The Graduate Turns 50: God Bless You Still, Mrs. Robinson

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By Allen Callaci

Great art can be defined as that art which evolves, deepens and endures alongside you. It never changes yet it keeps on growing. It is that song, book or film that one can revisit every 5-10 years and without fail walk away with some fresh insights into not just the work but one’s self. The 1967 cinematic classic The Graduate, currently celebrating its silver anniversary, exemplifies this. Fifty years on its baby-blue Technicolor chlorinated waters still run deep.

I couldn’t have been more than nine years old when the last twenty minutes of The Graduate seeped out from the living room TV that was dialed-in to KHJ-TV’s The Million Dollar Movie. I watched transfixed as a jubilant and seemingly triumphant Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross fled a church hand-in-hand and blindly jump aboard a municipal bus in a last-ditch effort to transcend the material world. I watched as their fire quickly turned to ash as they took their place in the back of that bus and the uncertain road that lied before them crawled into view as they gave each other the blank stare heard ‘round the world.

As the credits wrapped I knew I had just borne witness to something. I just didn’t know what. It took another decade-plus to realize that what I had unknowingly witnessed that afternoon was a glimpse into my own restless and disaffected collegiate future. Did I become such an aimless and iconoclastic twenty-something because I’d been exposed to The Graduate at such a young and impressionable age? Or did the film resonate so strongly at that time because it triggered and reinforced something that was already there but had not yet been awakened?

By the time I reached college, Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock had become the disaffected template for both everything that I wanted to be and everything that I was. Like Holden Caulfield before him, his voice seemed like a drop of water in a desert of bullshit. “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me,” Hoffman’s Braddock confides to Elaine as he pulls back his dark shades and lets her see in. “They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

In those three lines rested the perfect summation of what it was I felt but could not fully articulate at age 22. The Graduate nailed the inertia and the paralyzing terror of how it feels to be a twenty-something college student damned and blessed with a formidable supply of untapped “potential.” It became my favorite film at that time because it “got” me.

To re-watch The Graduate now as a middle-aged pseudo-professional is to realize that its heart rests not with the cool, detached, anti-authoritarian title character, but with the desperate, whiskey-voiced Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson no longer appears to me as a seductive, animal print-wearing embodiment of the corrosive material world as she did the first two dozen times or so I caught The Graduate. She is now a broken, twisted and heartbreaking byproduct of what happens to a dream deferred.

There is a haunted, bottomless sadness that rises in her eyes as she tells Benjamin that before she became pregnant with Elaine she was an art major, but now can not even sustain even the slightest conversation about art. It is a quiet moment that never really struck me where The Graduate turns from comedy to tragedy.

And it is here where Mrs. Robinson transforms from a Cruella De Vil cartoon villainess standing between young true love and into a martyr. Her fierce militancy in wanting to keep Benjamin away from her daughter is not a petty act of spite but an act of maternal sacrifice to prevent her daughter from being bloodied and pummeled by the same razor-edged machine that she was.

“Elaine, it’s too late,” she screams at her daughter in the movie’s final scene as she watches her daughter board that bus into an uncertain future. Her voice is filled with the same sense of horrific agony of a mother’s pained cry toward her child to get out of the middle of the street as an oncoming car approaches crying her daughter’s name into the heavens.

In the end, her actions are far more selfless than either Benjamin’s or Elaine’s. Benjamin and Elaine act only in the interest of their own individual short-term happiness. As the bus inches them forward neither of them so much as even suggest that they turn back and face up to the mess they’ve left behind. In contrast, Mrs. Robinson desperate acts are rooted in the interest of her daughter’s long-term well-being. She violently throws herself in the way of Benjamin and Elaine’s relationship because she knows where the path they have chosen to follow leads—the path she followed, which taught her that the future lies not in “plastics” but in the choices that we make.

God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.

Happy silver anniversary.