Sample Beat Sheet: The Graduate

Below is a sample beat sheet for The Graduate.

Like many writers I sometimes stuff too many words into whatever story I’m telling. Details distract us from the main point of our stories, but beat sheets force us to dump those insightful and adorable minutiae overboard, and to focus on the important matter at hand: where is the ship going next. Still, you’ll notice that I can’t help inserting what I feel are the especially delicious details.

Brief commentary follows the beat sheet.


“THE GRADUATE” (screenplay by Buck Henry based on a Charles Webb novel.)

Ben arrives in L.A. at the airport. (the song)

His parents persuade him to join the adult party. Ben wants things to be different.

Ben gets lots of superficial adoration and flees to his room.

Mrs. Robinson comes to his room, and asks for a ride home. (tosses his car keys in his fish tank)

He obliges, gives her a ride home.

She coerces him to come inside and stay for a drink. (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”)

(lures him upstairs, to see Elaine’s portrait) She flirts and toys with him some more.

As she undresses she lures him back upstairs to bring her purse, and offers herself any time.

Mr. Robinson returns (“Scotch?” “Bourbon”: Now he has a preference.) and advises him to “have a good time with the girls and so forth.” Mrs. R comes downstairs and agrees.

Ben’s 21st birthday. With great fanfare, his father humiliates him by introducing him…in a scuba suit.  (Dad pushes his head under water.)

Ben calls her from the Taft Hotel and nervously waits. (Holds the door for a parade of old people. Now he is smoking.)

He reserves a room, bumbling.

He phones her from across the lobby.

He tries backing out but she challenges him, asking if it’s his first time and suggesting he’s “inadequate.”  He goes for it.

(“The Sound of Silence”/ “April, Come She Will”) A sequence shows how Ben has a lazy month or so of swimming and getting it on with Mrs. Robinson.

His father delivers a “get off your ass” speech, and the Robinsons come. Mr. Robinson approves of his hedonism, and encourages him to ask his daughter Elaine out.

His mother asks him what he does at night. He refuses to say.

Next time Ben and Mrs. Robinson meet, he insists on a conversation. She reveals that she’d gotten married because she was pregnant. She makes him promise never to take Elaine out.  (He misreads her completely, interpreting her position as a disrespect to him, oblivious to how devastated Mrs. Robinson is.)*

His parents encourage him to take Elaine out, his mother threatening to invite all the Robinson’s over.

Ben takes Elaine out. Mrs. Robinson is not pleased. He acts like a jackass and takes Elaine to a strip joint. (“You’re missing a great effect here.”)

He turns the date around. He kisses her, and levels with her, to a point. They talk at a burger drive-in. (“It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.”)

They go to the Taft Hotel, where all the staff know him, embarrassing him.

Elaine asks if he’s having an affair, and he admits he’s seeing a married woman, but affirms that it is completely over. (Now he has told her everything, except who in particular it is.)

He goes to pick up Elaine the next day, in the rain, and Mrs. Robinson forbids him from seeing her, threatening to expose the affair in order to keep him away from her, and she in effect follows through. Elaine tosses him out. (Perfectly executed scene.)

“Scarborough Fair” sequence: After watching the Robinson’s from afar, Ben vows to find Elaine in Berkeley and persuade her to marry him. (“It’s completely baked. It’s a decision I’ve made.”)He slowly pursues her and approaches Elaine on a city bus. She’s en route to meet a guy at the zoo. (ends at the monkey house – missed opp)

Elaine visits his boarding house. He wins her over, but appears to get himself kicked out of the house. She makes him promise that he won’t leave Berkeley till he has a definite plan.

She comes back that night. He asks her to marry him, and she contemplates it. He badgers her, levels with her in a profound way.

Mr. Robinson comes to tell Ben that he’s divorcing, and warns Ben to stay away from his daughter too. An ominous note from Elaine tells him that she’s done with him.

He goes back to L.A. and breaks into the Robinson’s house. Gets sent away by Mrs. Robinson, who says that Elaine will be marrying her other guy.

Back in Berkeley, he looks for her other guy, and gets hints that Elaine is pregnant (“probably one step ahead of the shotgun.”). He finds out their wedding is far away in Santa Barbara.

He hurries there, and wins Elaine over just after she’s gotten married. They run away together. (Their faces, especially hers, show sadness and uncertainty.)



Ha! Whose bright idea was it make this the first film analyzed in any detail, a classic that breaks lots of the rules this blog is supposedly extolling? As it recedes in memory, its critical esteem has waned, mostly because, as Roger Ebert points out, Benjamin is a mute protagonist without a clear goal. I hold The Graduate accountable for the long pedigree of lifeless young male protagonists that make independent films boring.

The first thing most people remember about it is the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, which really is just three songs, but they’re used to pave over gaping potholes in the narrative road. Act One and most of Act Two are a spectacularly tight series of scenes, and the only instance when time jumps, when “Sounds of Silence” covers the early weeks of Ben’s affair, works just fine since, up to then, almost everything has happened over the course of two evenings, and the viewer is ready for a break.

The first half of the film is also enriched by a gorgeous and consistent use of basic elemental images. In the first shot of Benjamin in his own environment, his bedroom, he is framed by a fishtank, and every time he hides, he hides in water. Mrs. Robinson is the sun, her naked body scarred by razor-sharp tan lines. The first time she insists on Benjamin escorting her into her house, she instructs him to walk through it and “to the sun porch.” Throughout the affair, Benjamin basks in the sun (resting himself for another night with Mrs. R), and he keeps up the charade until his father comes to lay down the law:

“Look, I think it’s a very good thing that a young man, after he’s done some very good work, should have a chance to relax and enjoy himself and lie around and drink beer and so on, but after a few weeks I believe that person would want to take some stock in himself and his situation, and start to think about getting off his ass!” he says, his Apollonian message delivered, as he shifts from one foot to the other, with the sun shining directly behind his head. He has in effect, taken the sun back from Mrs. Robinson, as his parents and Mr. Robinson have just found something new to nag Ben about, taking Elaine out on a date. After he complies, and with some bumps manages to enjoy his time with Elaine, his promising second date with her is about to take place during, what else, a downpour of rain, and the climax comes.

The second musical sequence, “Scarborough Fair,” is an attempt to make up for lost time, and the first part of it, including clichés such as writing “Dear Elaine” over and over, is the worst in the film. With all that alluring, mature sexuality of Mrs. Robinson shining on the first half, the storytellers didn’t spend enough time establishing that Elaine Robinson is desirable. So suddenly the movie goes to the “tra la la” zone – pretty girl in a short dress, Berkeley in ’67, tra la la – and it seems like the opening credits to a different film. Its famous cliffhanger ending notwithstanding, not to mention the sublime Norman Fell, who can do no wrong, the rest of the film is never enough to move you like the first two acts did.

What do you think?

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