Monday, September 3, 2007

Finding Mrs. Robinson, In The Dark

By Lars Trodson

While I was watching the 40th anniversary edition of "The Graduate" I could not stop thinking about Billy Wilder's "The Apartment." I eventually had to shut the movie off for a little while to consider why this earlier film kept creeping its way into my memory, because the two films seem so different.

Except they are not, really.

I had always considered "The Apartment" just about the saddest comedy ever made. It has such a powerful layer of melancholy that often I think it is a mistake to consider it a comedy at all, but rather a drama with some obvious comic undertones. "The Graduate" has more anger, true, but it also may be sadder than it is funny. After all, it begins with a forlorn looking Dustin Hoffman returning home alone from college on a plane, and as we see him standing on one of those long conveyor belts at the airport, the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack begins the whole proceeding by saying, "Hello darkness, my old friend." Hardly the set-up for a jaunty little romp.

And, then of course I realized that at the heart of each film are two affairs, one doomed from the start, the other less obviously so, and the parallels between "The Apartment" and "The Graduate" -- made just a scant seven years apart -- did not seem so obscure after all. Two melancholy comedies about love, only one takes place in a neon-lit New York and the other in sun dappled Southern California. And each has a schnook at the center of its universe.

In "The Graduate" that schnook is Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, in a performance so sustained in its comic timing that it remains a smile-inducing pleasure to watch to this day. The plot is simple enough: Ben is confused, he begins an affair with the iconic "Mrs. Robinson" (Anne Bancroft), but eventually falls in love with her daughter, played by the luminous Katharine Ross. There isn't much more to it than that -- no extraneous plot threads, no subplots -- this story arc has a clean, simple line -- but the richness of the writing and the details in the performances gives the memory of the movie more heft than the story line allows.

Just a few minutes into the film, when Ben is upstairs in his room, uptight and out of his element, his father (the always reliable and enjoyable William Daniels), comes up to ask if there is anything wrong. Ben explains that he's concerned, and his father asked about what.

"My future," Ben explains.

"Well, what about it," his father states -- it isn't expressed as a question. And I thought some of the movie's resonance stems from that line right there. Ben's father, undoubtedly like his father before him, had his future all mapped out, it followed a natural trajectory of prosperity and success, with a seemingly happy marriage only slightly marred by the fact that, once in a while, the husband had an affair. So be it. In 1967, when this film was initially released, a kid questioning his future had weight -- a nasty war in Indo-China was heating up -- and the rules, as Benjamin later explains to Elaine Robinson, didn't seem to make any sense any more. That's why he tells his father he wants his future to be "different."

But I think, other than in approach and sensibility, that it's a mistake to consider "The Graduate" as rebellious. In one scene, in fact the scene where Ben questions the rules, he asks a bunch of kids to turn down their music. These extras actually would look more at home in a Frankie Avalon beach movie than anywhere else, and then conservative Elaine and button-downed Benjamin huddle underneath the convertible top of his Italian-made sports car -- a car as one friend of his parents' calls "a wop job." There is very little concern for the outside world in "The Graduate" -- there is no Watts, no peace rallies, no fight for Civil Rights -- this is very much a WASPy universe, of Ivy League colleges and fraternities and the idiosyncrasies of the nouveau riche in Beverly Hills. But if this film is not the cutting-edge social commentary we have come to believe it represents, then what is it that keep us returning to this quirky little film?

After all, the first half of the film is stronger than the second. In fact, the first 40 minutes is pretty much all set-up. Ben comes home fro school and is subjected to the cocktail party his parents are hosting in his honor -- during which we see the famous "plastics" moment -- and as he is nervously making his way through the crowd we first glimpse Mrs. Robinson turned toward Benjamin, smoking her ever-present cigarette. Anne Bancroft is every inch the picture of middle age lust and white hot sexual appeal, but from the very beginning -- and this is the real beauty of Bancroft's performance -- we also see the anger the walls of protection she has set up around herself. The explosion of hurt and devastation she causes later is no surprise -- not so much because it's in the script but because Bancroft has provided these details in her performance. This is her best work, despite having won an Oscar for "The Miracle Worker", and foreshadows the marvelous appearance she made in David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" 13 years later.

By the time Ben meets Mrs. Robinson at the Taft Hotel, we're 40 minutes into this 105-minute film. It is in this 40 minutes where we explore the emptiness Ben' feels in his Southern Californian affluence -- how wealth has not masked the deep hurt that he sees in the marriages of his parent's generation, these marriages from the worlds of John Updike and John Cheever. In a beautiful shot, Ben opens up the door of the hotel and a stream of elderly couples walk out -- men old enough to have been in World War I -- and he leaves it open just enough for some kids out on a date to jump through the door. I always looked at this moment as the moment when the older generation was passing on their space to the younger crowd. But none of the folks from this crowd look very happy, either. This is what Ben wants to be different in his own life; but despite being a success at school, Ben does not take very long to completely screw up his post-college life.

Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton, in another great, short, sweaty performance) induces Ben to take Elaine out on a date. Ben does, raising the demon inside Mrs. Robinson. Despite Ben's best attempt to sabotage the relationship -- he takes her to a strip club, foreshadowing Robert DeNiro's, as Travis Bickle, equally disastrous decision to take Cybill Shepherd to a porn flick in "Taxi Driver" -- Elaine and Ben quickly hit it off, but even before the next date Ben is forced to tell Elaine that the woman he was having an affair with was her mother.

Elaine kicks Ben out of the Braddock house. As Ben leaves, Robert Surtees, the cinematographer, frames Mrs. Robinson as a frightened, frightening creature, almost literally pasted into the corner of the room, framed by white walls; a truly pitiable human being. She looks like she could be in an institution -- albeit one of her own making.

In the last socially, trenchant moment of the film, Ben announces to his parents that he is going to marry Elaine Robinson. At that moment his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) lets out a shriek. It is a sonic symbol of this self-indulgent, utterly self-absorbed class of people, to whom the only notion of happiness is success, no matter what the price.

Ben follows Elaine back to Berkeley, where they reconnect, but again they are undermined off-screen by Mrs. Robinson, who tells her husband of the affair with Ben. Mr. Robsinon travels to Berkeley and threatens Ben, but Ben continues to follow Elaine, right to the church where she is getting married to the square-jawed, pipe-smoking stick figure straight out of her parent's country club.

Much has been made of the last scenes of the film, of course; including Ben's use of the cross as a way to ward off the angry wedding guests after he has crashed the church ceremony and Elaine has run out. I don't think this is commentary of any kind, there hasn't been any discussion about religion at all in the movie -- so it's simply a comic prop, but perhaps a seemingly subversive one in 1967. And then of course, Elaine and Ben hop on the bus, and their smiles, smiles borne out of their hard-earned attempts to be together, quickly melt into uncertainty and even fear. In the last shot of the movie we only see their backs: Ben's short haircut and Elaine's wedding headdress.

The couple is decidedly less happy than C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) were at the end of "The Apartment", but truth to be told I never gave that relationship much of a chance, either. Baxter would eventually want to move to New Canaan, or Scarsdale, and if Fran were to follow she would surely have turned into a Mrs. Robinson-syle alcoholic, or into one of the morose, self-destructive housewives from Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm." It wouldn't have been a happy ending, I think. Ben and Elaine are starting out on equally unsure footing, only this time they know it.

I was happy to see "The Graduate" again, but it seems a little diminished by time, and not so much because it has been copied too often, or that it's scenes have been dulled by time. It's just rather that there is something less there than originally believed, I think. As social satire and as a character study it also is slightly anemic. It certainly is not a terribly pointed commentary on life in the U.S. in 1967.

After all, the troubled Ben and Elaine have are not that much different from Baxter's and Fran's in Billy Wilder's film.

I think it's iconic status, outside of a few memorable lines, rests squarely on the shoulders of the sad, beautiful Mrs. Robinson. She's the prototype for a million fantasies and the springboard for an uncountable number of Penthouse Forum letters, and she's why we remember the film.

Time has been kind to her, in fact, and we can now more clearly see that she is the heart and soul of this film, that she is the one we empathize with the most because her life is most clearly drawn. It's no secret that the reason the second half of the film is less rich is simply because Anne Bancroft isn't there.

In the end, I didn't feel any real affection for any one in the movie, other than Mrs. Robinson. But I certainly don't love Mrs. Robinson; she's far too mean to love. But I wanted very much the people around her to be kinder to her, anyway. I realize the darkness that Simon & Garfunkel were singing about didn't belong to Ben, but rather to Mrs. Robinson. The kids, funnily enough, will be all right, no matter what happens to their relationship. Mrs. Robinson, God bless her, you just know wasn't going to be so lucky.


See the original trailer for "The Graduate":