“Have you thought about graduate school?” No, and I never know what I’m doing with my life so please stop asking.
DIRECTED BY MIKE NICHOLS WRITTEN BY BUCK HENRY + CALDER WILLINGHAM MUSIC BY PAUL SIMON + DAVE GRUSIN
STARRING DUSTIN HOFFMAN ANNE BANCROFT KATHARINE ROSS
A recent college graduate tries to figure out what to do with his life when an older family friend unexpectedly seduces him in this 1967 comedy-drama. An iconic film with stunning visuals, intimate camerawork, and a perfectly melancholic soundtrack. Hoffman is more like Mrs. Robinson than I thought. Elaine’s wedding dress is so ridiculously beautiful. Why doesn’t Benjamin have any friends his own age? Plastics.
Watching this film immediately after graduating college, I liked it and really related to some of the central themes. I shared Ben’s feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and exhaustion about constantly being asked “what’s next?” and never having an adequate enough answer. Watching it again in the midst of a pandemic, when I have only a slightly clearer understanding of what I want to do and an even stronger understanding that the world makes no sense, I liked it even more.
There is so much to love about this movie and each time I watch it, I find something new to love. The soundtrack is gorgeous, the writing is superb, and the camerawork and direction are incredibly dynamic and modern. One of my favorite examples of camerawork is at the graduation party where Ben is swarmed by his parents’ friends and everywhere he turns, he is bombarded with questions about his future. Meanwhile, he’s just trying to catch his breath. The camera pushes in on his face and, as the audience, we feel just as claustrophobic as Ben does.
Hoffman adds a lot to the character of Benjamin Braddock, especially in moments like these where he’s trying to fit in with older adults. He’s so good at externalizing young people’s anxieties about not being taken seriously and does so in a comedic way. When he’s first at the Taft Hotel trying to get a room for Mrs. Robinson and himself, he attempts to seem unsuspicious and experienced, both of which he is not. The way that he tries so hard is what makes Hoffman’s performance so comedic and memorable. In addition, the comedy involving the swapping of gender roles in sexual situations is done so well. When Ben nervously kisses Mrs. Robinson for the first time and doesn’t realize her lungs are full of cigarette smoke, it makes for one of the funniest, simplest comedic bits in the film. The fact that Ben, a man, is the one being preyed upon also plays a role in why this film made such an impact in pop culture and why Hoffman’s performance lives on in our memory.
As much as I hate to admit it, Hoffman’s performance is great. And I do hate to say it because he is one of simply too many men in Hollywood with a disgusting history of sexual harassment and assault. Several women have come forward in the wake of the #MeToo movement detailing encounters they had with Hoffman during which he exposed himself, sexually harassed, and raped them. Some women were children (and one even friends with his daughter) at the time. Unfortunately, Katherine Ross and Anne Bancroft were not safe from his predation. It is well documented that Hoffman assaulted Ross during the audition process in an attempt to get her in a better mood, which Hoffman admitted to. Director Mike Nichols also told Hoffman to “feel [Bancroft] up” during the first scene in the hotel room, which Bancroft was unaware of. I mean… that’s gross right? Obviously the sexual liberation movement of the 60s and 70s had a big impact on what was socially acceptable, but now that we have more accurate language in the present day, we can more correctly identify what harassment, assault, and rape look like. And we always have Woody Allen to look to for examples of how child molesters operate.
I was disheartened and disappointed to discover this information about Hoffman, an actor who I truly believe is extremely talented. It’s also worth pointing out that Hoffman’s real-life actions are very similar to the actions of the fictional Mrs. Robinson. Although she lives on in our cultural memory as a kind of femme fatale, Mrs. Robinson is a predator who coerces and manipulates Ben into having sex. The film is smart about showing us (as opposed to telling us) why she does what she does. She is stuck in a boring marriage and a life that she did not choose for herself. So, she looks for an exciting challenge and an easily exploitable plaything which she sees in Ben, who is pushed around for the whole first half of the film. She abuses him for her own selfish reasons and ends up causing a lot more pain than she may have originally intended.
This is not to say that Ben is completely innocent. I simply mean to point out that, when we first meet him, he is inexperienced, naîve, and directionless. He gets taken advantage of and incorrectly learns from his abuser how relationships should look and feel. He then utilizes those same coercive techniques on Elaine, attempting to get her to marry him. He stalks her, love-bombs her, and puts her on a pedestal which she can’t help but eventually fall down from. Ben, more confused and equally directionless, protests against adults (including Mrs. Robinson) telling him what to do by making Elaine the answer to all of his problems. Funnily enough, this finally provides a satisfying-enough answer of his life plans for his parents. However, he thinks convincing Elaine to marry him will magically do away with his depression and anxiety instead of actually looking internally for what makes him happy. In turn, he puts more pressure on Elaine, who may not even want to get married at all (but we don’t know because no one asks her what she wants to do with her future unlike with Ben). This is why the final scene is so iconic – it’s a visual representation of this realization and the impending consequences of his misguided actions.
Overall, I am a huge fan of this film. However, the allegations against Hoffman have forever changed how I view this film and his performance(s). There is so much about this film that keeps me coming back to it year after year and, as I’ve stated previously, there needs to be space for fans to critique both the work and the actions of abusive filmmakers. I love this film. I don’t love the people who made it. Let’s see what I think in another few years.
- It amazes me how much themes of depression and anxiety are present in nearly every scene for multiple characters
- Ben got an Alfa Romeo just for graduating? And then abandons it on the side of the road? The PRIVILEGE.
- Favorite line – Mrs. Robinson: “It’s too late.” Elaine: “Not for me!”