I started watching The Graduate last weekend, and because my internet connection was acting up, I didn’t even get up to the part where Benjamin was sleeping with Mrs Robinson. I watched the rest of the film on Tuesday, after Mad Men’s stunning penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route”, because the joke where the college boys tell the doctor that Betty’s name is “Mrs Robinson” reminded me that I was half an hour into the film. I didn’t like The Graduate very much; it was beautifully directed, but I couldn’t see past the fact that Ben was clearly stalking Elaine. Then after I started doing some research into The Graduate, I realised that the Mrs Robinson joke in “The Milk and Honey Route” wasn’t just a reference to The Graduate, but a tribute.
After I finished The Graduate, I did a lot of reading online to try and understand why people loved this movie so much. I felt like the problems I had with the film meant that I was watching it wrong, but I’ve just come to terms that, as my mum said, it was a film very much of its time. 2017 will be the 50 year anniversary of The Graduate’s theatrical release, and a lot has changed in 50 years. What we know from history, and the popular culture that depicts that history is that the 1960s were an era of social change: women were allowed to go to college, and children had more freedom of their careers – they didn’t have to do what their parents expected of them. The changing times mean that it’s “okay” for Elaine to run away with Benjamin after she marries another man against her will; what she’s doing is making a choice for herself and defying her parents’ expectations. When I read online (and I didn’t make note of any of the websites I visited) that the Robinsons and the Braddocks were very much people of the 1950s, everything clicked into place. Elaine and Benjamin’s parents were Don and Betty Draper, who look even more out of place than they did in the late 60s, as Mad Men enters the year 1970.
For any Mad Men fan, Tom and Lorenzo’s “Mad Style” recaps are required reading. They analyse the costuming in each episode of the show and identify motifs that reflect character traits and themes of the show. In their recap for “Severance”, the eighth episode of its seventh season, they highlighted how Don Draper was a man out of time. Despite having some blue shirts as well as white ones, he’s dressing the way he did ten years ago, and compared to Roger, Pete and Stan, looks very old-fashioned. In the “Mad Style” for “The Milk and Honey Route”, there is understandably a focus on Betty as a woman who has finally come to terms with her own death, but Tom and Lorenzo show that there’s more to it. Betty is a woman who likes to look pretty, and she’s flattered by the Mrs Robinson comments she was getting from boys 20 years younger than her. She knows she’s much older than them, and she’s glad they can still see she’s attractive.
Betty has been a problematic character throughout Mad Men’s run, but the more I thought about it, the Mrs Robinson comparison makes sense. When Betty was suffering from depression and anxiety after her mother died, Don sent her to a psychiatrist who said that her problems merely amounted to boredom. The reason that Mrs Robinson started her affair with Benjamin Braddock is because she was bored. The reason that Benjamin decided to go along with it is because it he had no idea what to do with his life and it was a way to pass the time. He also knew his parents wouldn’t approve. In “Lost Horizon”, Betty Hofstadt-Draper-Francis is finally happy, which we all should have seen as a sign of her impending doom, but Mad Men is one of those shows that doesn’t follow conventional television tropes. Just think of when Cyrus and James made up in season 3 of Scandal, or when Will and Alicia had a truce of sorts in “Dramatics, Your Honor”. Neither of those things ended well.
The other more obvious parallel to The Graduate is Glen Bishop’s infatuation with Betty. As we see in “The Forecast”, Glen has had a thing for Betty for ten years (it’s been so long since I’ve watched Season One that I only have the vaguest memories of Betty babysitting Glen), and as he ships out to Vietnam, he wants to consummate that lust. But Betty stops him; she’s flattered that he wants her, but she’s married. This is different to whatever went on with Mrs Robinson, who was so bored with her life that she ruined her marriage to bed a college graduate. Betty is finally growing up, and has taken a lesson from Sally, and “marches to the beat of her own drum”. Like Benjamin and Elaine, Betty is defying what is expected of her in the final season of Mad Men. She’s come to peace that the lung cancer is going to kill her. People expect her to get treatment and fight her disease, but she’s not going to do that. Her husband expects her to stay at home, but Betty goes to class – it’s what she wants to do, and that’s what’s most important.
I still have my issues with The Graduate, but through my reading about both the film and Mad Men, I’ve come to understand why it’s considered a classic. It’s also an incredibly influential film that helped me understand Betty, which is something I never would have expected.
- I didn’t write much about the film because I didn’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. The Benjamin stalker plot really bothered me though.
- One of the best things I found online about The Graduate was this podcast on classic films, which went through the themes and motifs used in the film.
- The last ten seconds of The Graduate are fantastic. It’s a realisation that two young people may have just made a huge mistake, and at the same time a recognition that the lives of these characters goes on after the end of the film.