Iconic Shot: The Graduate

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by daniel mcfarlane

The iconic leg shot from The Graduate functions as a shorthand for the film. The shot has become a visual signifier for post-adolescent angst, the prologue to the looming sexual revolution and the disillusionment of the American Dream. The characters seek to commodify and romanticise their relationships. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffmann) wants Elaine (Katherine Ross) as the ideal to his post-college woe, his parents want him as their trophy boy and everyone remains bewitched, bothered and bewildered with the figure of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). This iconic hotel room shot not only functions as a signifier for the changing mid-century heterosexual power dynamics but also those of the characters. Cinematographer Robert Surtees visual composition is masterfully poetic throughout as Mike Nichols’ thesis of domestic isolation is crystallised while Mrs. Robinson slings her tempestuous leg across the foreground. This fetishistic scopophilia through Nichols’ all-knowing lens uses it to brand her character too as elusive and unattainable.

By exhibiting a singular body-part to be consumed by both Benjamin and the audience functions as a deferral of character for Mrs. Robinson. Her power comes in all that she withholds, she will always remain aloof and untouchable. Within the background Benjamin’s preppy clothes and colour pallet contrast with Mrs. Robinson’s animalistic features, revealing Benjamin to be entirely naive and inexperienced in the affair he is about to embark on. He consistently disconnects from the roles his peers place him in. He cannot succeed academically, he cannot face suburban life and he cannot womanise his way through the narrative. Neither can Benjamin fully commit to rebellion and join the growing counterculture of the time. This crisis of character is seen on his bewildered face and concave stance. He cannot succumb to the temptation before him nor can continue to live in banality.

The use of wide-angle lenses with the contemporaneous 2:35:1 aspect ratio underline the film’s distant, emotional tone. The characters are very rarely framed closely as the film is more preoccupied with the gulf of emotion between characters than the emotion itself. Benjamin will always exist on an ignorant plane within the background, Mrs. Robinson will consistently command attention within another. The middle-ground will perpetually exist as the expansive and pristine tones of its mise-en-scéne which serve to not just reflect but entrap its characters. The space dividing them - affluent California - with its empty high ceiling, kitsch fixtures and deep swimming pools, propel the characters into a state of suburban inertia. A landscape of semi-existence which divides them. This exemplifies the film’s overall thesis on the breakdown of communication between people and by isolating each character within their own visual plane.