What that Leg is All About in the Poster and the Film ‘The Graduate’
The Graduate is a 1967 drama about a disillusioned college graduate who finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.
(This is an edited repost of an article originally published in 2015) Look at the above image, the left being the film’s one sheet and the right a screen shot from the actual film. As far as iconic moments in movie’s go, few are as memorable as the sultry woman’s leg inviting a clearly hesitant yet very curious young man to her charms. The man (boy) in the image is Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a new university graduate who’s a little upset about his future. After his graduation party, he drives home the unsatisfied wife of a family friend, where she leads him to her daughter’s room and attempts to seduce the far younger man. While he refuses at first, shortly afterwards, an affair begins, complicated by his growing relationship with the woman’s daughter. The film is a satirical look at modern relationships and expectations, with many split on where sympathies should lie, either with the young man and his aimlessness or the older woman in a loveless, unhappy life. Whichever side one chooses to align with, the now iconic image of Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) shapely leg, her delicate hands tugging on sheer black nylons, and Benjamin’s knowing look have become associated not just with the film, but for a generation.
In the film, Benjamin is presented with Mrs. Robinson’s leg on two separate occasions, with two very different outcomes. Very near the beginning, at her home, a confessed alcoholic Mrs. Robinson becomes suggestive with the very fidgety Benjamin, who suspects right away what her intentions are. She is seducing him, despite her claims otherwise. The older woman, who states she is twice his age (and was in fact only 6 years older than Hoffman) is looking only for sex, the very definition of what would become the “cougar”, a slang term for an older woman (typically above 40) aggressively pursuing younger men only for sexual relationships. She toys with the inexperienced college boy before offering herself, nude, inviting him to have her whenever he wants. The prospect terrifies Benjamin and he flees, just as Mr. Robinson returns home, suspecting nothing. In this moment, as she first lifts a knee and the camera shifts to put the nervous graduate beneath her arched stem, there is a darkness to the frame, as Benjamin stares in uncertainty at the opportunity before him. The beautiful image is wonderfully photographed and serves as a metaphor for the fear of the unknown, the shadows of ignorance in the exploration of mature sex with a real woman. He can barely even look at her and wants nothing but to run away.
When Benjamin is offered the leg again, it is a much different situation. It’s not about the joy of sex rather than the power of sex. By this time, the two have been carrying on an affair, yet Benjamin is now interested in dating Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s lovely daughter. This does not go over well, of course. How would a mother think of her daughter dating a man who sleeps with men’s wives? There is a foulness to their relationship now. They are basically the same person, aimless, hating their current lot in life and have no prospects of changing. The difference is that Mrs. Robinson accepts it and manipulates her prey to get what she wants, despite the pain she reveals in slow details. The lovers are not intimate and when he brings up Elaine, it gets heated. He treats her with little respect, other than repeatedly calling her “Mrs. Robinson.” He claims their tryst is the sickest most perverted thing that has ever happened to him. He is bitter that she thinks he is not good enough for Elaine and so says hurtful things. He leaves their bed, stating that he is done with their affair (to which she quietly remarks, “Are you?”), dressing while the two argue the merits of his honor. She too emerges from the sheets and slips on her stockings, and it is here where the image for the poster is inspired.
What’s interesting about the poster is that it suggests exactly opposite of what is happening in the movie. Or does it? What looks like seduction on the one-sheet is actually a woman hurt in the film, feeling a bit betrayed and deciding to leave. She is dressing rather than undressing. But she is still a woman in control, and she knows the weaknesses of her young lover. At play as always is her enormous power over him. The poster captures this entirely. It is not, however, a screenshot of the moment. Look at the image from the poster below and the screenshot above.
First, and most obvious, it’s not Anne Bancroft’s leg. In fact, it is actress/model Linda Grey posing as the older woman for the photo-shoot. Hoffman is also wearing a different shirt and tie and in the film, never once puts his hands in his pockets. Also in the film, he is regretful of the words he has chosen, troubled by her decision, eventually wanting her to stay, where they resume their crumbling affair. In the poster, he is a fixture of confidence, enraptured by the invitation and by his stance, far more mature about the situation than he is in the story. The advertising agency who made the poster knows what sells. Sex, (something I covered in a previous Poster Picks post, and will surely do again.) Looking at the entire poster, it is in a very popular style of the time:
Big bold square shapes and copy that looks like a magazine print ad give it a very clean look with our eyes immediately focused right on the extended female leg, with its toes pointing to the blurb about Benjamin on the right. It’s really rather genius as it very subtly draws our eyes around the sheet. From the blurb we go straight to the title in beautiful burnt umber. then up to the top. Interestingly, the top-billed name on the poster is the executive producer Joseph E. Levine, who was behind such films as Godzilla, King of all Monsters (1956), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) Two Women (1960) and The Lion in Winter (1968). He was a marketing master, responsible for the campaign to give Sophia Loren an Academy Award, and is quoted as saying, “You can fool all of the people . . . if the advertising is right.” With The Graduate, the advertising was right. The shot of Hoffman looking down on a woman’s sensuous leg is without a doubt, one of the most well known cinematic posters in history. In glorious black and white, it lends the piece a timelessness that still resonates even today. Yet look at the candle-shaped lighting fixture just to Hoffman’s right. Or rather the phallic-shaped shadow on the wall, prominently and proudly placed between the two characters, as if it is something Benjamin has on his mind, or more importantly, what the viewer should be associating with the poster. Is it by design or coincidence. I’ll let you decide.