Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

I think you are filth! I think you are scum! You are a degenerate!

Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) has a right to be pissed off. Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the maladjusted title character of The Graduate (1967), has ruined his marriage and now has his eyes on Elaine, his daughter. Yet when Mr. Robinson confronts Ben about all of this, he doesn’t come off as an outraged man rightfully defending his home and family. He comes off as a clown. He’s the buffoonish, cigar-clenching symbol of an uncool generation that’s had its chance to rule the world; now it’s 1967, and all bets are off. “Is it something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt,” he asks, “or is it just things I stand for that you despise?”

This showdown could’ve easily been played for straight drama, with Mr. Robinson as our tragic hero. In the hands of director Mike Nichols (as well as screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham), it’s a masterpiece of awkward comedy, as Mr. Robinson overreacts to Ben’s every gesture, misinterprets his every olive branch, and plays into every stereotype about gruff, overprotective fathers. During their argument, Ben tactlessly compares sex with Mrs. Robinson to “shaking hands”; as Mr. Robinson’s leaving, he haltingly barks at Ben, “You’ll pardon me if I don’t shake hands with you.” Every one of Mr. Robinson’s lines drips with cluelessness and seething rage, an unfortunate but hilarious combination.

This climaxes with his last few words to Ben, as transcribed above. To be honest, these insults are pretty accurate: Ben’s behavior throughout the film has been filthy, scummy, and degenerate; he doesn’t seem to have a moral compass or any sense of his effect on other people. But with Dustin Hoffman just standing innocuously in his apartment, it’s hard to take these slurs seriously. He’s completely justified, sure, but his anger and volume feel over-the-top. It’s a brilliant scene, if morally shifty, aligning us even further with Ben’s psychosis through the cartoonish, hysterical counterexample of Mr. Robinson. Nichols’ direction and Hamilton’s unforgettable performance mesh for a sly piece of comic trickery.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

One response to “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

  1. John

    Plastics! :)

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