Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

 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. 

 

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8 thoughts on “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

  1. I have never seen this movie but I have always been told to watch it. I knew some of the background dynamics of the story, but I did not know how malicious Mrs. Robinson was to her own child. The idea of the trapped housewife seems like a very promenate theme after then end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties and seventies.

  2. I have been a stay-at-home mom, so again, my perspective will be different. I totally understand the trapped feeling, but instead of being a victim, you do something about it. However, as a mom who loves her kids, I can’t stand a mother or father who is abusive or mistreats their children. I don’t care what they’ve done, it’s their job to love that kid. This jealousy Mrs. Robinson feels toward Elaine is uncomprehensible. She is just a bad mom. However, Ben’s parents are trying to bolster and help their kid. Although they are clueless and need to talk to their child, at least they aren’t evil. Communication, or the lack of, is a huge part of this movie. The disconnect is felt between generations because of a lack of communication and absolutely no attempt to understand what is going on internally with family members or anyone else, for that matter. I do feel like Ben had a lot of growing up to do, but the important thing is that he stopped being a victim and figured out what he wanted and started on that path.

    • This might get back to something we’ve discussed earlier–films about happy, content housewives wouldn’t be very interesting. Narrative structure demands a conflict.

      I, for one, never quite understood why Benjamin was so nuts for Elaine. She seems almost as vapid as the girl in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

      • I don’t know, Benjamin doesn’t seem like too much of a catch either. He’s kind of an ass and seems to have no real interests besides angst and sex. We just don’t really get to see much of Elaine. Instead of being a fully developed character, she’s a more of a placeholder, a symbol of youth. The contrast between her innocent childhood bedroom and her sprinting away from her husband-to-be leads me to think she’s probably had a bit of an existential crisis of her own.

      • I agree. I feel like a lot of time in romances the women is pretty nameless, and is there more to represent a love interest than to actually be one. I honestly don’t think that’s really a bad thing in The Graduate, but it’s refreshing to see more modern romantic comedies (like Bridesmaids) allow the woman to be funny and intelligent in her own right. Too often are the women in film just foils to the comedic element, usually situational or male.

  3. I think that by characterizing Elaine and Mrs. Robinson as polar opposites with one being the picture of innocence and the other a more mature and worldly woman (although messed up in her own way) it shows the awkward moment between childhood and adulthood that Benjamin was in and further adds to the generational disconnect.

    • I love that pre-nastiness Benjamin is a total kid; he sits in his room, groans when he has to go in public and interact, and awkwardly refuses a drink form Mrs. Robinson. It seems sex made the man (or a caricature of one) in Benjamin’s case as he tries to play the part of an adult by smoking cigarettes, taking poor Elaine to a strip joint, and cooly wearing his sunglasses in the dark. It honestly reminds me of a sixteen year old trying to be cool on Facebook and is somehow hilarious to me.

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