uneventful, and the minute it begins to unravel, his life becomes stormy. There are no more tranquil scenes in the pool, instead the state of his life is defined by the heavy rain in the moment where Benjamin’s life begins to unravel.
When Benjamin begins to tell Elaine about his relationship with her mother and Elaine sees Mrs. Robinson at the door, she is shot out of focus as she turns back to Benjamin. Slowly, as Elaine processes what has happened, the camera begins to focus in on her face, until she is completely in focus and says “Oh no.” By shooting her out of focus until she has processed the information, director Mike Nichols brings us inside of Elaine’s mind. As neither Benjamin nor Mrs. Robinson ever explicitly tells her the story, she is left to figure it out on her own, and we see this process through the camera’s focus. It is a subtle touch, but a very powerful one.
The most startling and lingering image in this whole scene is that of Mrs. Robinson waiting outside of Elaine’s door, weak and tired, with circles under her eyes. It is a completely different Mrs. Robinson than the confident and self-assured woman we see in the rest of the movie. From Anne Bancroft’s magnificent performance in this scene, we can perhaps deduce that Mrs. Robinson’s threat to Benjamin was an empty one–that, as Benjamin originally thought, she would not have told Elaine about their relationship herself. She appears close to tears as she says goodbye to Benjamin. The camera zooms quickly out, and Mrs. Robinson is frozen still against the white backdrop. She appears almost like a ghostly vision, and it is interesting to note that she is not looking at Benjamin–her eyes are frozen just to his left. It makes for a memorable image, and one that evokes a bit of the paranormal.
Director Mike Nichols won an Academy Award for his work in The Graduate and it was nominated for 7 more Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman) and Best Actress (Anne Bancroft). It was also nominated in the category of Best Cinematography, and it is a terrible shame that the groundbreaking cinematography in The Graduate lost to Bonnie and Clyde that year. It is a movie that has stood the test of time for 55 years, and it seems just as new today as it did upon its release in 1967. That speaks volumes.
See you next time!
Great write up! Did you get a chance to see my Oscar Vault Monday on the entire film few weeks back?
Hate to be nitpicky, but Bancroft was up for Lead Actress, Katharine Ross was up for Supporting.
Oops! That was an oversight. Thanks for pointing that out! I knew you were doing the whole movie, but I somehow missed the post. I’ll go look now!
A very enjoyable read! I’ve seen The Graduate at least 4 times over the years but you’ve given me a new perspective, things I surely missed during those viewings.
(Bancroft looks a bit scary in the screen grab. It looks like she’s all sweaty instead of wet and ready to go postal on someone or some thing.)
I hope you’re doing well.
Very nice, thoughtful write-up. I like how you often focus on a single scene, shot-by-shot, to better understand why these movies affect us so.