Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock is trapped into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, who happens to be the wife of his father's business partner and then finds himself falling in love with her teenage daughter, Elaine.
So here's to you Mrs. Robinson — you certainly cut a swathe through Hollywood's middle-class American value system at the fag-end of the 60s. Hooking up with primordial Generation X-er, Benjamin Braddock (son of her husband's partner) stunned, appalled and excited cinemagoers (it was a huge hit) and created a classic tale of social dysfunction and trashing weddings. We're all fucked up, Nichols' bravura poem sang to us, is there any hope? This was satire at its most biting.
Benjamin Braddock is a startling creation, his disassociation and disaffection carry shades of Salinger's miseryguts Holden Caulfield, but Benjamin is portrayed in a much more heart-on-sleeve fashion. He is set apart from the wealthy vacuum-packed world of his parents (summed-up by Walter Brooke's terrifying single word of advice: "plastics") and distanced from the loved-up world of his peers. Adulthood and the future beckon, but he can only float, finding solace at the bottom of the pool (water serves as a constant metaphor for separation) and escape in the clutches of Mrs. Robinson: saviour, parasite, devil.
Nichols first approached an ageing Doris Day for the part of Mrs. Robinson, but she was horrified by the subject matter, terrified of ruffling her clean-cut 50s persona. Still, it is hard to imagine anyone but Anne Bancroft in the role. In reality merely seven years Hoffman's senior, she locates the dark heart of a character consumed by self-loathing and armoured in cool cynicism. She shifts from tragic to malicious, certainly a vampiric figure but in the face of the buttoned-down platitudes of their suffocating suburban deadzone her bitterness makes her real. She represents a Benjamin or Elaine (Ross) that has given in ("It's too late," she growls at a fleeing Elaine. "Not for me!" her daughter cruelly returns).
Hoffman was also a second choice. Nichols had mulled over Robert Redford as Benjamin but surmised that playing a bit of a loser would be a stretch for an actor that beautiful. In a career defining turn, Hoffman (then I 29), filled the angsty loafer with ; a nasally self-absorption, equally misfit and arsehole. Katharine Ross was blessed with the ideal American sweetheart looks for Elaine — the counterpoint to all the vulgar goings-on at the Taft Hotel. As the film shifts into its more romanticised second-half, Elaine is transformed into an elusive, angelic figure — another symbol of rescue for the hangdog loner Benjamin.
Though the film frequents painful areas of life, it is very funny. The infamous seduction sequence allows Hoffman a twitching realistic terror, further exacerbated by the almost knockabout humour of the first hotel liaison ("Are you here for an affair, sir ?"). In the bedroom his nerves reduce him to madly banging his head against the wall — a scene improvised by Hoffman and maintained as he noticed his director screaming with laughter. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham's adaptation of Charles Webb's novel, is a bounty of observational wit from screwed-up individuals. Benjamin is forced to show-off his new scuba gear at another vile parental shindig and Nichols shoots it all POV with heavy Darth Vader breathing as his dad (William Daniels) submerges him in the pool. The opening dinner party is a smear of cloying chitchat from the gauche neighbourhood zombies until the phantom presence of Mrs. Robinson beckons him to drive her home.
Mrs. Robinson, the song that is, is never actually sung in the movie, serving only as a jangly instrumental backing to the race-to-stop-the-wedding finale (Nichols later encouraged Simon to apply the lyrics). Simon And Garfunkel's legendary songs that do feature are integral to the themes of isolation and yearning, as much a part of The Graduate vibe as Nichols' mannered I direction. From the intro as : Benjamin arrives at LAX airport = (a travelator scene nabbed by " Quentin Tarantino for Jackie ( Brown) to the balladeering of * The Sound Of Silence, the songs constantly establish and fix his state-of-mind. The ending has been the cause of endless debate. Having clutched Elaine from the jaws of mediocrity, they flag down a bus and in the face of the passengers' incredulous looks make their way to the back. Here Nichols pulls his finest, radically unromanticised trick. At first they giggle and gasp at their foolhardiness, then they look apart and the movie fades away. Spirtually they have separated, the comfort has broken. This is not a fairytale ending, this is an uncertain voyage into the future: have they run away together or have they just run away? Coo-coo-ca-choo.
Cruel comedy with a delicious light touch.