The Graduate opens with a party. But instead of a joyous celebration, we find a nervous, claustrophobic Ben (Dustin Hoffman), lost in a sea of his parents’ friends. He’s ambushed; hands reach from out of frame to pull and push and grab. From all angles, he is bombarded with questions, most commonly about his future. This is how we come to understand our protagonist: through our shared discomfort and anxiety surrounding the party and, by association, Ben’s future. One of The Graduate‘s many virtues is the ease and efficiency with which it connects the audience to Ben.
This is where Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) comes in. Where Ben is jittery and unsure, Mrs. Robinson is smooth and calculated. She acts with purpose, which is naturally attractive to the floundering Ben. Director Mike Nichols keys us into the fact that Ben’s lack of direction is the only condition in which this relationship can exist. The two begin an affair, producing excellent scenes of rapid-fire dialogue. The juxtaposition of the two does wonders to establish the characters; Ben’s nervousness is only heightened under Mrs. Robinson’s concentrated gaze.
The Graduate does extremely well in humanizing Mrs. Robinson and establishing her as a symbol of the dissatisfied American housewife. This process is most easily noticed in a scene in which Ben tries to force a conversation between the two. We don’t begin to learn about Mrs. Robinson as a result of genuine curiosity, no, it comes from Ben’s desire to reconcile his guilt about the affair. After Ben’s prying, she reveals she was once an art major in college but lost her chance to pursue her interests once she became pregnant with her daughter, Elaine. She clearly wears a longing expression, but Ben ignorantly glosses over the first time we see Mrs. Robinson open up to someone. Ben keeps talking and just like that the moment is gone; she is closed off again. We get the sense this is what Mrs. Robinson has been doing all her life: shouting into the void.
Hoffman’s performance as Ben is truly outstanding. He allows Ben’s anxiety to manifest itself in all aspects of his acting, from his speech patterns to his movements to his body language. And Hoffman is always matched by the stellar Bancroft, who slinks through the frame, toying with Benjamin as a predator with its prey.
The Graduate is widely considered to be one of the most important coming-of-age films ever, and rightfully so. Nichols nails the portrayal of the young person that directors so often fumble with and offers a protagonist who resonates strongly with younger audiences.