Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft): “Pardon?”
Benjamin: “Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. Oh no.”
Mrs. Robinson: “What's wrong?”
Benjamin: “Mrs. Robinson, you didn't... I mean, you didn't expect...”
Mrs. Robinson: “What?”
Benjamin: “I mean, you didn't really think I'd do something like that.”
Mrs. Robinson: “Like what?”
Benjamin: “What do you think?”
Mrs. Robinson: “Well, I don't know.”
Benjamin: “For god's sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You... put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours.”
Mrs. Robinson: “So?”
Benjamin: “Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.”
Mrs. Robinson: [laughs] “Huh?”
Benjamin: “Aren't you?”—The Graduate (1967), screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, based on the novel by Charles Webb, directed by Mike Nichols
Anne Bancroft played a heroine—Helen Keller’s indomitable teacher, Annie Sullivan, in her Oscar-winning turn in The Miracle Worker—but in The Graduate she virtually invented an archetype. Long before “Cougar Den” became a Saturday Night Live skit, or before Demi Moore, Susan Sarandon or other actresses of a certain age took up with younger men, she popularized the notion of the cougar in Mike Nichols’ film, which premiered on this date simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles.
It wasn’t the first time Hollywood had paired an older woman with a younger man, mind you: Sunset Boulevard, for instance, had Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond. But that didn’t have the pervasive influence on America’s sexual consciousness as The Graduate, for several reasons: 1) the Hollywood censorship code was still operating; 2) the hold that the silent-screen star had on screenwriter-gigolo Joe Gillis was monetary rather than sexual; 3) Desmond’s allure had faded a long time ago; and 4) she was, most of all, bonkers.
The above scene in Dustin Hoffman’s film debut couldn’t be more different from the one that Billy Wilder created. It’s the climax of a whole series of events (starting with one that Benjamin doesn’t mention here—Mrs. Robinson barging into his room at his own home, when he wants to escape from his party), all carefully orchestrated. Mrs. Robinson is insouciant, teasing, fake-innocent—utterly in control. Benjamin doesn’t stand a chance.
The blogger at Noir Whale picks up on one neat trick of the film: This scene was “textbook film noir, in a non-noir setting,” with Mrs. Robinson as the femme fatale and Benjamin as her helpless male prey. Yet the scene gains in daring because of its gender inversion of a familiar trope of film and literature (e.g., Les Liaisons Dangereuses): an older man cunningly, step by step, taking a young woman’s virginity.
For more than a few male viewers, the daring in all of this made Mrs. Robinson more desirable than her daughter. Elaine might have been beautiful, but she was young and innocent—and for a certain type of male, such a woman doesn’t have the appeal that a more experienced one does.
The film’s sleight of hand in this scene in regard to its principal figure (for make no mistake—Mrs. Robinson is not only the force that alters Benjamin’s aimless, frightened stasis in facing adulthood, but also the most complicated character in the movie) was as slick as its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nudity. In actuality, Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman, who appeared younger than his 30 years.
Nichols might have been acclaimed as a harbinger of “The New Hollywood,” but in manipulating the age difference between Bancroft and Hoffman, he stood squarely in a tradition between Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (in which Jessie Royce Landis, just seven years older than Cary Grant, played his mother) and Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (in which Sally Field, just six years after playing Tom Hanks’ girlfriend in Punchline, now played his mom).
By today’s standards, The Graduate suggested far more than it showed in its scenes with Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson. But it had swung the pendulum far, far away from the likes of Dr. Dolittle (which, as I noted in a post from yesterday, premiered only the day before). Dr. Dolittle treated the animal kingdom; Mrs. Robinson, in her predatory inclinations, belonged to it. (At the time of shooting, Nichols had been reading Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” a novella about a young man waiting for an unusual destiny, and it inspired his decision to have Bancroft clad in animal prints).
One original choice for the role of Mrs. Robinson, Doris Day, might have been flying into the face of her wholesome stereotype had she appeared, but she could not see herself “rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age.” Ava Gardner, who was also approached by Nichols about taking on the role, shared the character’s strong taste for alcohol and young men, but she took herself out of the running because she didn't consider herself much of an actress, thereby leaving the field open to Bancroft. The latter matched Stifler’s mom in American Pie as a comical cougar, but—in a sign of her greatness as an actress—brought infinitely greater shadings of disappointment and buried resentments.