As an actress, Anne Bancroft had a prolific career lasting more than fifty years. While she appeared in a number of great movies, there is one which follows her as one of the truest essentials of Hollywood cinema. Chances are, even if you haven’t seen The Graduate, you know this iconic shot:
The Graduate is a nuanced work of the earliest days of ‘New Hollywood’ following Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) a recent college graduate searching to figure out just who he is while struggling with the uncomfortable realization that he’s now “a grown-up”. As he tries to deal with these personal demons, he begins an affair with his (slightly!) older neighbor, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). However, things spiral out of control when he realizes he might have feelings for her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). Mike Nichols directs the film from a script by Calder Willingham and and Buck Henry.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with The Graduate coming of age as a classic film fan. I initially checked the movie out when the first AFI: Top 100 list came out (the movie was ranked #7). I couldn’t have been more than 12… and to be honest, that was too young to understand this story. I didn’t get it at all. In fact, it took me until 2020 gave me time to kill and a deep-dive into Mike Nichols’ work convinced me to revisit The Graduate with the benefit of age behind me.
The passage of time has morphed The Graduate into an incredibly complex and challenging film. The evolution of cultural ideas have certainly changed how this movie is received as it relates to questions of consent and power dynamics. In fact, a movie like The Graduate demonstrates clearly that a work of art is never set in stone. It morphs and changes with time. The movie audiences watched in 1967 is not the same one we watched in 2021, because we are not the same people we were in 1967.
However, even when viewing The Graduate through the lens of 1967, this movie is so much more than the sex comedy one might think it is based on the poster. While so much of the accepted analysis of the film revolves around Benjamin’s narrative, Bancroft paints a beautiful portrayal of Mrs. Robinson which has been unforgivably over-simplified by popular culture. This movie is so essential that even the name “Mrs. Robinson” is enough to conjure images of a “cougar” older woman. It’s the character archetype meant to titillate and allow a young man to “sow his wild oats”.
As Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft brings a painfully complex examination of a very specific woman as the 1960s were coming to an end. 1967 is synonymous with the changes happening in popular culture during the decade: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in May and the iconic Monterey Pop Festival was held in June. This was after all, “The Summer of Love”. It’s difficult to remember that The Feminine Mystique had been released only four years before. Heck, The Donna Reed Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, two shows deeply representative of 1950s culture, had only been canceled one year prior.
Mrs. Robinson is the very breed of woman that Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique for. During a conversation with Benjamin during the second act, she reveals that she’d only married her husband after she’d learned she was pregnant while they were both students. Elaine and Benjamin are products of the Baby Boom with both roughly 20 years old in 1967, so both were born in the immediate Post-WWII period. In the white collar, affluent environment of The Graduate, it isn’t far off to guess that Mrs. Robinson would have been a stay-at-home mom with a teenage daughter just a few years before. She would have been June Cleaver or Donna Stone.
The women coming-of-age during the post-WWII period were marrying younger than they were in previous decades. Yet, unlike previous decades, these women were getting an education. They were going to college. They were beginning to experience life and seeing the world before then giving it all up to raise children and run the house.
In Bancroft’s hands, Mrs. Robinson is a hardened, cautionary tale. In previous viewings, I’d read her character as villainous, but after a recent rewatch, she’s suddenly sympathetic. In the narrative, while Benjamin is trying to learn who he is, Mrs. Robinson is trying to reclaim who she is. There’s such a sense of humanity on screen here, but the character gets lost in the sea of thinly developed, Mrs. Robinson like characters we’ve seen in the half-century to follow.
In truth, Henry and Willingham’s script examines the same narrative through two separate perspectives. As The Graduate opens, we’re introduced to Benjamin who struggling with being a grown-up. He’s faced with that question of “What’s next?” in the regimented and restrictive, white collar environment of his youth. Late in the second act, he expresses dismay to Elaine:
Its like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up…
Coming out of the early 1960s and looking at the adults surrounding Benjamin, this perspective suddenly makes so much sense. The Graduate is a critique of the white picket fence nostalgia typified during the 1950s and early 1960s. In Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, the story is examining how this culture really effected people. Sometimes, there’s a dark side to suburbia.
Ultimately, with each passing generation, the youth remedy the sins of their parents. So while Benjamin and Elaine are struggling against the restrictive norms of the early part of the 1960s (which were on the way out by 1967), Mrs. Robinson is herself a product of these norms. After years of living her life for other people and letting herself be defined by her role as a wife and mother, she too is butting her head against this pervious life. This is something for her and through that perspective, the extreme nature of her behavior when Benjamin and Elaine become involved suddenly makes sense. She’s being pushed aside by someone younger. Her life is passing her by and she’s not ready.
The Graduate has long been acknowledged as an essential of American cinema. The combination of work from Mike Nichols and Dustin Hoffman as the talented up-and-comers that they were, as well as the truly legendary Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack has assured that this movie will always be preserved. However, in the more than fifty years since its release, a cultural examination of this movie, specifically through the perspective of Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson proves especially interesting. While she is often not the focus of the analysis, we really should take more of a look. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.
The Graduate is available here.
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!