From the Vault: “The Graduate” at Seventeen

I always thought I would hate Simon and Garfunkel, but I don’t anymore. I always thought of Benjamin, how he is restless and everything is so terminal for him, how I used to think of myself: knowing all too much about things that evanesce each growing year, shedding my external convictions and trading them for new, polished luggage each season. But I don’t anymore. That brings us to today: we got lost somewhere on the outskirts of Wyoming, and it took us an hour to find the interstate. My brothers stopped for ice cream and I waited in the car; we were supposed to watch The Graduate at the beginning of the trip, but it was the second to last film we watched, driving back home. My oldest brother does not watch movies, and he got a concussion the night before, but he watched the whole thing, start to finish. My other brothers, at thirteen and eleven, are far too young to watch The Graduate, but I was fourteen when I first watched it, so I figured I’d get them started early. This September has come with a fruitful kind of grace, and how I always used to think about Benjamin, I find myself thinking more of Mrs. Robinson nowadays; for the ending of a summer I wished would be drowned by an eminent rainstorm or a blinding drought, I think I have come to know Mrs. Robinson like the courage of that last long summer: everything matters until it doesn’t and all the people I’ve loved become faces from a time of innocence. And for the first time, it seems like someone is singing my song.


Almost unavoidable, I’ve found myself in a fish tank season lately, and I’m a senior in high school now, so I have an excuse to be this suffocated. I finally understand. I thought that I knew everything about how The Graduate was made, but I don’t, and I’m still learning. I do know that its intentions were so scattered at the beginning, with uncertainty revolving around how well a pulpy novel would make for an adequate screenplay; nonetheless, producer Lawrence Turman, with a small dream of seeing this unpopular little novel to the screen, found someone to actually write it in a dignified light and took a chance on a newcomer, fresh off Broadway, to direct. A shoddy little production full of industry newcomers and the glorious Anne Bancroft, who, at that point, was most-known for her sobering portrayal of Annie Sullivan, the teacher of a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, ended up defining a whole generation of Benjamin Braddocks and their respective Mrs. Robinsons.


Benjamin asks Mrs. Robinson what her major was in college. She tells him that it doesn’t matter, that they should get to bed, but Benjamin pries, and she tells him: art. She had lost interest in it over time, or she had to. The conversation escalates from uncomfortable pillow talk to an unwelcome characterization of what it’s like to love someone for every wrong reason. But Benjamin wants Mrs. Robinson to stay, so she does. We have to imagine it’s their last time in bed together. Mrs. Robinson sees Benjamin as a justification for how long she has gone unloved, and Benjamin sees nothing in Mrs. Robinson except for a mistake; when the stakes are raised beyond a childhood grasp at innocence needing to be lost, the weight of the universe finds itself within new love and knowing that though it might not be right, it isn’t as wrong as sleeping with someone you’ve known for your whole life. The subtleties of Anne Bancroft’s performance bring to fruition a woman who knows herself so little, she can only promise herself temporary salvation for the endless hurt of going so long without love or fulfillment within illicit affairs. Perhaps Benjamin wasn’t the first, but he is likely to be the last. By framing Mrs. Robinson against everyone else in The Graduate, there is this whole new and tender narrative that estranges everything that I thought I knew about the film; Mrs. Robinson’s smirk in the left-hand frame, nursing a cigarette back to life, as she answers her husband’s question of whether or not Benjamin looks like he’s a ladies’ man was enough to throw me for a loop (more like a massive orbit). Because I find Mrs. Robinson this beautiful, conniving but misunderstood, too, I know that this is not the same film to me as it was when I was fourteen or sixteen. I would hope not.


I’ve been reading more about Anne Bancroft recently, and she reminds me of a teacher that I had my freshman year of high school. This woman was all too kind for me to even know, and I was always inexplicably drawn to her. Cut to sophomore year when she had bleached her hair; she dressed in long-sleeves in the dreary back-to-school heat and had a habit of never keeping her hair down for more than five minutes, tying it into a knot and stabilizing the collection with a pencil. Just like the movies. She doesn’t teach at my school anymore, and maybe that’s for the better; things are only good when they’re good. I come to think about her now that she is gone, now that I wrap her laugh and sturdy person around the indentations of my heart that talked myself down from ever saying too much to her. I know now why that image of her has stuck with me for so long, because she reminds me of Mrs. Robinson; alluring and impenetrable, some heartache that permeates softly if you’re really listening, if you’re really watching. She was the collateral beauty of growing up. She isn’t someone who I think of so often that it hurts, in a way, I imagine, it hurt Mrs. Robinson to chase after Benjamin in the pouring rain, knowing the end before it came. She was one of my life’s great teachers, not nearly as tragic as Mrs. Robinson. Still, I call The Graduate home in every timetable, in every little pocket of my life before it becomes too hard and too painful to remember these small moments and great people with this much heart, with this much intention. As I’m set to be a graduate myself soon, I’ll always remember my life here and now, like how I’ll always remember Mrs. Robinson.

I know just how self-referential The Graduate is for me, in my relationships with most people and with myself in this season. My penniless allowances for pleasure, love, trying, and doing are all measures of that time where it means everything. I finally feel like I have changed my tune, and I finally feel like the warm hum of “April Come She Will” no longer sounds like a droning whine, but a hurting, beautiful tune I can enjoy in small doses; I think finally know, but if I don’t and my imbalances turn into landslides of potential washed down the drain, I know that The Graduate sings my song, and it knows every word. Maybe messing up a lyric or two.

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