Multipurpose Dialogue

Mike Nichols was very creative about the editing of his dialogue sequences in The Graduate (1967). In the first dialogue sequence, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) confesses to his father that he is worried about his future. The entire scene is presented in a single midshot of Benjamin. When the father joins the conversation, he enters the frame and sits out of focus in the foreground.

More typical is the famous seduction scene in which Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) proposes an affair to Benjamin. This scene fits into the overall story about Benjamin Braddock, a college graduate who is trying to develop a set of values that make sense to him. He rejects the materialistic values of his family and their peers, but he doesn't know what should replace them. In his confusion, he becomes involved in an affair with the wife of his father's partner. He later develops a relationship with her daughter. His behavior suggests his confusion and his groping toward the future. His affair with Mrs. Robinson is the first relationship in the film that suggests his state of confusion.

The seduction scene can be broken down into three parts, all of which depend on dialogue. In the first, Mrs. Robinson invites Benjamin, who has driven her home, inside for a drink. She offers him a drink, plays some music, and sits with her legs apart in a provocative position. Benjamin asks if she is trying to seduce him, but she denies it.

In the second part, Mrs. Robinson asks him up to her daughter's bedroom, offering to show him a portrait of her. She begins to undress and throws her watch and earrings on the bed. She asks him to unzip her dress, and her intentions are unmistakable. He unzips her dress but then leaves the room and goes downstairs.

In the third part of the sequence, Mrs. Robinson speaks to him from the bathroom upstairs. She asks that he bring her purse. He does, but he refuses to take it into the bathroom. She asks that he take her purse into Elaine's bedroom, where she joins him, naked. He is shocked and wants to leave. She tells him that she will be available to him whenever he wishes. Only the arrival of her husband ends the sequence with Benjamin's virtue unsullied.

Dialogue can be used to advance the plot, to reveal a character's nature, or to provide comic relief. In this sequence, dialogue is used for each of these purposes. The advancement of the plot is related to Mrs. Robinson's proposal of an illicit affair, which will take Benjamin further down a particular path. In terms of characterization, the sequence illustrates how manipulative Mrs. Robinson is and how naive Benjamin can be. His youth and inexperience are such that he can be manipulated by others. As to the humor, the sequence abounds in surprises. When Mrs. Robinson confesses that she is neurotic, Benjamin responds, "Oh, my God!" as though she had confessed to a capital crime. Mrs. Robinson's lying—the dissonance between what she says and does—is also a continuing source of humor.

The sequence, then, has many purposes. How was it edited? Nichols and his editor, Sam O'Steen, cut the film subjectively. The foreground-background relationship was used to highlight power relationships as well as Benjamin's subjective perspective. Benjamin appears in the foreground when Mrs. Robinson speaks from the background, or he is in the background speaking when she is in the foreground. The famous image of Mrs. Robinson's uplifted leg in the foreground with Benjamin in the background provides a good example of how the dialogue is presented. This foreground-background relationship is maintained throughout the different phases of this sequence. It is most clearly manifested in the final sequence in which the naked Mrs. Robinson appears in the foreground and there is an intense close-up of Benjamin in the background. In this scene, the focus is on Benjamin throughout, with quick intercutting of her breasts or belly almost presented as flash frames. This quick cutting, which implies the wish to see and the wish to look away, is only part of the sequence in which pace plays an important role. In the balance of the sequence, the rule is subjectivity and the foreground-background interplay of reverse angle shots to highlight the dialogue and the speaker.

The sequence exhibits complex goals for the dialogue and yet manages to have sufficient visual variety to be stimulating. Nichols did use distinct close-ups of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin at one point, but the dialogue itself doesn't warrant them. The close-ups seem to be offered as variety in a lengthy sequence that relies on subjective foreground-background shots.

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