Mrs. Robinson revisited
In her recent post entitled “Here’s to Mrs. Robinson,” Karen Dunak linked the “troubles” real romance went through in the turbulent 1960s with the “confession,” in The Graduate (1967) that sex and love may not be linked after all. Dunak concludes that through the Ben-Mrs. Robinson relationship and the film’s ambivalent final scene, The Graduate admits that there are “limits to the romantic ideal.”
The Graduate is indeed a significant film: not just as social commentary, but as a paradigmatic case of how the genre of romantic comedy evolves in response to changing times. Produced in a sociopolitically unstable decade, The Graduate is part of the New Hollywood era where conventions, styles, and themes were re-visited and/or subverted, and the film continues to offer readings at multiple levels. We can examine its brave new aesthetic, its separation from and re-appropriation of traditional structures, and—as Dunak does—we can read it as a revealing cultural artifact, one that offers a spot-on, era-accurate viewpoint on matters of the heart.
No matter how often I watch the film with my students, though, I must confess—I can’t really embrace it. As much as I appreciate Mike Nichols’s mise-en-scène and editing decisions, as much as I am an admirer of Dustin Hoffman’s acting excellence, I find myself utterly disappointed—and sometimes angered—by the way Mrs. Robinson is portrayed.
Times were changing, films were changing, more was possible in romantic films than ever before. The director and the writers of this film had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show how a woman in her 40s has the right to engage in a sexual relationship to satisfy her carnal desires as well as use sex as a way—however ineffective—to fill the painful void she feels. They had the chance, and they blew it.
In the haunting, immaculately made-up eyes of Anne Bancroft we get a glimpse of the character who might have been. Those eyes show Mrs. Robinson’s deep pain, her resentment for decisions made, and her realization that past chances can never return—but Bancroft isn’t given much to work with. In the only scene when Mrs. Robinson and Ben talk with any frankness, she reluctantly, almost indifferently narrates how she dreamt of going to college and how an unplanned pregnancy led to her marriage, leaving her haunted by the “strange stirrings” so famously described by Betty Friedan.
Mrs. Robinson’s past and present both seem to have been decided without her contribution, or at least without a conscious one. She’s the foremother of Kate Winslet’s heroine in Revolutionary Road (2008) or Julianne Moore’s character in The Hours (2003): each a more recent, trenchant depiction of the loneliness and impasses faced by 1950s housewives.
Just think, though, of how The Graduate portrays Mrs. Robinson’s resistance to her situation. The 1960s may be famous as a time of swinging new sexual mores and uninhibited, even revolutionary behavior, but Mrs. Robinson gets presented as an “egotistical monster” (Kaklamanidou 2012: 80). Over the course of The Graduate, she is transformed from a sexual predator—a “cougar” to use today’s popular term—into nothing more than a “woman scorned.” She ends the film as a jealous female who will not hesitate to manipulate and threaten Ben, locking her daughter into the same dark, sterile future that she has suffered herself.
Of course, for all her youth and college education, Elaine (Katharine Ross) is also portrayed quite negatively, as a rather conservative, indecisive, and superficial individual, relying more on others than herself for her own life. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) doesn’t come off terribly well, either—but that’s another post, and doesn’t remove the sting of an opportunity lost.
Robin Wood once wrote that The Graduate displayed “unpardonable contempt for mature women” (1998: 282). I couldn’t have said it better. It’s painful to find myself trapped in Ben’s point-of-view shot when Mrs. Robinson demands his touch, seeing only parts of her naked, fragmented body. And when I watch Mrs. Robinson drenched in rain, asking Ben to stop seeing her daughter as if her life depended on it, I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if it had really taken her seriously as a person.
The Graduate. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. 1967. DVD.
The Hours. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare. 2002. DVD.
Kaklamanidou, Betty. “Pride and Prejudice: Real vs. Fictional Cougars.” Celebrity Studies. Taylor & Francis, 2012. 78-89.
Revolutionary Road. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Justin Haythe. 2008. DVD.
Wood, Robin. Sexual Politics & Narrative Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Betty Kaklamanidou is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of East London, UK and Adjunct Lecturer of Film History and Theory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She is the author of Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com, the co-editor of The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film, and the author of two Greek books on film adaptation and the Hollywood romantic comedy. Find out more about Betty Kaklamanidou.