Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson
I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening, Benjamin Braddock? “Microbubbles.” Think about it.
I want to remake The Graduate. I know that sounds sacrosanct unless, of course, you’ve seriously never heard of the movie due to generational discrepancies or have a lack of cultural references. But I think it’s a fine idea to remake the Dustin Hoffman/Anne Bancroft classic. It was directed by the hugely talented director, the late Mike Nichols. He was smart enough to hijack Simon and Garfunkel’s song and change Mrs. Roosevelt to Mrs. Robinson for the film’s theme. It was all about generational change, which is a pretty good way to describe what we are all going through now.
As much as I’d like to think otherwise, I’m part of the generation being changed. I’m pretty sure this happens time and again throughout history with all the accompanying resentments handed not so gently from one “age group,” as they used to say in school, to the next. The generational change today turns the 1967 Oscar-winning movie on its head. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Hoffman’s Benjamin was a mild-mannered rebel who spent most of the movie suffering with his wealthy family and trying to get the guts to take the next step in his life. Today he comes across as a bit of a creep, living with so many options in life he can’t quite appreciate. Does Benjamin turn into one of those privileged powerful men we know about publicly – avaricious, insensitive, brutal, and yet desperate and boring? Is he one of those guys befuddled by the #metoo movement or worse, as the behavior that had seemed – at least to his male peers – acceptable becomes not so?
“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming without shorts,” Warren Buffett famously said, more literally in this case than he intended.
These are turbulent times for cultural tides, with eddies and whirlpools galore. Even quicksand. Surprisingly, when you watch the movie today you find yourself cheering for Anne Bancroft’s pivotal character, Mrs. Robinson, who we all thought was a villain and now comes across as a manipulative, emotionally shattered, yet intelligent woman who wants to believe she still matters.
A new version tailored to life today would help sort through our confusing times. There’s a Zen quote about confusion: “If you are confused, that means you are about to learn something.” It’s not Mike Nichols’s fault that we turned out the way we did and made his movie an artifact of cultural change.
A similar thing happened with Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, another classic from the ’60s. My friend and filmmaker Ruth Charney recently staged a screening with director Larry Kramer, hoping to introduce a younger audience to the French film classic. When the movie was over, they were disappointed to find that the audience didn’t understand why everyone in the film was so neurotic.
Actress Melissa Errico, famous for playing ingénues, has written eloquently about playing Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Day or Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and goes on about Kiss Me, Kate, that musical update that is now out-of-date [of] Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew where the baritone gives a spanking to the female lead, crystalizing the iconic poster image for the show. She deals with these characters by playing against the victim profiling and finds untapped resources in the playwright’s own words to support her characters and find the thing we all want in characters of every gender: complexity.
We look at characters differently in every age. I once did a study of the classic Winnie the Pooh characters for a Disney series I created, Book of Pooh, and discovered Eeyore of all people – er, donkeys – began as a worrier in the ’60s, became a nihilist in the ’70s, and today seems like a realist.
The quickie solution – which turns out some interesting results – is to flip genders. But gender-flipping as satisfying, as it is to some and fun as it may be, doesn’t address the real issue. Male complexity is getting a beating these days. One of the most compelling #metoo movies you could make right now would be about the guy.
Think back to The Graduate. Gender-flipping their roles is fraught with even more disturbing ripples. At some point, you have to start fresh. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, I’m sure you would have an interesting take on what’s happening now.