Katharine Ross in The Graduate (1967) - Supporting Actress Sundays

One of the things I didn't see coming from the Supporting Actresses of 1967 was how each performance, in its own distinct way, elaborated a particular aspect of that oft-rehearsed topic of the later 1960s and the early 1970s: The Generation Gap. Channing, Natwick and Richards are all mothers doing their best to support their children find love in a world where all the rules seem to be changing. For her part, Parsons is a woman who wants an old-fashioned kind of marital happiness only to be propelled into a whole new way of being married. And then there's the long-awaited last nominated performance, one which might be easily dismissed as being just "The Girl" a overwhelmingly masculine meditation on being caught in the generation gap. But to do so would be a mistake -- would be to miss the mature, enigmatic and provocative work of...

approximately 22 minutes and 39 seconds
23 scenes

roughly 21% of film's total running time

Katharine Ross plays Elaine Robinson, the treasured daughter of the predatory Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft in a deservedly iconic performance, offering a perfect portrayal of a "cougar" before the modality of an empowered, elder female sexuality had such a name).
Elaine hovers, in the abstract, at the edges of the film long before she makes her first appearance for her first date with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman, impossibly cute, implausibly cast and pitch perfect) nearly two-thirds of the way through the film. By the time Ross's Elaine shows up, Hoffman's Benjamin and Bancroft's Mrs. Benjamin have been love-shackin' it up for some timeand, in what is the first clear demonstration of Mrs. Robinson's vicious streak, the elder woman has forbade her paramour from dating (and, implicitly, corrupting) her revered daughter.Caught as he is by polite conventions and expectations, Benjamin defies Mrs. Robinson's orders and agrees to take Elaine on a date. His lame plan, as it turns out, is to be such a heel to Elaine that she would never want to see Benjamin again. So, in what has to be the most thrillingly awful first date in cinematic history, Hoffman's Benjamin races them both to a downtown strip joint where the Ross's Elaine becomes the butt (or, perhaps, "bust") of a talented stripper's joke.
Upon seeing her humiliated reaction, Hoffman's Benjamin softens toward Ross's Elaine and the worst date in cinematic history becomes a giddily platonic courtship.
As the two laugh and talk and giggle Hoffman's Benjamin discovers with Ross's Elaine a soul-stirring connection that snaps him from his months' long ennui, that shakes off his sexual satiety (and stupor). But how can Benjamin realize the potential of love with Elaine when he has been her mother's lover?
In short, he can't. But that doesn't mean he doesn't try, first in a naive attempt to come clean, to tell Elaine everything in the naive hope that she might understand. In short, she doesn't. But that doesn't dissuade our Benjamin. Without the distractions of Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin is left with few options but to stalk her daughter, which he first does in the bushes outside her home before he relocates to Berkeley where he stalks her on campus...

...on the bus...
...at the zoo. When Elaine realizes that Benjamin's been stalking her, she's furious and makes an ill-advised, late-night trip to visit him in his room at the boarding house.
And so begins the next wave of giddy courtship between the two, in which Benjamin begs Elaine to marry him and Elaine dodges but does not reject the proposition.
It's in these second courtship scenes that the mastery of Ross's work in this strange role manifests. Ross's Elaine is neither naif nor cynic. Rather, she's just as lost as Benjamin. Through Ross's performance, we begin to see that -- while Benjamin and Elaine are almost certainly impossibly wrong for each other -- the each in the other what they long to have seen in themselves. Like Benjamin, Elaine is lost amidst the conventional expectations of her and she wants nothing more than to find a way out. Here, Ross's formidable appeal contributes greatly to making this most implausible of romances somehow plausible. Elaine is a bit of a twit, changing her mind, flaking this way and that. But Ross's especial qualities -- her clarity, her beauty, her palpable integrity -- all contribute to making this a romance worth rooting for -- which is essential to the film's final showdown where Benjamin crashes Elaine's shotgun wedding to a more suitable suitor.
And it's in these final scenes that Ross's characterization finally takes fire...
...laying a verbal smackdown to her mother...
...before fleeing with her chosen beloved...
...to the backseat of a another public bus. Where, in a series of marvelously wordless glances, Ross conveys a flickering range of uncertainties and ambivalences that make it clear that her elopement with Benjamin is not the solution to her problems, but instead the beginning of a new life that (and this is what I love) may or may not even include Benjamin.
Ross maneuvers the less than sensible terrain of this role with a clarity and nuance that elevates the role.
Yes, I would have loved to see the almost-cast Sally Field in the part, but I know that Katharine Ross's beauteous gravitas provided the necessary counterweight to Bancroft, keeping this most enthralling of movies in the delicate, necessary balance. The Graduate is a great movie and, without Katharine Ross's complex and surprising work as Elaine, it would not have been.

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