Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Mrs. Robinson” was not exactly written for the film The Graduate as many people think, but Paul Simon made it work anyway. Simon had accepted director Mike Nichols’s offer to write some songs for the film, but as production neared completion, Simon had only managed to finish one song. He had another in new song in the works, “a song about times past — about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff," but it wasn’t finished. Nichols suggested a simple name change, and “Mrs. Robinson” was born.
A song about the past may seem an odd choice for a film that was embraced as a generational statement, part of the critique young people aimed at their parents in the 1960s, but it doesn’t appear so odd now that it’s 50+ years behind us and filed in the “classics” section. Like the song, the film is actually pretty nostalgic. It may have been part of an attack on the jaded values of one generation’s parents, but the future those kids looked to was defined by an idealized past.
For those who’ve only seen the homage to the film done in Wayne’s World 2 (tell us you’ve seen it—1993 wasn’t that long ago… right?), The Graduate follows a recent college grad, Benjamin Braddock, as he struggles to sort out his future. Luckily, his parents’ friends are willing to help; one tells him the future lies in plastics; another wants to sleep with him. Benjamin initially turns down Mrs. Robinson, but eventually cinema’s first and greatest cougar snags her prey. In the midst of their affair, Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, and sets his mind on marrying her. Mrs. Robinson, horrified that her innocent pride-and-joy might marry the now-corrupted Benjamin, forbids it, forcing the suddenly clear-eyed young man to drive thousands of miles, pound on church windows, and battle groomsmen with a cross in order to win his bride.
Throughout the film, we are reminded of the mess the older generation has made of the world, from the artificiality of their vision—“one word: plastics”—to the emptiness of their marriages. Mrs. Robinson epitomizes it all. Worn out and a drunk, possessing everything but feeling almost nothing, her only source of satisfaction is her daughter. But Elaine is also her darkest secret: conceived not in holy matrimony, but rather in the backseat of a Ford. Perhaps most wickedly, Mrs. Robinson is not content to wallow alone in her misery. Instead, she’s driven to corrupt the young Benjamin, a confused but idealistic 21-year-old.
Yet as much as this film celebrates the comparative purity of the young, the future these kids envision is pretty conventional. Once Benjamin comes out of his fog, all he can think about is getting married. He doesn’t want to run off to a commune or shack up with Elaine in some hippie love den. He wants to get married. Within his fairy-tale planning, he even builds in time to get blood tests.
Where Have You Gone, Easily Recognized References?
Paul Simon’s song makes only a limited appearance in the film. The version of “Mrs. Robinson” that was released as a single and included on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends told us much more about the musical Mrs. Robinson than we learned in the movie. For example, the Mrs. Robinson of song spent some time in an asylum or rehab, but a verse at the center of the track speaks to the hypocrisy that sits at the core of Mrs. Robinson’s film-and-song existence:
Hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes.
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.
It's a little secret, just the Robinsons' affair.
Most of all you've got to hide it from the kids.
It’s not completely clear to which secret the song refers. It could be the fact that Mrs. Robinson is an alcoholic and stuck in an empty marriage. Or maybe the lines refer to the premarital conception of her daughter. Perhaps drugs as well as alcohol are stashed in her pantry. Or maybe she’s hiding the birth control pills that allow her to run cougar-wild.
Or perhaps the lines are meant to refer to all of these; alongside Mrs. Robinson’s Betty Crocker cupcakes sit all of the secrets and dysfunctions of her generation’s world. If Simon intended this more sweeping condemnation, he also made clear that the solution to all of this decadence lay in the past, not the future.
In the final verse of “Mrs. Robinson,” Simon asks, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Joe DiMaggio played center field for the New York Yankees between 1936 and 1951. He made the All-Star team every year that he played (the only person to ever do so), his 56-game hitting streak is still a major league record (the closest anyone else has come is 44), and he led his team to nine World Series Championships in thirteen years. After a career abbreviated by military service, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Although nicknamed “Joltin’ Joe,” DiMaggio was famous for his graceful, seemingly effortless play. His other nickname, the “Yankee Clipper,” better captured the ease with which he sailed around the outfield. His private life, however, was more tumultuous. In 1954, he married blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, only to be divorced by her less than a year later. There were rumors of violence and a wickedly jealous temper, but he responded to the rumors with the same grace that he displayed on the playing field. Even though Monroe blamed DiMaggio for the divorce, he never said anything negative about his former wife. In fact, it was DiMaggio who got Monroe released from a mental hospital in 1961, and he reportedly asked her to remarry him in order to protect her from the crowd he believed was dragging her toward self-destruction.
It was these qualities—on and off the field—which Paul Simon sought to memorialize in his “Mrs. Robinson.” After DiMaggio died in 1999 at age 84, Simon wrote that the Yankee Clipper remained “an American hero” at a time when “genuine heroes were in short supply.” He met his responsibilities with grace and refused to surrender his privacy to those obsessed with fame. Despite all the mud, he mourned his wife and honored her memory by sending flowers to her grave every week for decades.
In short, Simon concluded, DiMaggio was “the antithesis of the iconoclastic, mind-expanding, authority-defying 60's.” As such, he provided a telling role model in a song condemning the hypocrisy of the “older generation.” Simon didn’t look to John Lennon or Bob Dylan; he didn’t turn to Timothy Leary, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or some other voice of the 1960s. Instead, he turned to an old ballplayer.
Most of All You’ve Got to Hide It From the Kids
Meanwhile, Mrs. Robinson’s evolving reputation demands that we think a little harder about what we’ve become. In 1967 when the film was released, she was evil incarnate—the harpy preying on youthful innocence, the stand-in for her generations’ multiple sins. By contrast, today she is a sex symbol and role model, at least for some.
The transformation may have begun as early as 1969, when Frank Sinatra turned Mrs. Robinson’s evils into some wink-wink-nudge-nudge shenanigans. In a painful cover, Ol’ Blue Eyes sang:
The PTA, Mrs. Robinson
Won't OK the way you do your thing
Ding, ding, ding
And you'll get yours, Mrs. Robinson
Foolin' with that young stuff like you do
Boo, hoo, hoo; woo, woo, woo
So how's your bird, Mrs. Robinson
"Dandy", Mrs. Robinson you'd say
Hey, hey, hey
Well have you heard, Mrs. Robinson
Mine is fine as wine, and I should know
Ho, ho, ho
What Sinatra may have started, others took and ran with. Today, the Mrs. Robinson Society honors the formerly vilified character as “a symbol of female independence for a new generation of married women.” Her feline representation has been converted from a dangerous predator into a lucrative market; there are cougar magazines, cougar dating services, cougar conventions, a Miss Cougar America, and even cougar cruises. In 2009, the first international cougar cruise invited would-be Mrs. Robinsons to chase “cubs” on the high seas between Los Angeles and Ensenada.
Progress? Decline? Female empowerment? Exploitation? That’s a matter of opinion. Whether for better or worse, Paul Simon’s 1968 question and answer is still applicable:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away.