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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Name:
Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

[I first saw The Graduate at a theater in Monroe, Louisiana on my birthday.]

By Robert Ringer

Regardless of your age, you've probably seen what is arguably the best and most successful cult film of all time: The Graduate. Today, with oversexed, deranged female teachers playing out the role of Mrs. Robinson with increasing frequency, it can't help but bring back memories of the film that launched Dustin Hoffman's career in 1967.

The Graduate was the surprise hit of the year, with Mike Nichols winning an Oscar for best director. In addition, the movie was nominated for best picture, and Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, and Anne Bancroft all earned Oscar nominations as well.

And who can forget Simon and Garfunkel's time-defying musical score, particularly the memorable song that defined the movie. Is there anyone in the civilized world who hasn't heard the words:

And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know,
Wo wo wo.
God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson,
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey hey hey, hey hey hey.

As I recall, Hoffman received $5,000 for his starring role in The Graduate - the last time he would have to perform for chump change. [Actor Charles Grodin was originally up for this role, but he and the producers couldn't agree on his salary.]

Of course, some might argue that getting paid $5,000 to be romantically involved with Katharine Ross and sexually involved with her movie mother, the late Anne Bancroft, was the Hollywood deal of the century. The modern-day Mrs. Robinsons turned out by America's teachers' unions would have a tough time topping The Graduate when it comes to appealing to the fantasies of teenage boys.

In any event, after his low-paid stint as Ben Braddock, Hoffman went on to major stardom, huge paydays, two Oscars, and an enviable list of hit films. (Just another "overnight success.")

Preceding the movie was the original novel, written by Charles Webb, first published in 1963. At the time, Webb was a young, privileged suburbanite who based his famous novel on what he saw as the valueless, hypocritical life of his parents and their country club friends.

In the movie, Hoffman's character, Ben Braddock, is a young man just out of college who has no ambition or sense of adult responsibility. Clearly, Webb was depicting himself in the main character - but his own life has played out even more movie-like than Ben's.

One would assume that the author of such a great American novel would normally move on to ever more fame and fortune. But not so with Charles Webb, who, at 66, is now 42 years removed from the year in which his famous novel was first published.

Though Webb did write a few more forgettable novels, he dropped out of the limelight by choice, rejecting mainstream society. The Graduate has made buckets of money for publishers and producers, but not for Webb. Why? Because - hold onto your hat - he and his wife signed away the book's copyright to charity.

Further, they renounced a materialistic life and consumerism and refused to accept their wealthy families' money, choosing instead to move to England and live the life of classic Bohemians. Early in their relationship, they lived like vagabonds, doing everything from picking fruit to running nudist camps.

Most bizarre of all, Webb's wife of 43 years, Eve, shaved her head and changed her name to Fred (with no legal last name) in a show of support "for men named Fred who have low self-esteem." On reading this, my first thought was to call the ACLU and file a discrimination suit against Fred for failing to show support for men named Robert.

The last I heard, Charles Webb and Fred were residing in a seaside resort in Brighton, England. At the time (2001), they were living in a one-bedroom apartment with no TV and just a few pieces of furniture.
Webb likes to point out that when The Graduate was first published and became a modest success, his family (for obvious reasons) hated it. But when the movie became such a huge success that it catapulted the book into an equally huge best-seller, his family decided they loved it. As he puts it, "Success is what they (his family) related to."

One of the reasons I find Charles Webb and Fred so fascinating is because, unlike most dropouts, they aren't crusaders trying to save the world, and they at least claim that they don't begrudge the materialistic worship mentality of most of the other 6+ billion people on our planet. In fact, The Wall Street Journal quoted Webb as saying, "There's nothing wrong with wealth - it just didn't work for us."

Whenever I read unusual life stories, I try to draw meaningful lessons from them. But I had a hard time with this one. When I first read it years ago, it absolutely fascinated me. But I was cautious about drawing conclusions from the weird tale of Charles and Fred.

Because they don't go around preaching revolution, harassing fishermen in an effort to save whales, or burning down houses to preserve the habitat of wild beasts, I begrudgingly respected their implied philosophy: Don't tell us how to live, and we won't tell you how to live. Hey, in America and the U.K., that's a perfectly legitimate position to take.

But I also believe that what you don't know can hurt you. It's easy to say that Charles and Fred are doing what makes them happy, but I have to admit that when I first read about their strange travails, it saddened me. One part of me liked them because they were acting on their convictions, weren't entrapped by the material world, and, above all, weren't crusading to make others give up their own materialism.

I agree with them that Burbs Disease ... rampant consumerism ... keeping up with the corporate executive next door ... whatever you want to call it, is an equally sad way to live. I believe Buddha was right when he said, "All unhappiness is caused by attachment." And attachment to material things is the worst possible kind of attachment.

But completely dropping out of life - having no discernable purpose - seems like such a waste of human resources. To live in the real world doesn't mean you have to stay in step with everyone else. It doesn't mean you have to be hypocritical. It doesn't mean you have to worship money or material things.

I hadn't thought about Charles Webb and Fred for several years. Until this morning, when a friend of mine sent me an e-mail. I don't know the original source of these words, but he added the following at the bottom:

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ... 'Wow ! What a ride!'"

For some reason, that got me to thinking about Charles Webb and Fred again. Life is meant to be lived, and I don't believe it's possible to achieve one's true potential by renouncing "mainstream" life in its entirety.

Mainstream life is the ballpark. The players within that ballpark can be intense, goal-driven, and action-oriented or they can be dull, negative, and sedentary. But whatever kind of player you choose to be, you have to be inside the ballpark to play the game. If you want to be the ultimate risk-taker and break all the rules, fine. Just don't leave the park.

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