New York Times

February 9, 1997


What's That You Say Now, Mrs. Robinson?

It was 30 years ago next December that the world first chortled at the scene in "The Graduate" in which a smug Los Angeles businessman takes aside the baby-faced Dustin Hoffman and declares, "I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- 'plastics.' "

"The Graduate" didn't invent the use of the word plastic to signify everything phony and superficial in American life. It merely sealed it in, well, celluloid. To sneer at all things plastic was to offer an instant definition of oneself as among the young, hip, truth-seeking cognoscenti locked in a moral power struggle with an older generation of square, corrupt, greedy, warmongering materialists. More than any other touch, its ridicule of plastic defined "The Graduate" as a film about the 60's generation gap.

On Friday, the movie will begin a two-week 30th-anniversary run at Film Forum in Manhattan. Seen today, this comedy with a bittersweet romantic undertow holds up as a classic. But in retrospect, the cultural signals it sends seem decidedly more mixed than they did in 1967.

As most of us remember, Mr. Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a 20-year-old high-achieving schlub who, upon graduation from a fancy East Coast college, flies home to Los Angeles to be greeted by his family like a returning war hero.

Listless and dejected, Benjamin is in a deep funk that he can barely articulate, except to mumble that he has no ideas about his future. Day after day, he lolls about the house staring into an aquarium and identifying with the goldfish. When his father gives him scuba gear for his 21st birthday, he becomes a kind of goldfish himself, hiding from his parents at the bottom of their swimming pool and staring blankly into space through his goggles.

It is at Benjamin's welcome-home party that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's law partner, asks the young man to drive her home. Once there she proceeds to put the moves on him. This classic comic seduction scene has the rhythm and hostile tone of a Mike Nichols-Elaine May improvisation in which Mr. Nichols plays a jittery nerd bullied by Ms. May's domineering know-it-all.

There ensues a series of rendezvous at a hotel, but the affair comes to a screeching halt when Benjamin falls in love with the Robinsons' beautiful college-age daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Elaine drops Benjamin when he confesses his affair with her mother, but he pursues the young woman to her Berkeley campus and desperately woos her. When the Robinsons rush their daughter into a marriage with someone else, Benjamin storms into the church, plucks her away from the altar, and the lovers flee on a city bus. But their future is left hanging.

As a generation-gap fable, "The Graduate" is essentially one-sided, since Benjamin is a cipher. On the other hand, the movie certainly knows what it doesn't like. Benjamin's parents and their friends are garrulous, heavy-drinking hypocrites, and Mrs. Robinson (whom Benjamin never addresses by her first name) is a devouring monster, the older woman as selfish, sex-starved harpy. She is really a 60's update of the blame-Mom-for-everything archetype who inhabited so many 1950's dramas. At the same time, Mrs. Robinson is the fantasy of every virginal high school boy dreaming of an exotic sexual initiation.

When Ms. Bancroft, who is actually only six years older than Mr. Hoffman, orders a martini, the word "mah-tini" rolls off her tongue with an ominous, damp sensuality. Cigarette in hand, she is forever exhaling plumes of blue smoke -- just the right flourish of hypersophisticated ennui.

But if this satire of the cocktail generation turns out to be politically inert, maybe it's because the Charles Webb novel on which it's based was published in the early 1960's.

Although the setting for the film seems to have been moved up five years, the Vietnam War isn't even hinted at. When Benjamin follows Elaine to Berkeley, the only reference to the Free Speech Movement is his landlord's warning that he had better not be one of those "outside agitators." Not a whiff of marijuana is to be seen, nor a blast of rock-and-roll to be heard. The soundtrack is bathed in the wistful strains of Simon and Garfunkel.

These crucial songs -- "The Sounds of Silence," "April Come She Will" and "Scarborough Fair" -- evoke the alienation, confusion and depression that Benjamin can't put into words and lend Mr. Hoffman's poker-faced portrayal of Benjamin as a tongue-tied naif an aura of pathos not in the screenplay.

We know that Benjamin doesn't want to go to graduate school or into plastics. But what does he want? For him, there is no war to stop, no cause to espouse. He seems content to drift between an air mattress in the swimming pool and the hotel-room bed where he has sex with Mrs. Robinson, which he later dismisses as being like "shaking hands."

Benjamin is roused to action by only one thing: his love for Elaine. It's the late 60's, and the consuming goal of this aimless graduate is to marry the pretty all-American girl next door.

That's not exactly the defining ambition of those who aligned themselves against all things plastic.

It's really a longing for a safe retreat back into the plastic bubble of the Eisenhower 50's.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company


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