For decades now, my standard answer to "What's your favorite movie?" has been "The Graduate." Like most people, I have dozens of movies I love in dozens of different ways, but the Oscar-winning Mike Nichols comedy classic always rises to the top of my list. It has one of the best soundtracks of all time, beautifully framed shots that are as iconic to the '60s as a Warhol print, and a devastatingly sly sense of humor ("Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked," "No, its not; it's completely baked").
But when Nichols passed away in November, I realized that it had been several years since I watched the movie in its entirety. It was time to visit my old friend Benjamin Braddock again.
When I first watched Dustin Hoffman mope through his affair with Anne Bancroft, I was 14 or 15. Back then, Ben was about the coolest guy in the world, so over the suburban phoniness and shallow values of his parents' generation. Like his literary twin Holden Caulfield, Ben was deep and brooding, and therefore a heartthrob and hero to my teenage eye. After all, just like Ben, I was adrift in a suburban world of barbecues and swimming pools, where no one appreciated my sensitive, artistic soul. That crazy Mrs. Robinson, on the other hand, was ancient, predatory and purely evil.
If this article had a soundtrack, here's where the needle would screech to a stop across the heavenly strains of Art Garfunkel's voice. Because watching "The Graduate" as a 47-year-old mom puts things in a whole different perspective.
Sure, Ben was feeling the weight of the world on his young shoulders, but you know who else was? Mrs. Robinson. Benjamin had to escape that graduation party his parents threw for him because the phony adults were shrieking things like "Plastics!" at him. But you know who else was over that scene? Mrs. Robinson.
Here's the big difference between them, though: Benjamin Braddock is a young, handsome, healthy, white man with endless resources (his parents bought him a red convertible Alfa Romeo for graduation—the bastards!). Benjamin has just graduated a fine college with high honors and a scholarship to go study whatever else his little heart desires—law, medicine, medieval history? Name it, Ben, it's yours. He has the freedom to float around a pool, thinking deep thoughts while his parents dote on him, feed him and encourage him to get off his ass and do something with that fancy education. Rough life, kiddo.
Here's what we know about Mrs. Robinson. She had to leave college because she got pregnant with Elaine (in the back of a Ford! Where's her Alfa Romeo?). She was studying art, but had to leave that world behind to become the homemaker wife of a man she clearly never loved. No graduate school or scholarships for her. And based on the math, she is roughly—ready for this?—38 years old. Bancroft herself was only 36 when she played the role, just 7 years older than Hoffman. To put this in today's perspective, this would be like casting Rachel McAdams as the much-older seductress of Dave Franco.
So watching the movie now, with kids of my own and a few more decades of life experience under my belt, I found myself in the curious position of being annoyed and agitated with Ben's entitled whininess, and feeling sympathy toward Mrs. Robinson. Did she seduce Benjamin? Well, sure, but it was really more like she offered him an option. If you recall, it was Ben who really put the affair in motion by ringing her up from the Taft Hotel one lonely night. Mrs. Robinson is nothing if not a pragmatist. She recognizes another lonely, disillusioned soul, and gives them both a chance to find some solace (or sex) in their empty lives.
Mrs. Robinson's saving grace: her love for her daughter. She recognizes that Ben is damaged, and frankly a spoiled brat, and she is willing to risk her marriage, her comfortable home and her reputation to save Elaine from what she intuits would be a disastrous relationship.
The movie ends with that famously ambiguous look on Ben and Elaine's faces as they ride the bus away from the chapel, completely unsure about what they've done and where they're going, but you know that with or without Elaine, Ben will do just fine. He'll become a writer for some cool counterculture magazine, or go to law school and get the house and wife. As for Mrs. Robinson, I like to think she joined a women's group, eased up on the hairspray and eyeliner so she looked her very young age, and became a high-powered art gallery owner in SoHo.
Do I still love "The Graduate"? Of course. When a movie can look so completely different yet just as brilliant and insightful each time you watch it, it truly is a masterpiece. It is, I like to think, completely baked.