Cary Scott (Wyman) is a middle-aged, widowed mother living in an upper-middle-class suburb somewhere in Hollywood New England. Conflict emerges when she falls in love with her younger gardener, Ron Kirby (Hudson), prompting shock and outrage from Cary's friends and her college-aged, socially ambitious children due to the impropriety of such a pairing in their snobbish and conservative world.
Under pressure, Cary breaks off the relationship. But her sacrifice turns out to be for nothing when, shortly thereafter, the kids move out of her home and life, leaving her with nothing but a television set for company. Then Ron has a life-threatening accident. Can they take another shot at love and happiness before it's too late?
This film provides examples of:
- Crappy Holidays: "Merry Christmas, Mom! We're moving away and selling the house out from under you. But, hey, here's a TV set!"
- Deconstruction: The film was celebrated in its day for being a straight example of a Fifties melodrama, with a lurid story of an older woman-younger man romance, but later audiences picked up on the film's subtext and realized that it was an Unbuilt Trope:
- The artificial, highly stylized look of colour and sets, with its autumnal sunset-orange look, shows suburban life as being cold and remote, rather than sunny and warm as per popular post-card images. It makes it much more alienating and desolate a landscape.
- The classical Fifties family is exposed as being largely driven by the need to keep up appearances rather than real family feeling. The Mother finding a second love is a social scandal that can affect the job prospects of the son and the daughter's romantic life despite the fact that they are grown-ups who will move away from her.
- The biggest joke is the ending where the television set is presented as a solution for Cary's woes, since she can forget her problems by involving herself in some TV shows.
- Hypocrite: Ned winds up becoming this over the course of the movie. When he first finds out about his mother's relationship with Ron, one of his reasons for objecting is because Cary initially says she wants to move out of the house, and Ned fires back that he doesn't want to lose his childhood home. But later on, when he gets a promotion at his job, he winds up selling the house out from underneath his mother without her consent, which makes one wonder where his priorities really are.
- Mrs. Robinson: Well before the Trope Namer and much more sympathetically and seriously done, with the older woman shown with more sympathy and understanding.
- Romancing the Widow: Cary, a widow who lost her husband, falls in love with Ron after a brief courtship.
- Stay in the Kitchen: A mentality that's really critiqued and exposed in the film. The unspoken sentiment and unwritten rules of the suburbs is that Cary should devote her entire life to her children and forget about herself, even if those kids are all grown up and don't really need her, she's still expected to take the role of the Mother in the family situation.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: We're never told exactly where Stoningham is located, although it's more than likely somewhere in Connecticut.