The Set-Up: It should have been Redford. You read the book and it says blond and Californian. Director Mike Nichols had directed Redford in Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" on Broadway, and supposedly he approached him, but Redford didn't want to play the part at that stage in his career. A bit too "on the nose." And a bit too mature for the role (although Dustin Hoffman is merely 355 days younger).
It could have been Charles Grodin, too, only Grodin looked a bit too "normal" for Nichols' tastes. It went to Hoffman, whose awkwardness and man-boyishness eked through to the camera. You could buy Hoffman as Benjamin.* There's an innate quality of "schlep" to the character that has to be sold, even though he's a swimmer and debater. And he must be uncomfortable because the subject matter is uncomfortable. A few years later, it would be no big deal for a college grad to be seduced by an older woman—Cannon Films would be built on such subject matter—but for 1967, the character needed to be someone who wouldn't jump at the chance, but, rather, take baby steps, hide behind a stanchion, sweat visibly and seem capable of having his voice crack. It had to be comedy, and Hoffman was a natural for that.
He also had to be Hamlet. Most of the movie the question to Benjamin is "What are you gonna do?" There has to be that suspense that Benjamin will actually come out of his cocoon and fly. With Redford, it's a foregone conclusion and "what took you so long?"
With Hoffman, you're never sure. And that's something he's used throughout his entire career. In this scene, where he's desperately trying NOT to make a scene, director Nichols and screenwriter Henry encircle Benjamin in conversational and compositional traps, until Nichols—as he would occasionally do at this stage of his career—makes the point more than obvious, in one of the most iconic shots in 1960's cinema.
Happy Graduation Day. I hope the inspirational speech is better than "plastics."
The Story: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), newly graduated from college, has just survived a welcoming home party put on by his proud, indulgent parents when all he wants to do is sit in his room and worry about his future. He's interrupted in his wallow by family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who insists that Benjamin take her home. And once there, insists the nervous young man stay (gulp!). And before you can say "Whoa" three times, things "begin to get a little strange."
Mrs. Robinson: What do you drink? Bourbon?
Ben: Look, uh, Mrs. Robinson, I drove you home. I was glad to do it, but I have some things on my mind. Can you understand that?
Mrs. Robinson: Yes.
Ben: Alright (starts to leave)
Mrs. Robinson: What do you drink?
Mrs. Robinson: Benjamin, I'm sorry to be this way, but I don't want to be left alone in this house.
Ben: Why not?
Mrs. Robinson: Please wait 'til my husband gets home.
Ben: When is he coming back?
Mrs. Robinson: I don't know. (She pours herself a drink)
Mrs. Robinson: Drink?
(She hands it to him anyway)
Ben: Are you always this much afraid of being alone?
Mrs. Robinson: Yes.
Ben: Well, why can't you just lock the doors and go to bed?
Mrs. Robinson: I'm very neurotic.
(She turns on music that makes Ben jump)
Mrs. Robinson: May I ask you a question? What do you think of me?
Ben: What do you mean?
Mrs. Robinson: You've known me nearly your entire life. You must have formed some opinion of me.
Ben: Well, I've always though that you were a very...nice...person.
Mrs. Robinson: Did you know I was an alcoholic?
(Benjamin swallows his drink...hard.)
Mrs. Robinson: Did you know that?
Ben: Look, I think I should be going...
Mrs. Robinson: Sit down, Benjamin.
Ben: Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange. Now, I'm sure that Mr. Robinson will be home any minute now and...
Mrs. Robinson: No.
Mrs. Robinson: My husband will be back quite late. He should be gone for several hours.
Ben: Oh my God.
Mrs. Robinson: Pardon?
Ben: Oh no, Mrs. Robinson, oh no.
Mrs. Robinson: What's wrong?
Ben: Mrs. Robinson, you didn't—I mean, you didn't expect...
Mrs. Robinson: What?
Ben: I mean, you didn't really think that I would do something like that!
Mrs. Robinson: Like what?
Ben: What do you think?
Mrs. Robinson: Well, I don't know.
Ben: For God's sake! Mrs. Robinson, here we are, you've got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music, now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours?
Mrs. Robinson: So?
Ben: Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.
(Mrs. Robinson begins to laugh, delightedly.)
Ben: Aren't you?
Words by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Pictures by Robert Surtees and Mike Nichols
The Graduate is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Video.
* Hoffman was set to work in another film and was bought out of that role to play this one. That film was The Producers and the role was Franz Liebkin, Nazi playwright (eventually played by Kenneth Mars). The director was only too happy to accommodate Hoffman, as Mel Brooks was married to Hoffman's Graduate co-star, Anne Bancroft. Small world.