Constructing Dialogue

Excerpt

from CONSTRUCTING DIALOGUE

THE GRADUATE (1967)

Screenplay by Calder Willingham & Buck Henry

As I’ve alluded to, Aristotle’s Poetics suggests that in talking about drama “the end is linked to the beginning with inevitable certainty.” Although Aristotle was talking about the play as a whole, we’ve seen that one can apply the same rubric to the well-structured scene. For example, in Scenes 58-61 of The Graduate Henry precisely choreographs the scenes in such a way that validates Aristotle’s principle.

Summers can be long, hot and boring in Southern California especially for a recent college graduate and so Benjamin decides to take up Mrs. Robinson’s sexual offer (which she proffers to him early in the film) that he can have her anytime he wants. Though reluctant at first, Benjamin’s randyness and/or curiosity prompts him to call Mrs. Robinson who meets him at the Taft Hotel. What transpires in a matter of minutes of screen time is a testament not only to what Aristotle suggested, but to Henry’s ability to make it work.

In the opening scenes, Henry has characterized Benjamin as a “track star,” “an award-winning scholar,” a dutiful son and, by his behavior, a kind of social geek. When Mrs. Robinson offers herself to him in the nude, Benjamin is as shocked as he is a possible virgin. To that end, the scenes are replete with ambivalence. Yet they are also “transitional scenes” in that subsequent to them, especially Scene 61, Benjamin’s entire demeanor and character changes. As we’ll see, realistically one has to suspend one’s belief that such an alteration can happen in such a brief period of time, but as a scene that changes Benjamin’s character for the rest of the film it is both believable and effective.

In a series of formative scenes beginning with Scene 50, Benjamin’s ineptness at adultery and apparent sexual incompetence is presented to us. Scenes 50-54 accent Ben’s anxiety as he sits smoking a cigarette and waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Robinson in the bar of the Taft Hotel. After she arrives, the scene augments his anxiety even more especially when she asks him if he’s reserved a room. He says, “no.” She suggests it would be a good idea if he did and like a “dead man walking” he does.

In Scene 55, Ben goes to the desk clerk (who’s played by Buck Henry) and in the most inane of attempts, reserves a single room. After signing his own name then realizing he shouldn’t do that, he crumples up the card and writes an alias: Mr. Gladstone. The alias will pay off in any future scenes especially when Ben comes there in a later scene with Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. The scene with the clerk is remarkable for several reasons. First, it continues to accent his anxiety at the situation; second, it establishes the absurdity and the clearly obvious ploy that he’s reserving a room for himself since he comments to the clerk that the only luggage he has is a “toothbrush”; and third, it prepares the audience for the major anxiety he will have when, in fact, Mrs. Robinson enters the room in Scene 58.

Scenes 58-59 clearly establish Benjamin as someone “out of his league” with Mrs. Robinson. After Mrs. Robinson meets him at the Taft Hotel she asks if he’s reserved a room. He has not. She suggests he do so which he does with all the finesse of a matador with two red capes. Once he’s reserved the room, Benjamin goes to a pay phone outside the hotel and calls Mrs. Robinson as she waits for him in the bar. She’s handed the phone by a waiter and the dialogue cuts between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson as Benjamin tells her he got a room, but he thinks the clerk is suspicious. She suggests that he go up first to which he agrees and starts to hang up.

MRS. ROBINSON

Isn’t there something you want to

tell me?

BEN

To tell you?

MRS. ROBINSON

Yes.

BEN

Well – I want you to know how much

I appreciate this – really -

MRS. ROBINSON

The number.

BEN

What?

MRS. ROBINSON

The room number, Benjamin. I think

you ought to tell me that.

BEN

Oh? You’re absolutely right. Absolutely.

It’s 512.

MRS. ROBINSON

Thank you.

BEN

You’re welcome. Well – I’ll see you later, Mrs. Robinson.

After Benjamin hangs up, he proceeds to the room and we see him walking by himself down the corridor. As soon as he enters the room, he turns the lights on, then off. He brushes his teeth which is an act that not only plays off of an earlier line when he tells the clerk the only “luggage” he has is a toothbrush, but accents the absurdity that he’d even bring a toothbrush with him in the first place. As soon as Mrs. Robinson enters the room she flips on the lights (which he turns off again) an act which clearly works as a metaphor for their relationship. She walks towards the bed and takes a drag off her cigarette. Before she can exhale, Benjamin walks up to her, clears his throat and gives her the “mother of all superficial kisses.” When he pulls back, she finally exhales and the dialogue begins with Segment One of three precise segments with her saying she’ll get dressed and Benjamin asking what he should do.

MRS. ROBINSON

Why don’t you watch?

BEN

Oh – sure. Thank you.

She takes off her jacket.

MRS. ROBINSON

Will you bring me a hanger?

BEN

What?

MRS. ROBINSON

A hanger.

Ben opens the closet door.

BEN

Oh – yes. Wood?

MRS. ROBINSON

What?

BEN

Wood or wire? They have both.

MRS. ROBINSON

Either one will be fine.

BEN

Okay.

He brings her a hanger. She puts her jacket on it.

MRS. ROBINSON

Will you help me with this, please?

She turns her back and he undoes her blouse.

Each of her commands, “watch me get undressed,” “get me a hanger,” “help me with this,” modest as they may be, comments on Benjamin’s willingness to be subservient to Mrs. Robinson and, at the same time, augments his relative inexperience in such situations. In a sense, Benjamin is entirely reactive until she takes off her blouse which moves to Segment Two at which point Mrs. Robinson discovers what seems to be a blemish on it. As she tries to remove the blemish, Benjamin feels her breast to which she is totally indifferent. At that point, Benjamin begins to have second thoughts about what he’s doing and that accents the conflict he has between wanting to have sex with Mrs. Robinson and feeling guilty about doing so. The second segment increases his anxiety and immediately after feeling her breast (which is at the midpoint of the scene) he walks to a wall and starts banging his head against it.

MRS. ROBINSON

Would this be easier for you in the dark?

BEN

Mrs. Robinson – I can’t do this.

MRS. ROBINSON

You what?

BEN

This is all terribly wrong.

MRS. ROBINSON

Benjamin – do you find me undesirable?

BEN

Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think – I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.

I mean that. I find you desirable. For God’s sake can you imagine my parents? Can you imagine what they would say if they saw us in this room right now?

MRS. ROBINSON

What would they say?

BEN

I have no idea Mrs. Robinson, but for God’s sake they brought me up, they made a good life for me. I think they deserve better than this. I think they deserve a little better than jumping into bed with the partner’s wife.

MRS. ROBINSON

Are you afraid of me?

BEN

Oh no, you’re missing the point. Maybe we could do something else together, Mrs. Robinson-

would you like to go to a movie?

In the film, Benjamin alludes to the fact that Mrs. Robinson’s husband and Benjamin’s father are partners and that his family made a good life for him. When, as an alternative to having sex, Benjamin suggests a movie, Mrs. Robinson pauses which leads to Segment Three.

MRS. ROBINSON

Benjamin, is this your first time?

BEN

Is this – what?

MRS. ROBINSON

It is, isn’t it? It is your first time.

BEN

That’s a laugh, Mrs. Robinson. That’s really a laugh. Ha ha.

MRS. ROBINSON

You can admit that, can’t you?

BEN

Are you kidding?

MRS. ROBINSON

It’s nothing to be ashamed of -

BEN

Wait a minute!

MRS. ROBINSON

On your first time –

BEN

Who said it was my first time.

MRS. ROBINSON

That you’re afraid -

BEN

Wait a minute.

MRS. ROBINSON

- of bring – inadequate – I mean just because you happen to be inadequate in one way –

BEN

INADEQUATE!

LONG pause.

MRS. ROBINSON

(starting to dress)

BEN

Don’t move.

He slams the bathroom door shut. The light in the room disappears.

At that point, Mrs. Robinson answers his question with a question of her own that redirects the focus of the scene, but also attacks his masculinity as she asks: “Benjamin, is this your first time?” After all, she didn’t come to the hotel to chat nor go to the movies…she came to have sex with a younger man. It’s here that the dialogue does such a brilliant job of eliciting conflict by integrating a number of dialogue techniques especially the technique of “dialogue linkage” which links one character’s dialogue with another’s.

Once again, if one deconstructs the dialogue, one can see the unique interrelationship between what Benjamin says and what Mrs. Robinson says. If one eliminates the narrative, the scene is left with the following dialogue:

MRS. ROBINSON

Will you bring me a hanger?

BEN

What?

MRS. ROBINSON

A hanger.

BEN

Oh yes. Wood?

MRS. ROBINSON

What?

BEN

Wood or wire? They have both.

MRS. ROBINSON

Either one will be fine.

BEN

Okay.

MRS. ROBINSON

Will you help me with this, please?

She turns her back and he undoes her blouse.

Not only does their dialogue about the “hanger” move the scene forward by linking both dialogues, but it comments on Benjamin’s willingness to do Mrs. Robinson’s bidding. Subsequent to feeling her breast and banging his head on the wall, the dialogue links continue to work as Benjamin has second thoughts.

MRS. ROBINSON

Would this be easier for you in the dark?

BEN

Mrs. Robinson – I can’t do this.

MRS. ROBINSON

You what?

BEN

This is all terribly wrong.

MRS. ROBINSON

Benjamin – do you find me undesirable?

BEN

Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think – I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends. I mean

that. I find you desirable. For God’s sake can you imagine my parents Can you imagine what they would say if they saw us in this room right now?

MRS. ROBINSON

What would they say?

BEN

I have no idea Mrs. Robinson, but for God’s sake they brought me up, they made a good life for me. I think they deserve better than this. I think they deserve a little better than jumping into bed with the partner’s wife.

MRS. ROBINSON

Are you afraid of me?

BEN

Oh no, you’re missing the point. Maybe we could do something else together, Mrs. Robinson-

would you like to go to a movie?

Benjamin is now in a quandary: Does he have sex with her or not? But the comment about going to a movie prompts Mrs. Robinson to get annoyed and her annoyance becomes the focal point of the last segment of the scene when she asks if it’s his first time.

MRS. ROBINSON

Benjamin, is this your first time?

BEN

Is this – what?

MRS. ROBINSON

It is, isn’t it? It is your first time.

BEN

That’s a laugh, Mrs. Robinson. That’s really a laugh. Ha ha.

MRS. ROBINSON

You can admit that, can’t you?

BEN

Are you kidding?

MRS. ROBINSON

It’s nothing to be ashamed of -

BEN

Wait a minute!

MRS. ROBINSON

On your first time –

BEN

Who said it was my first time.

MRS. ROBINSON

That you’re afraid -

BEN

Wait a minute.

MRS. ROBINSON

- of being inadequate – I mean just because you happen to be inadequate in one way –

BEN

INADEQUATE!

BEN

Don’t move.

Beginning on page 53 of the script she asks Benjamin if it’s his “first time.” He answers with a question “Is this what?” the “this” linking to “first time.” To which she replies with a question: “It is isn’t it?” and then answers the question herself “It is your first time” emphasizing the word “is.” So, she emphasizes the notion of it being his “first time” and the interchange of dialogue stresses that fact. He responds that it’s really a laugh, but she continues on the attack by asking yet another question that: “You can admit that, can’t you?” “that” related to his being a virgin.

From that point on the dialogue is really parallel monologue in which Mrs. Robinson essentially ignores Benjamin’s protests as he attempts to defend himself. She continues on the attack by emphasizing that if it’s his “first time” it’s nothing to get upset about. The dialogue links “first time” and “afraid” which eventually links to the word “inadequate” which is the clinching and winning argument for her since by emphasizing that he’s “inadequate” (which she repeats twice almost in passing and he screams the word as if it were the ultimate insult) her pause allows her to feign getting dressed to which Ben yells: “Don’t move!” a command which runs exactly counter to how the dialogue in the scene began with Mrs. Robinson giving the orders.

So, we see how even the scene itself is very self-contained. It moves from Benjamin’s acquiescent role to an active role all mediated by Mrs. Robinson’s provocations. The dialogue, then, reflects that direction. His actions, coupled with his dialogue, direct the scene to its natural conclusion and continue to develop character and story, to initiate conflict and to maintain continuity.

It should be clear at this point how the efficacy of a scene is directly related to the dialogue. Not only does the efficacy of the dialogue expand the nature of the characters, but it adds dimension to the storyline. But even more important than those two aspects is the fact the scene is flawlessly integrated. Benjamin’s character at the end is clearly linked to Benjamin’s character in the beginning. The dialogue, coupled with his behavior, arcs through the scene balancing the end with the beginning. Though these are very brief scenes, and the dialogue itself rarely goes over six lines by either character, they expand on the previous scenes that have led up to the most critical scene between them and establishes the subsequent direction of the storyline.

As a frame sequence beginning with Scene 50 and ending with Scene 61, one can see how the beginning of that sequence arcs and coincides with ending of that sequence. Not only that, one can see, especially in Scene 61, how the scene is actually a microcosm of the sequence of scenes begun in Scene 50. To that end, one must keep in mind how that the integrity of scene is paramount and how the dialogue must complement that scenic integrity.