Garber: Chris, you mentioned that Mrs. Robinson is “a complex and fascinating character,” and, YES, I so agree. To me, she redeems this movie in so many ways. Even though, like you said, Adrienne, so much of her character, just like so much of Elaine’s character, is filtered through Ben-o-vision … there’s still such richness that comes through. And in some part, I think, precisely because of the psychic distance the movie imposes on her.
Mrs. Robinson has such a feline quality to her: She moves so quickly, so intentionally, so efficiently. She swathes herself in leopard print, and tiger print, as if she were trying to summon the spirit of the creatures in question. (According to Wikipedia, which would totally never lie about such things, the use of the term cougar to suggest an older woman who dates a much-younger man didn’t come about until this century; I wonder whether the deeper roots of it, though, aren’t in Mrs. Robinson and her jungle-feline-tastic loungewear.) There’s something so … I don’t know, precarious about her character. She threatens. She lurks. She seethes, quietly. One of the things I appreciate so much about Bancroft’s performance is how deftly she strikes a balance between coolness and ferocity: There’s so much simmering beneath that self-controlled surface. So much anger. So much pain. So much sadness that she takes out not just on her husband, and not just on her daughter, but also on “Benjamin.”
And, speaking of that! One of the things that struck me in a way it hadn’t quite before was how deeply predatory Mrs. Robinson is toward Ben—especially at the beginning of their (romantic) relationship. (And that’s doubly striking, of course, and sadly ironic, given that Hoffman himself has been accused of sexual assault.) After Ben drives Mrs. Robinson home from his party, he tries to leave; she will not let him. He resists; she ignores him. She slams the door. She takes her clothes off. He resists again. She insists. It is not necessarily played as an interaction that is deeply uncomfortable; it struck me as deeply uncomfortable nonetheless. We said in the intro to this conversation that Ben and Mrs. Robinson have a “lust-based affair,” but this is another question I had about the movie: Were we really witnessing lust? Perhaps that was Nichols’s and the other filmmakers’ intention, that Ben was successfully seduced; for me, though, I got no sense at all of (sexual) chemistry between Hoffman and Bancroft, and thus between Ben and Mrs. Robinson. Their affair felt to me like an ongoing case of mutual exploitation. Two sad people, using each other. A time bomb, ticking.
And, of course, that could be the point, as well: an affair that is profoundly cynical, but—both despite and because of the cynicism—cinematically interesting.
To return to the generational tensions you guys discussed above, one of the things I find most fascinating about Mrs. Robinson is how aligned she and Ben ultimately are in their anxieties. Ben, here, is being confronted with a kind of death: of youth, of possibility, of freedom. So, too, is Mrs. Robinson—not with a physical death, necessarily, but with the death of her purpose, her value, her identity. She lived during a time when upper-class women were appreciated primarily as wives and mothers, when little more was expected of them than to marry and procreate; as the film plays out, though, her daughter leaves for college, and for a life of her own. Her marriage is stifling. She has, seemingly, no job, no hobbies, no friends, nothing but an empty house that she fills with meaningless symbols of distant wildness. She is rich, and, at the same time, she is robbed—of the stuff that makes a full life and a full person. The film never reveals her first name; she is merely “Mrs. Robinson”: a name, but not a self. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? The song, gah, never bothers to find out.