Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson riding away on the bus. Big smiles at first. Then pensive looks. Another big smile from Benjamin, then finally seeing Benjamin seemingly feeling the weight of his decision.
Is it happy? Is it sad?
As a 12 or 13 year old, seeing The Graduate for the first time, I was affected by all of it. The way the movie looked, the passion in Benjamin's pursuit of Elaine(For years, I thought that in order to love someone, I probably had to be willing to go bust up a wedding by pounding on glass and hollering a woman's name and literally fighting off wedding attendees) But yes, at the end I had my hands in the air(figuratively) I saw it as a victory for Love, passion, and youthful rebellion. Later, after watching 500 Days of Summer, I was informed that much like Joseph Gordon Levitt's character, I apparently got it all wrong. Apparently, it was not a happy ending. I guess this is mostly based on the idea that what Benjamin and Elaine shared was not "love" but some sort of confused affection for each other. Now, I don't know much about love, a word that we use too casually and apparently mostly wrong, as love is not a feeling, but an action, and the way it's supposed to work, is strong affection and connection leads to a powerful bond that should not be easily broken. In essence, true love is less of the good feelings, and more of the willingness to hold strong when shit happens. Because as we get older, holding on to passion, jobs, health, and happiness seems to get tougher.
But, as far as I can tell, Benjamin Braddock would be there for Elaine when the going got tough. He ran the guantlet to stop her from getting married to Carl Smith, "The Make Out King" of what appeared to be the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, heading from Berkley back down to Pasadena, then back up to Berkley, then back down to Santa Barbara. Then literally fighting off wedding attendees to run away with Elaine. Now, this is either the actions of a confused, obsessed young man, who may shift his affection easily, or a determined young man who was following his heart on a path to love and conviction. I like to look at it as the latter, considering that throughout the majority of the film, Benjamin floats aimlessly in his parent's pool, drinking beer, with no direction. The only assertive decison he makes is deciding to marry Elaine, and at this point he finally gets off his ass and drives to Berkley and gets a room. Elaine seems to give him a purpose and direction that he was lacking previously.
Also, in terms of Elaine, and judging for the note she left for Benjamin, where she stated that she loved him, but didn't think it would work out, that marrying Carl Smith was not a decision that would bring her happiness in the long term, so whether or not she and Benjamin stay together, she still got away from the marriage to Carl, which would probably put her on the same path to unhappiness, vindictiveness, and depression that her mother was in. I think the fact that she would even consider seeing Benjamin after she found out he banged her mama, shows how strong their affection and connection was.
On another positive note, Elaine's running off with Benjamin also seemed to break ties with her mother, which was a good thing as well, considering that it appears to me that Mrs. Robinson actually secretly despised Elaine, because her pregnancy is what forced her into the loveless and lifeless marriage that had served as an emotional prison for the last 20 or so years.
Speaking of Mrs. Robinson, viewing "The Graduate" as an adult closer to the age of the parents rather than Benjamin and Elaine(hell, let's be honest, I probably AM the age of the parents) I paid much more attention to the Robinson's this time around. And, in trying to decipher why Mrs. Robinson chose to seduce Benjamin in the first place, I attempted to dissect her motivation:
Mrs Robinson is a character so detached from who she was before her marriage, that she is not even given a first name. She is downright mean, as expressed early in the film when Ben offers her his car instead of driving her home, and when she finally convinces him to give her the ride, instead of handing him the keys, she throws them in the aquarium, forcing him to fish them out. And, why did she choose Benjamin in the first place. Obviously, he's an easy target, and young and attractive (I'm pretty sure Dustin Hoffman never had a six pack again after "The Graduate") But, if she was simply trying to get some attention that her husband wasn't giving her, she could have gone after any number of men, who weren't the son of her husband's law partner. So why Benjamin? My theory is that for years, the two families had talked about Benjamin and Elaine possibly getting married one day. Judging from my experience briefly dating the daughter of family friends in college, this is a proposition that is exciting for friends. I guess its the vision of a big fun wedding, full of mutual friends, and big holiday gatherings, and a sense of strengthening a friendship bond into something more like a family. Mrs. Robinson, who, as stated earlier, secretly despises her daughter, blaming her for her unhappiness, knows that this union would bring Elaine happiness and fulfillment, something that she never had, and she wants to prevent her from finding this happiness. So, she, she seduces Ben, thinking that this will sabotage any chance of Ben and Elaine winding up together. I think in the real world, this would probably work. Personally, I wouldn't want to as much as have a cup of coffee with a woman I knew my father had cheated on my mother with. The look on her face when Benjamin picks Elaine up for their first date, is not one of anger, it is one of complete defeat, a spiritless blank stare that seems to express, "I thought I could at least control one thing in my miserable life, now I've failed at that, too."
The way Mr and Mrs Robinson both react to Benjamin's relentless pursuit of Elaine is telling of Mrs Robinson's hatred for her daughter as well: Mr. Robinson is trying to protect Elaine from Ben, who he considers a "degenerate" and "scum." Mrs. Robinson is trying to prevent Elaine from experiencing joy and happiness, something she believes Elaine took from her simpy by being born.
So, the end of The Graduate is like any relationship, I guess. It is uncertain. And most likely depending on your personal perspective, one might see it as happy or sad. Shit. I hope a film professor doesn't read this. Ha. I think I'm probably safe.