With the release of Warner’s Rumor Has It, starring Jennifer Aniston as a young woman who realises her family may be the inspiration for the 1967 film The Graduate, it’s a timely moment to take a look back at the enduring popularity of this iconic film, now almost forty years old.
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is the graduate in question. A good Jewish boy, awkward and gawky, he speaks in little monotone nasal eruptions. His parents are friends with Mr Robinson, who advises him he should get into ‘plastics’, and they would very much like for him to find a nice girl, in fact, just like Elaine (Katherine Ross), the Robinson’s daughter. Unfortunately, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) couldn’t disagree more, as this formidable lady has her own sights set on Benjamin and, what’s more, she gets him.
Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of the sharp, cigarette-smoking older woman has fuelled many a young man's fantasy to the point that the characterisation is practically the personification of this archetype, and any such woman in a similar relationship is now referred to as a ‘Mrs Robinson’. Her seduction of Benjamin, her stockinged leg in the foreground of the shot as she asks him whether he’d like her to seduce him, is one of the most memorable scenes in film history.
So any examination of affection the film holds for audiences must begin with Mrs Robinson who, as she is celebrated in the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Jesus loves you more than you will know”. For the young male, she is both illicit pleasure plus the confirmation of his own masculinity. Benjamin has just officially become a man at his Barmitzvah, and Mrs Robinson consummates that. However, we know that such a relationship is fraught with danger, for if he is not man enough then she will consume him. For Benjamin, this is a rites-of-passage that will see him emerge fully as a man.
But what then for Mrs Robinson? This is a seductress that women applaud. Young and old alike admire the fact that, on the far side of the prime of her life, she is able to effortlessly attract the attentions of a much younger man – she is esteemed by females in the same way that younger males would congratulate Benjamin: she’s still got what it takes and is conferring to him that, as her chosen lover, he now has it too. However, the universal flaw in the equation is that Mrs Robinson is no more than a teacher – note how he always addresses her as ‘Mrs Robinson’ – and once her pupil ‘graduates’ he will leave with his new qualifications for pastures new.
This is the tragedy of Mrs Robinson – we know from the outset that she is doomed and that there will be no happy ending for her. She knows this too, which is why she is reluctant to meet his requests that they talk more. Has she been here before, we wonder? If she opens up to him the relationship will become more than just sex but despite herself she does exactly this, revealing that she gave up her studies when falling pregnant with Elaine, and then turns away from Benjamin, her eyes moist with tears.
It is doubly torturous then that Benjamin should begin a relationship with her own daughter, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned as she abandons all reason and embarks on retribution that will also destroy her. We fully sympathise with her and yet we can see it is how it should be. Old must give way to new – Benjamin has survived the attack of the preying mantis but in return that creature must die, and she has served as both mentor and mother to him, her sacrifice giving birth to the man.
There are no winners in The Graduate, except for the triumph of true love. Benjamin risks all to win the maiden’s fair hand, memorably banging the window above the wedding ceremony in the effort to stop Elaine marrying another. Elaine, in turn, becomes a woman as she refuses to comply with her mother’s wish for her to stop, and runs off, in full bridal gown, with Benjamin, to their ‘Happy Ever After’. For the time being, we are happy for them. Their reward for passing these initiations is that they will live contentedly as properly suited man and wife, we can assume. But, where will it lead? Benjamin’s mother-in-law will be his former lover, how will a family handle such a situation? And what about when true love turns to complacency and mundanity? Are Benjamin and Elaine pre-ordained to make the same mistakes?
There have been similar cinematic tales along the way – Jacqueline Bisset and Andrew McCarthy in Class (1983), and Cybill Shepherd and Robert Downey Junior in Chances Are (1989) are just two. One also wonders if Elizabeth Perkins will be taking up the mantle anytime soon with Tom or Colin Hanks in Big 2 (film producers, please take note). All have less than happy endings for the older woman, and force the younger man to make a less than pleasant choice.
And so we return to Rumor Has It. An ingenious idea indeed to re-examine the fallout of The Graduate’s central storyline and testament to it’s enduring appeal, with Jennifer Aniston as Sarah, the woman whose both mother and grandmother both slept with the same man, which leaves her wondering as to whether he may be her father. And if he’s not – well, maybe she should follow the family tradition, even though she already has a boyfriend.
Ah, what a tangled web we weave. The course of true love never did run smoothly, and real life rarely follows suite. The Graduate and all its pretenders endure most because they lay bare the inevitability of life; that stolen pleasures must be paid for, and that we cannot buck mortality how ever hard we try, bringing an acceptance that winter must follow Autumn as surely as Summer must follow Spring. It’s the way of the world, and the way of life. But it’s those little stolen moments which punctuate the mundanity, and allow us to feel – for a short, snatched moment in time – that we are invincible, which are the spice of life, and we’re prepared to take the consequences until they do actually fall.
Mrs Robinson and Benjamin are the ebb and flow of life. They speak to us and for us – they are of us. The Graduate embodies the story of human existence and people will identify with it for generations for come.