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Ed D.

On "Plastics."

The descriptive "Plastic" was a diminutive of the time... like Holden Caulfield's "Phony." He's so plastic... she's so plastic - meaning they have no inner life, or at least none that anyone else can detect. When Ben is told to go into plastics, he's being told that he's gonna have to become a phony, a poseur, a victim of his own self-presentation to the world. Just like his parents. Just like all of us. That is his battle for his soul.

Mrs. Robinson has been inside her plastic shell too long and she has slipped over the line. She is animalistically wild to get out of her prison and will grasp at any path she can.

Ben is one of those paths - in fact he's the prefect path out. Not only does she want to escape herself, and reclaim her 'true self' from its plastic encased existence, she wants to blow up the whole plastic world around her.

Having an affair with Ben, their best friend's son, is the perfect pack of nitro to accomplish the destruction of her plastic world and retrieve her soul's freedom. She lost that freedom when she was in the backseat of the Ford.

And isn't it interesting that Elaine then becomes the Stepford Wife. Perfect, if partial, sequel to the Graduate.

So in a way, the movie is about both Ben and Mrs. Robinson's bid to escape the plastic life presented to them. And they help each other get there. But Mrs. Robinson doesn't make it. Ben does. And perhaps the soul saving for Mrs. R is that her daughter might escape as well.

I wonder how the greek gods would have moved the characters around to force these issues... how they used to play with the lives of mortals. Hmmmm.



Excellent points. And you're right, plastics is metaphorically perfect for the movie and for the times---but what are the times? I think The Graduate speaks to a broader swath through our cultural history than just that short moment called the 60s. In fact, I think a case can be made that the times extend right up until now. My point, though, was that there's nothing about the movie that strikes me as dating it specifically to 1967 and I don't understand exactly what it meant to the generation coming of age then.

But that's probably more about the limits of my own historical imagination and experience. The 60s and the Vietnam Era maybe shouldn't be thought of as synonymous or even congruent. And my favorite film from 1967 was Monkeys, Go Home!


Lance, the Draft Lottery didn't take place until 1969. I suspect the lack of then-current cultural reference, be it war, music, or Berkely, has more to do with the screenwriter having been born in the 1920's, and the director being born in the '30s (along with the original novelist). The movie had more of a Catcher In The Rye feel... based in the "bland" '50s. The only thing contemporary about the film/story was the soundtrack; without it Newcritics wouldn't be discussing The Graduate.

One more: Think "Compass Players" versus "Second City".

Ed D.

You're right in that thematically it could be anywhere anytime. But then the theme is gussied up with artifacts of the 60's. Plastics is one of them. Plastics then meant cheaply artificial and, applied to people, that they had a thick and constructed layer of presentation that surrounded their inner light, their soul, Thomas Keating's "true self" if you will.

The age was about tapping into and releasing that inner self. That's why so many people got into varying arts and crafts, took up hobbies where they hadn't before.

Out of WWII came a will to conformity. It was necessary to survive the war. It's hard to imagine now but Americans were none to certain that they'd beat Hitler and Tojo. In fact just last night at dinner I was talking to my aged parents about it. My step father was a flight engineer on B-29s. But they made the point, as they always do, about how uncertain the outcome was. The whole of the pacific fleet had been virtually destroyed. They conformed to survive.

But that conformity was not embraced by their kids. Me. We found it stifling. So we reached out for just about anything that seemed a pathway out.

I think you're right though about it being not too tightly tied to the 60's. But then the 60's weren't really the 60's until '68 or so. Much of the Vietnam protest was in the early 70's. If you look at the Kent State photos, many of the college kids are still dressed like the 50's. Look at the Beatles even, until about 1967. Yeah, there were centers of hippiedom in SF and other big cities, but it wasn't that widespread. My older brother, from '68 to '72, when in college, doing the frat thing, was very much like the frat scene in The Graduate. They finally protested the war, but it was more like a road trip for them... party time... girls and beer.

And I do remember seeing the movie and thinking how well it nailed how we felt.


It's sort of quibbling, sort of not:

Simon and Garfunkel dominate the soundtrack, but Ben and Elaine don’t seem to listen to any music so as far as we know they're jazz fans or opera buffs or they like the Ray Conniff Singers and they never heard any of the songs that help define the mood of their movie.

I haven't looked at the film in a good while, but: I'm pretty sure that there is one point where S&G are in the scene, not just on the soundtrack, and it might not be a coincidence that it's arguably the most anti-authoritarian/anti-materialistic S&G song on the soundtrack *and* that it appears in maybe the only scene in the film where Benjamin and Elaine are actually comfortable inside their own skins and comfortable with each other's company.

When they're sitting in his car at the drive-in burger joint, isn't "Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine" playing on the radio? I'm not sure now if it's on his car radio or from outdoor speakers at the burger joint. I remember that they put the convertible top up to get some privacy--did that kill the music [meaning it was being played from the burger joint, and suggesting that jukebox music was one more thing they needed to filter out to be able to be enjoy that moment together]?

And "Pleasure Machine" is about the only S&G song on the soundtrack whose lyrics aren't steeped in old lore, old children's rhymes, references to old baseball heroes, etc. Quite the opposite. It's also much more electric and back-beat-driven than the rest of the soundtrack.

So there might be that one brief and telling moment where the mood of the movie, the mood of the soundtrack, and the mood of the two characters overlap.

Of course, even if I'm remembering correctly, your basic point still holds: For a film revered as perfectly capturing a moment in American cultural history, the film as a whole is surprisingly devoid of anchors to any specific time.



Isn't this kinda of moot since the movie "Rumour Has It" dissects what might have really happened to Elaine and Ben?



"Pleasure Machine" is playing on the car radio at the drive-in. But it's not Ben's car. It's the car next to his and Ben asks the kids to turn it down. When they don't hear him, he puts the roof up. Now we see Ben and Elaine talking and we hear S and G, but they aren't listening to the music or anything else but each other. It's one of my favorite moments in the movie. It's also one of the only truly happy moments in the movie.

Tom C.

One of the best looks at this film I've ever read Lance, although the movie nerd in me is screaming to be heard: Murray "the mayor in JAWS" Hamilton plays Mr. Robinson. William Daniels is Ben's dad.


Tom C.,

Aaaaaaaaghhhh! I knew that! I'm a William Daniels' fan! John Adams, Dr Mark Craig, the real voice of KITT! It was a typo, Mr Daniels, I swear! Fixing it now!

Thanks for the copy edit, Tom, and the kind words.

Neely O'Hara

Thanks, Lance, for the astute commentary.

I first saw "The Graduate" in the theater on a re-release in 1972 or 1973. That made me eleven or twelve. I loved it. Perhaps I saw it at the perfect age--that moment when you think it's absolutely new and original to reject your parents' horrible, horrible values.

One word about the fate of the characters. Yeah, I have to agree that I don't have high hopes for Ben and Elaine. They both seem too inherently limited to take their moment of rebellion and run with it.

Mrs. Robinson, though, is another story.

The movie paints her as a tragic figure. But the moviemakers couldn't anticipate the way the world would change for all the Mrs. Robinsons. The early-to-mid 70s were the absolute hey-day for upper-class women who broke away from boring, ridiculous marriages.

The film tells us Mrs. Robinson was sexy, smart, and razor-sharp about the silliness of the social role she was thrown into as a girl. I can't help but think she'd be one of those impossibly loud, crazily angry, and wonderfully mean divorced women of the 1970s who carved out a new world for themselves and whom I absolutely revered growing up.

In short, she seems like the kind of woman who had to blow up her life in the 60s to thrive in the 70s and thereafter. Now I think the movie was only the beginning of her story. Her afterward was where the fun really began.


I love this post, Lance. I cant improve on it at alll so I will just say:

I think they are struck with the enormity of what they have done as they sit on that bus. Kinda, okay what do we do now? Do either of them have any money on them? Anyway, I think what Nichols meant is they end up with conventional lives and swimming pools.

I think you are right that Anne Bancroft is playing close to her age. I saw the movie on teevee as a kid (my older brother had a thing for her) and I was impressed by her animal print bra. I thought that was something I just had to have someday for seducing dweebie college boys.

Lastly, I have heard her speak of her marriage to Mel and I think it was a dynamic love match from the start - lotsa passion. If you want to see a wonderful, wonderful interview with Anne, check out the Charlie Rose archives on his site. I am a full blown hetero and am in love with her. I think her loss must still cause Mel enormous grief.


"In short, she seems like the kind of woman who had to blow up her life in the 60s to thrive in the 70s and thereafter. Now I think the movie was only the beginning of her story. Her afterward was where the fun really began."

I love this idea, Neely. Didn't Mrs. Robinson want to be an artist, lamented that lost ideal in the movie?
As a sheltered lady with a lot of time, she'd have heard of the Warhol scene, the excitement happening in NYC in 67.
I'd picture her using a divorce settlement to move to NY, go back to art school, meet new people. Maybe she'd teach, become an art dealer, maybe quit drinking or take up The Pot, maybe she'd marry, maybe she'd be happy alone, maybe she'd take lovers. She'd definitely escape the stultifying suburbia.

I just saw The Graduate for the first time not long ago, like 2 months ago; she was the only character I had real sympathy for. She behaved selfishly and destructively, but Bancroft sold it to me. She was alive and self-aware. Benjamin rather annoyed me (Hoffmann's being 27 adds to this, unreasonably I know). Didn't he treat Elaine rather swinishly at that strip club? he humiliated her, made her cry, on top of his utterly boring predicament of what he should do with his life.

Lance was quite right to point out that Vietnam was indeed raging: another poster pointed out that the lottery draft didn't start til 69, but considering all that was going on in 1967 , it's VERY charitable to say that the film is "strangely anachronistic". Perhaps this is entirely intentional, perhaps Benjamin is SUPPOSED to be a passionless, lethargic mope, deeply square and out of the loop about the many options, scenes, movements, interests, as well as dangers happening everywhere in American life in 1967. I'd find it hard to believe that his "contemporaries", actual 21 year olds in 67, didn't see this guy, without passions or interests, morosely fret about life- they must have seen him as dull and self-obsessed. I didn't see this character as terribly sympathetic, actually.

And when Nichols says "He becomes his parents", the meaning is crystal clear: Benjamin will never take a risk, never follow a dream: he's destined for the corporation and the country club. I think this is quite intentional: most young people in the fabled 60's lived very normal conventional, conformist lives, contrary to myths of the 60's. Someone above said Nichols being born in the 30's might have had to do with the anachronism: I say, bosh, so he was 37 and hopelessly out of it? To the Contrary, Nichols was superbly aware of the youthful counterculture and the happening scenes of the 1960's as a famous director and man-about-town. "The Graduate" is his portrait, not entirely unsympathetic, of a very ordinary boy facing life, but rather oblivious.

Nichols has always been a canny commercial director: in Graduate he had it both ways: "Square" audiences might relate to Benjamin, "Hip" audiences could see him negatively, a conformist wimp and future sell-out. A cautionary tale, perhaps. It was a smart move,- the ABSENCE of the turmoil "the 60's" was intentional, I think.


When Nichols said that "they become their parents", he sensed the 70s and 80s emerging from the 60s.

Mrs. Robinson is the only ethical character in the film, and where did she go?


If you listen to the way Anne Bancroft speaks as Mrs. Robinson, you can hear a lot of Elaine May in her delivery-- deadpan, smart, and focused.


The scene on the bus reminds me of the final shot in "Georgy Girl," and the expression on Lynn Redgrave's face -- she has just married a man she doesn't love so she can raise her former roommate's baby. Kind of "What did I just get myself into?" Check it out.


If you really want to know what happened to Benjamin and Elaine, Charles Webb did write a sequel to the book. It's called Home School and I think it was published last year.

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