Elizabeth Wilson: it’s not a name with a Hollywood ring to it. And in fact most of Wilson’s triumphs were on Broadway, in a wide range of classical and contemporary plays. But Wilson, who died this past May at the age of 94, had indelible supporting roles in several hit films. In Nine to Five, she played the office snitch. She was Charles Van Doren’s mother in Quiz Show and (near the end of her life) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother in Hyde Park on Hudson. Yet for me her most unforgettable gig was portraying the mother of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
Most fans of The Graduate probably don’t remember Mrs. Braddock. I suspect they’re too busy focusing on the film’s other women: the slinky and dangerous Mrs. Robinson and her beautiful, virginal daughter, Elaine. But it’s worth paying attention to the dynamic in Ben’s home, where his affable parents shower him with presents, but in return expect him to entertain their guests with his collegiate accomplishments. (“You’re disappointing them, Ben,” scolds his father, when our hero shows reluctance to demonstrate in the family swimming pool the virtues of his new SCUBA gear.) Ben’s dad habitually plays the ringmaster in this family circus, with his wife cheering from the sidelines. Tall and well-coiffed, dressed in stylish but slightly wacky leisurewear, she seems to thoroughly enjoy her husband’s monkeyshines. Whether barbecuing burgers for the backyard guests, scrambling eggs for her family, arranging roses in a vase, or fussing with Ben’s collar as he descends to greet his parents’ partygoing friends, she is the perfect (and perfectly charming) Beverly Hills matron.
Which should not imply that she’s in any way bland. This woman has spunk. There’s a scene in which parents and son are all floating in that swimming pool. The Braddocks simply can’t understand why Ben is so loathe to take out the Robinsons’ pretty daughter. Mrs. Braddock (decked out in the kind of frilly plastic bathing cap I remember all too well from my childhood) cheerfully forces the issue by announcing that if Ben won’t cooperate, she’ll simply have to invite all the Robinsons to dinner. Since Ben is secretly sleeping with his father’s partner’s wife, this is one scenario he can’t endure. Result: in the very next scene, Ben shows up at the Robinson home to claim a date with Elaine.
If Mrs. Robinson has been manipulating young Ben from the start, Mrs. Braddock is in her way equally adept at bending him to her wishes. That’s, in a sense, what moms do. (I mean no disrespect: I’ve personally been on both sides of the mother/child equation.) But there’s a huge difference between the two women. Whereas Mrs. Robinson acts out of discontent, hating her husband, her marriage, and everything about her comfortable but empty life, Mrs. Braddock is motivated by affection. She and her husband are a successful team. (At times we might even call them co-conspirators.) She loves her son too, and wants only the best for him. The only problem is that she and her husband are a tad too insistent on shaping his future in their own image.
I’ve seen a costumer’s snapshots for The Graduate, showing both Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson and Elizabeth Wilson’s Mrs. Braddock in their wardrobes for the film. Bancroft is clearly having a ball, vamping for the camera. Wilson, though, looks a bit abashed, her eyes averted. She’s an actress, not a fashion-plate, and in Mrs. Braddock’s glitzy outfits her modest demeanor gives a hint of the woman behind the character. Here’s to you, Elizabeth Wilson! Hail and farewell.