Benjamin Braddock is a mess.
Anxious, lost, aimless, alienated, disaffected—the character's been called all those things. The film presented his dilemma so well that 35 years later, one writer used the term "Benjamin Braddock Syndrome" to describe a graduate, who, moving back with his or her parents, saw the future as bleak and devoid of possibilities. Forty-five years after the film's release, another writer used Benjamin as Exhibit A in what she termed "Real World Syndrome," which is evidently epidemic among recent college grads who are thrown into the harsh realities of planning a future.
Our guy Benjamin has just graduated from a prestigious college in the east and should have a promising future ahead of him. He's got loving, if a bit overbearing, wealthy parents who are very proud of him; he was a smart, accomplished athlete and student leader back in school; he won a fellowship to graduate school. He even got the most killer sports car ever for a graduation gift.
None of that seems to matter to Benjamin right now. He's just turned 21 and has no idea what to do with is life. He can't see any meaning in his four years of college and he feels alienated from the society he grew up in. He sees his parent's lives as empty and superficial. He wants something "different," but he can't say what.
MR. BRADDOCK: Have you thought about graduate school?
MR. BRADDOCK: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
BENJAMIN: You got me.
He's in a kind of paralyzing existential panic. It's hard to believe that he was a BMOC just a couple weeks earlier.
At Ben's graduation party, which is otherwise an unbearable experience for him, something "different" arrives in the person of Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's law partner. She finds Benjamin attractive and offers to have sex with him. More than offers—she tricks him into going into her bedroom where he finds her naked. He's too anxious and unprepared for this.
But after a particularly humiliating and unbearable experience at his 21st birthday party, where his parents make him perform in front of their guests in his new scuba diving suit, he calls and takes her up on her offer. He's hugely ambivalent about the whole thing, but at least it's something to do; a mini-act of rebellion against what people seem to be expecting of him. As the affair wears on, and both of them seem kind of checked out, it's clear that this isn't the solution he's been looking for. In fact, he goes from feeling controlled by his parents to being trapped in this affair.
Part of what gets Ben stuck in his affair—in addition to the fact that he has nothing else going on in his life—is that he's a good kid at heart; he doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings and he's polite and deferential to a fault. At times he even seems terrified of Mrs. Robinson. There are some hilarious exchanges with her during the curse of the seduction and affair:
MRS. ROBINSON: You've known me nearly all of your life. You must have formed some opinion.
BENJAMIN: Well, I've always thought that you were a very…nice person.
Later, he gets suspicious:
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me. (pause) Aren't you?
MRS. ROBINSON: Why no. I hadn't thought of it. I feel rather flattered that you –
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson, will you forgive me for what I just said?
MRS. ROBINSON: It's all right.
BENJAMIN: It's not all right, it's the worst thing I've ever said to anyone.
As he gets deeper into it, he looks even more like a polite little boy:
MRS. ROBINSON: Isn't there something you want to tell me?
BENJAMIN: To tell you?
MRS. ROBINSON: Yes.
BENJAMIN: Well…I want you to know how much I appreciate this, really…
MRS. ROBINSON: The number.
MRS. ROBINSON: The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that.
BENJAMIN: Oh? You're absolutely right. Absolutely.
He balks at having sex with her, but still can't insult her:
MRS. ROBINSON: Benjamin, do you find me undesirable?
BENJAMIN: Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think…I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends. I just don't think we could possibly…
After the affair's been going on for a while, he lashes out at her after she's told him he's not good enough for Elaine:
BENJAMIN: You go to hell. You go straight to hell, Mrs. Robinson. Do you think I'm proud of myself? Do you think I'm proud of this?
MRS. ROBINSON: I wouldn't know.
BENJAMIN: Well, I'm not. […] No sir. I am not proud that I spend my time with a broken-down alcoholic. […] Mrs. Robinson, this is the sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me. And you do what you want but I'm getting the hell out.
He can't maintain it, though. When he sees she's hurt and starts to leave, he backs down:
BENJAMIN: What are you doing?
MRS. ROBINSON: Well it's pretty obvious you don't want me around any more.
BENJAMIN: Well look, I was kind of upset there. I'm sorry I said those things. […] Oh no. Look…I like you. I wouldn't keep coming here if I didn't like you.
MRS. ROBINSON: But if it's sickening for you –
BENJAMIN: It's not! I enjoy it! I look forward to it. It's the one thing I have to look forward to.
He's still stuck.
Enter Elaine Robinson, beautiful daughter of Mrs. Robinson. We learn that Ben knew her in high school but hasn't seen her for five years. He tells his parents that they didn't get along back then, but Ben takes her on a date because his parents have been insisting. He doesn't seem to have trouble treating her terribly at first, acting like a sullen jerk.
ELAINE: You're living at home now. Is that right?
ELAINE: Are you going to graduate school?
Not wanting to have any kind of relationship with her (understandable, considering he's shtupping her mother), he takes a restaurant but still doesn't really talk to her. There's a conversation similar to the one he had with Mrs. R.:
ELAINE: Benjamin, do you dislike me for some reason?
BENJAMIN: No…why should I?
ELAINE: I don't know.
It gets worse. He takes her to a sleazy strip club. But just like with her mother, when Elaine runs out in tears, he feels terrible and apologizes.
BENJAMIN: This date and everything. It was my parents' idea. They forced me into it.
ELAINE: Oh…that's very nice of you to tell me.
BENJAMIN: No. What I mean is…that's why I've been acting this way. I'm not like this. I hate myself like this.
He goes on to spill his guts:
BENJAMIN: I've had this feeling, ever since I've graduated…this… kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time. Do you know what I mean?
ELAINE: Yes, I do.
BENJAMIN: It's like I've been 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…no, I mean no one makes them up, they seem to have made themselves up. Elaine, I like you. I like you so much. Do you believe that? Do you?
BENJAMIN: You're the first…you're the first thing for so long that I've liked. The first person I could stand to be with. I mean my whole life is such a waste. It's just nothing. I'm sorry. I'll take you home now.
This date marks a real evolution in Ben's development. For the first time, he starts working towards something (i.e., getting Elaine) rather than running away from his anxieties about the future. At least that's what he thinks he's doing. Finally, he's doing something rather than being paralyzed. That's how he presents his marriage plans to his parents.
MR. BRADDOCK: This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.
BENJAMIN: Oh no, it's not. It's completely baked. It's a decision I've made.
Ben proves himself to be single-mindedly devoted to that decision from that point on, moving to Berkeley to be near Elaine, following her around, pestering her to marry him even after he learns she's considering marrying another guy as well. Mr. Robinson's threats to take legal action against him don't stop him; he's a man on a mission. When he hears that Elaine is actually marrying Carl, he freaks out. In a bold move that had audiences standing and cheering, he races to the church and steals the newlywed bride, fighting off the angry family and running down the bus heading out of town.
In the final scene, Ben's elated. They've done it—broken the rules big-time, stood up to their families, and claimed his prize. But as the scene progresses, the smiles fade and we see the blank look on Ben's face that we've seen so many times before. "The Sound of Silence" plays again. Ben, with Elaine sitting next to him, heads into a still uncertain future.
What are we supposed to make of Benjamin?
At the time the film was released, he became a hero for all young people who were tired of living by their parents' rules. They may not have known what they wanted, but they knew what they didn't want. They were a generation of idealists who just knew there was something better out there. Maybe love was the answer.
Mike Nichols had said that he never imagined that Ben and Elaine would really stay together. Maybe Ben's idea was too half-baked after all. The movie leaves us with a lot of questions about our protagonist.
One writer answered all those burning questions so you don't have to:
Ben goes from committing acts of daring out of errant boredom to improvising a happy ending with little more than his heart to guide him. It's progress, and yet still remarkably old-fashioned. That's the secret to Ben Braddock—he's a schlub, a square, forced into the role of the rebel through a combination of circumstance, haplessness, and the sudden realization that true love is the only thing he thinks is worth fighting for. […]at a time when plenty of 21-year-olds were being sucked into movements and lifestyle choices that would define the era (and a generation's image of itself as permanently progressive, questioning, and imaginative), Ben Braddock just wants to sit around and drink Olympia. In this, he's probably a lot more like his scorned parents than most readings of The Graduate would care to admit. (Source)
Regardless of all the inconsistencies in the character of Benjamin Braddock, he spoke, and still speaks, to young people everywhere who are anxious and unsure about what the future holds. He's a decent kid who makes some rash decisions on the path to getting unstuck and figuring out what he wants.
Besides, what 21 year old can say they really know what they're doing?
Bow chicka wow wow.
Mrs. Robinson is a friend of Ben's parents, which means she's known Benjamin his entire life. She's smart, direct, sexy, cynical, very attracted to Benjamin, and—we later find out—very bitter about her life. On the one hand, she seems formidable; on the other, highly vulnerable. She pursues Benjamin relentlessly until he agrees to meet her, and she manages to keep him interested. But, at the same time, her need to do this indicates that something's seriously missing in her life.
Call us old-fashioned, but happily married and content people don't typically start seducing the grown-up children of their friends and colleagues.
(Quick trivia note: Director, Mike Nichols, and production designer, Richard Sylbert, wanted to use some sort of visual cue to playfully suggest that Mrs. Robinson was like a predator stalking her prey. They did this by giving Bancroft leopard-skin and tiger-stripe clothing and décor and fur-coats. Nichols credited his reading of Henry James' "The Beast in the Jungle" for this inspiration. (Source)
As we watch the seduction progress—and actually work—we get a better sense of what Mrs. Robinson wants out of it. She doesn't seem to be looking for an emotional relationship with Benjamin. This isn't a torrid, infatuated affair. She wants sex, and the comfort and release that it brings. She's looking for oblivion, a way to forget her own unhappy life—at least, that's apparently what she wants. Like Benjamin, she seems lost and adrift herself. During much of the sex, the shots of her face show us she's checked out. (Source) Benjamin has to beg her to say a few words instead of just jumping into bed.
Nichols uses his camera to show us both sides of Mrs. R. In the beginning, she's beautifully dressed and made-up; there are plenty of shots of her gorgeous gams and seductive smiles. But after Ben confesses his affair to Elaine, there's Mrs. Robinson in the background of the shot, rain-soaked and makeup running, looking defeated and…old. As Katharine Ross, the actress who plays Elaine, put it: "It's one of those very subtle moments that only a great actress can pull off. In that moment you see the story of her life." (Source)
Mrs. Robinson tells Ben right away that she's an alcoholic. She says she doesn't love or hate her husband—she's just satisfying sexual desires that he doesn't meet. She and Benjamin have this exchange:
BENJAMIN: Wait a minute. So you wouldn't say you loved him.
MRS. ROBINSON: Not exactly.
BENJAMIN: But you don't hate him.
MRS. ROBINSON: No, Benjamin. I don't hate him. Unhook my blouse.
Later in their affair, after Ben pushes her to talk, we learn that Mrs. Robinson (we find it hilarious that Benjamin keeps calling her that throughout their affair) had to give up her aspirations as an art major in college after she got pregnant and had to marry Mr. Robinson. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong in Mrs. Robinson's life that she's willing to take such a huge risk.
When Benjamin tries to make conversation with Mrs. Robinson, she resists and only volunteers information reluctantly (like about being an art major and rarely having sex with her husband). One reason is probably that, although she can have a sexual interest in a younger man, she realizes they have nothing in common and couldn't possibly have a meaningful conversation.
Here's an example of an exchange that shows the emotional gulf between them:
BENJAMIN: You loved him once, I assume. When you first knew him.
MRS. ROBINSON: No.
MRS. ROBINSON: I never did, Benjamin. Now let's –
BENJAMIN: Well, wait a minute. You married him. [She nods.] Why did you do that?
MRS. ROBINSON: [taking off her stockings] See if you can guess.
BENJAMIN: Well I can't.
MRS. ROBINSON: Think real hard, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN: I can't see why you did, unless ...you didn't have to marry him or anything, did you?
Ms. Robinson and Benjamin are clearly not on the same page. She sounds almost weary having to explain the ways of the world to him. Ben's more interested in how they "did it." She finds the discussion unbearable:
BENJAMIN: Well how did it happen?
MRS. ROBINSON: How do you think?
BENJAMIN: I mean did he take you up to his room with him? Did you go to a hotel?
MRS. ROBINSON: Benjamin, what does it possibly matter?
BENJAMIN: I'm curious.
MRS. ROBINSON: We'd go to his car.
BENJAMIN: Oh no. In the car you did it?
MRS. ROBINSON: I don't think we were the first.
BENJAMIN: What kind of car was it?
MRS. ROBINSON: What?
BENJAMIN: Do you remember the make of the car?
MRS. ROBINSON: Oh my God.
You can see why she'd probably skip the talk and just get down to business.
Here's what the screenwriter, Buck Henry, said about the moment where Mrs. Robinson reveals that she's an art major, despite having said earlier that she doesn't like art and doesn't want to talk about it: "That's when I realized that I knew Mrs. Robinson. That she had been Benjamin. She is a very intelligent and cynical woman. She knows what's happening to her." (Source)
After Ben falls in love with her daughter, Elaine, Mrs. Robinson tries to keep them apart. This might be because she wants to keep Benjamin for herself, but it might also be because she thinks Benjamin isn't good enough for her daughter (that's what she tells him) or that it would be just too weird. Whatever the case, she tells Elaine that Benjamin raped her after taking her back from the party—which is a pretty terrible claim, obviously. But Ben convinces Elaine otherwise.
When Ben interrupts the wedding at the end of the film, Mrs. Robinson at first thinks she's succeeded in frustrating Ben's hopes, and she has a gloating smile as she sees him banging on the glass. But when Elaine decides to run away with him, Mrs. Robinson yells at her: "It's too late!" Elaine replies, "Not for me!" It's a sad summing-up of Mrs. Robinson's own life—she never really had the chance to pursue life and love like Ben and Elaine have. That moment is unbearable to her. When Elaine shouts back at her, she slaps her.
We think Buck Henry nailed it—she was a lot like Benjamin; a smart and accomplished young woman whose life took a different turn and trapped her in a situation that robbed her of the future she imagined. But in 1967, Benjamin has options, even if he doesn't yet see them. 20 years earlier, a pregnant young woman would have been rushed into marriage and life as a homemaker. It was a very different world back then. So here's Mrs. Robinson now, stalking hot young men and anesthetizing herself with alcohol. Sad, sad, sad. If the lyrics to her theme song are any indication, she ends up in rehab.
Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.
Benjamin falls in love with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross), a girl he knew in high school but didn't like very much. Oh, he's also having an affair with her mother.
Other than the fact that Katharine Ross was sweetly gorgeous, we don't know much about Elaine, even by the end of the film. We know she's a sensitive, good kid; she's embarrassed to the point of tears by the goings-on at the strip club. When Benjamin tries to explain why he's been such a jerk, she gets it. She feels like an outsider herself, and they can bond over that shared feeling of anxiety about their futures. She doesn't like living by other people's rules, either.
Elaine's family is a lot like the Braddocks—dad's an attorney, mom stays at home drinking and having affairs with 21-year-olds. Oh, wait. Maybe they're not like the Braddocks (unless there's a side-quel called Mrs. Braddock we don't know about). The Robinsons are unhappy, but the film doesn't develop an idea of how growing up in that family has influenced Elaine's character. We only get a hint of that in the wedding scene, when it's only after looking at her parents' angry faces that she seems to decide to run off with Benjamin.
Before she meets Ben, Elaine's on a typical path for an affluent young daughter of a professional family. She's at a great college and is dating a frat boy that her parents approve of. She's not involved in the radical political scene at Berkeley and we don't see any evidence of drugs. Maybe she's wanted to rebel, but she hasn't. The date with Ben shows us that behind her good-girl persona, there's a young woman who's been questioning the premises of her life.
But until the last scene, all this does is to make her hugely ambivalent about everything. Her default emotional state seems to be confusion.
BENJAMIN: Will you marry me? …You won't?
ELAINE: I don't know.
BENJAMIN: But you might?
ELAINE: I might.
BENJAMIN: Is that so? You might marry me?
Think about these facts: first, Elaine's considering marrying a guy that she's spent hardly any time with, most of it while he's stalking her at college. Second, she's considering marrying a guy she knows had an extended sexual relationship with her mother. She's also considering marrying another guy as well.
In addition to the fact that she's considering marriage to Benjamin and Carl, it's important to note that she's considering marriage, period; one of those old-fashioned institutions that make up the bedrock of the life she wants to reject.
Did we mention she's 19 years old?
How can we make sense of it? Is this evidence that Elaine and Ben share a true love that conquers all those inconvenient facts, particularly the he-slept-with-my-mother fact? Either she's the most open-minded person on the planet or something else is going on. She's allowed herself to be roped into marrying Carl, at her parents' insistence we're to assume, but do you buy that? What little we learn about Elaine in the film makes us think that she's a smart young woman who can think for herself and refuse an "arranged" marriage.
Audiences back then had no problems with it. They thought it was great. The two of them find each other and, against insurmountable odds, run off together even though she just married another guy. So what? Love conquered all, right?
The last two scenes make you wonder, though. When Elaine looks up to see Ben behind the glass, calling her name, she slowly walks towards him, looking bewildered. But it's not until Nichols cuts to shots of first Mrs. Robinson's then Mr. Robinson's sneering, disapproving faces, and Elaine sees them contorted with rage at her, does she call out to him. What would have happened if they'd been sympathetic?
And then there's the final scene on the bus after the initial excitement of their escape quickly fades, and Elaine looks at Ben expectantly. His face is expressionless and her smile fades as well.
Our trenchant conclusion? Elaine wants to rebel but part of her is still attached to the kind of life her parents have. Ben is the stimulus that can jump-start her into what she imagines will be a different life. By disclosing his own similar hopes and dreams and pursuing her so relentlessly, she thinks maybe this is her big chance. Who can resist a guy who crashes your wedding and carries you off? Especially when your parents are freaking out about it? We guess you can call that love.
When we first see Mr. Robinson, it's right after Mrs. Robinson has tried to seduce Benjamin by getting naked and closing the door behind her. So…Ben's still a little rattled. The irony is that, in the conversation that follows, Mr. Robinson advises Ben to "have a few flings" and not take things too seriously.
We're thinking he wasn't suggesting Mrs. Robinson.
Their second meeting ain't so friendly. After the whole relationship with Mrs. Robinson and her daughter has blown up, Ben's up in Berkeley, trying to get Elaine back. One day, he arrives at his apartment to discover that Mr. Robinson's there. This time, he tells Benjamin that he and Mrs. Robinson are getting a divorce and that he thinks he might press charges against Ben or prosecute him in some way. He warns Ben to stay away from Elaine, and asks him why he seems to hate him or what he stands for.
MR. ROBINSON: Isn't there something you want to tell me? .... Is there something I've said that's caused this contempt, or is it just things I stand for that you despise?
I think the old guy has something there. It is the things he stands for that are the original source of Benjamin's alienation and that probably propelled him into the affair with Mrs. Robinson. Ben denies that he hates Mr. Robinson, and says that his affair with Mrs. Robinson meant nothing. Mr. Robinson leaves and angrily tells Ben that he thinks he's "scum," among other things.
In a way, Mr. Robinson is an innocent bystander caught up in this whole thing. His wife doesn't love him, and they had to get married due to an unplanned pregnancy in the first place. The fact that Mr. Robinson really gets hurt by the affair undercuts the comic aspects of it, despite how this scene is played.
Benjamin's dad, Mr. Braddock is a rich attorney. He doesn't seem to be a particularly bad guy, but Benjamin seems uncomfortable with his affluence. (That doesn't keep him from accepting the Alfa Romeo graduation gift.) Mr. Braddock has a habit of unintentionally embarrassing Benjamin, as parents tend to do. The scene where he parades Ben out before the guests in his scuba outfit was familiar to young audiences as one of those mortifying experiences your parents supply you with from time to time.
Mr. Braddock represents the voice of conventional thinking and common sense. When Ben says that he's going to marry Elaine Robinson, even though she doesn't like him, his dad says, "This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked"—which it does, obviously. And he also asks Benjamin why he's spending so much time drifting in the pool without getting a job or doing any work—another reasonable question.
Apart from asking Ben if he's applied to graduate school and wondering what those four years of college were about, anyway, Mr. Robinson doesn't give Ben any real guidance. He asks him what's wrong but doesn't follow up on it. He doesn't help him think about what might be meaningful to him. He sees the world through a particular traditional lens, and if others see it differently, he doesn't have much to offer them.
To his credit, though, he's a generous dad and has a lot of longtime friends—friends who seem to appreciate and value Benjamin. He seems to be something of a party guy. He's proud of his boy but doesn't quite understand him.
Benjamin's mom, Mrs. Braddock is concerned about her son just lying around for weeks doing nothing. She wants to know where he goes every night and won't believe him when he claims he's just getting drunk and driving around. She also urges him to date Elaine Robinson.
It seems like there would be more to say about Mrs. Braddock, but there really isn't—that's the essence of her role.
A hint that she might be a little forward-thinking is the interesting op-art shirt she wears in one scene. It's fun and different, not stodgy. She seems energetic and fun, not the unbearably oppressive mom that Ben seems to be reacting to. A little embarrassing, maybe, but like we said, that's what parents do to their adult children sometimes.
We can't blame her for wondering why her boy is out all night and lying about why.
The room clerk, played by the movie's screenwriter Buck Henry, is at the Taft Hotel when Benjamin arrives to book a room for his affair with Mrs. Robinson. The clerk immediately catches Ben off-guard Benjamin by asking him, "Are you here for an affair?" But he's talking about a social gathering; the Singleman Party going on at the hotel.
Basically, the clerk provides Ben with some opportunities to act comically awkward. He not only acts strangely when he thinks the clerk is asking him if he's there to have an affair, but also when he talks about getting his luggage out of his car—really just a toothbrush.
Carl is Elaine's fiancé, played by Brian Avery. We don't really get to see him say anything or do anything, aside from a muted scene of him yelling in rage, as Benjamin disrupts his wedding. But we get to learn a little bit about him secondhand.
For one thing, Benjamin sees Carl as a totally unromantic kind of person. He scoffs when Elaine tells him how Carl proposed to her by saying "I think we'd make a good team." Also, Carl's frat brothers joke about him, referring to him as a slick ladies' man, "the old make-out king," who left to get married "probably one step ahead of the shotgun." This makes Benjamin crazy. Ultimately, he's a romantic obstacle for both Benjamin and Elaine to overcome.
A friend of Benjamin's parents, Mr. McGuire is important for one reason and one reason only: he drops the most famous line in the whole movie. He and Ben have the following celebrated exchange at Ben's college graduation party:
MR. MCGUIRE: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
BENJAMIN: Yes, sir.
MR. MCGUIRE: Are you listening?
BENJAMIN: Yes, I am.
MR. MCGUIRE: Plastics.
To Benjamin's ears, this is totally soulless advice: the word "plastics" symbolizes the very future he wants to avoid—artificial and bland. In the end, he encounters his real future in the form of Elaine Robinson, who seems more meaningful to him than a corporate career.
Mr. McCleery (Norman Fell) is Benjamin's landlord after Ben moves up to Berkeley to convince Elaine to marry him. He's kind of a hard-edged dude. Immediately suspicious of Ben, he wants to know if he's "one of those outside agitators." (Berkeley's always been a hot-bed of political radicalism). He says, "I hate it. I won't stand for it."
Ben assures him he's not an agitator, but McCleery's still uneasy with him. He says he wants to kick Ben out after Elaine screams in Ben's room. Finally, after Mr. Robinson surprise-visits Ben and threatens to prosecute him, McCleery really does throw him out.
When Ben goes to the Taft Hotel to meet Mrs. Robinson and commence their affair, he pretends that he's actually there for an event called "The Singleman Party," being hosted by a lady named Mrs. Singleman (Alice Ghostley).
It's a big family get-together, standing in striking contrast to the adulterous affair that is about to commence. To avoid confusing the room clerk, Ben acts like he's there for her party, but then ducks out and admits to Mrs. Singleman that he's not really a guest after she starts introducing him to people and trying to figure out who he is.
Miss DeWitte (Marion Lorne, in her final film role) is the sister of Mrs. Singleman, the hostess of the party that Benjamin momentarily pretends he's attending.
And that's absolutely all you need to know about her.