I re-watched The Graduate after class today. I really wanted- no, needed– to hear ten different variations of “Sound of Silence” and to watch Dustin Hoffman attempt to impale the father of the bride with a giant cross. The first time I watched it, I was impressed with the modernity of it; it seemed to me that every other film from the sixties followed stale tropes and if you’d seen one, you’d seen them all. The camera work, symbolism, soundtrack, and frequency of Dustin Hoffman’s abs make it a movie I could watch over and over. I think that the most compelling part of the film, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. Throughout the film, interaction between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson is practically nonexistent; they’re hardly ever shown in the same shot, much less conversing with each other. Mrs. Robinson is the exact opposite of a motherly figure, and it’s pretty clear she’d like it to stay that way. From using her daughter’s room place of seduction to clamming up at the thought of Elaine’s birth, Mrs. Robinson uses Elaine as a marker in her life where her youth was given up to someone else and a time where she sacrificed beauty and passion (or quite literally, art) for the care of another human being. She is jealous of Elaine’s beauty and freedom– for Mrs. Robinson, the confused Benjamin is the perfect tool to feel desirable and relevant again.
Benjamin, in a weird, pre-illicit sex attempt at conversation, asks Mrs. Robinson about her husband. She won’t respond; to her, marriage is a metaphorical cage that she’s trapped in because of Elaine, who she clearly resents. Mrs. Robinson, who is nameless except for her husband’s moniker, attempts to seduce Benjamin by luring him with Elaine’s portrait. Her black dress and desperate attempts are a clear contrast to the pink, innocent backdrop of Elaine’s bedroom. Once Benjamin takes Elaine out on a date, the strip club that he takes her to causes her to burst out in tears. Benjamin finally reacts to this; because she is upset by the lewdness (right after he’s called his affair with Mrs. Robinson “disgusting”), he takes pity on her. She’s as innocent as he is in actuality– Mrs. Robinson’s advances may have given him the illusion of being mature, but Benjamin is still a young person flicking ashes among his childhood toys. In a way, he feels trapped by Mrs. Robinson’s sexuality. In the scene where he is finally rejecting the affair, his head is framed by Mrs. Robinson’s bent leg as he ponders whether or not what he’s doing is right. Despite the sad backstory to Mrs. Robinson, film isn’t necessarily sympathetic toward her. She’s seen as broken, malicious, and desperate. Mrs. Robinson is the perfect foil to Elaine; as the film ends and Ben and Elaine sit on the bus sweating and confused, we are cheering for her escape from an unhappy institution of marriage that Mrs. Robinson was unable to elude.
It seems film in general isn’t very sympathetic to the trapped housewife. The Graduate reminds me of the side story in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. A sad housewife finds a young grocery boy to seduce, and several awkward encounters with her husband occur. Unlike Mrs. Robinson, however, the seductress in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape seems to care for her children. Perhaps what makes Mrs. Robinson so hard to like her obvious distaste for her own child. When she forbids Benjamin to take Elaine out, Mrs. Robinson refers to her at “that girl.” Elaine is as nameless as Mrs. Robinson; instead of being a daughter or an autonomous person, she is simply the girl who ruined Mrs. Robinson’s life. The saddest thing, to me, is Mrs. Robinson’s lack of a sexual relationship in a loving, comfortable place. When asked where Elaine was conceived, she replies “his car.” Her entire affair with Benjamin takes place in a hotel, hidden in the dark and away from polite society. Mrs. Robinson doesn’t even sleep in the same room as her husband; her house, rather than being a place of refuge, is a symbol of the institution that traps her in her own sexual frustration and stifles what she could have been– an artist, a free spirit, or a Berkeley attending academic like Elaine.