Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft
Anne Bancroft

“Hollywood, in the fallow 60s, was suddenly blessed with a group of talented ladies in their middle years, actresses who literally bridged the gap between the new ingenues and the older stars like Davis and Hepburn.   Most of them had made their reputations in the theatre and were just as experienced in TV – Geraldine page, Julie Harris, Kim Stanley(though the last has made only a few films because she dislikes the medium).   But not all: Anne Bancroft like Patricia Neal, was a Hollywood failure who went aay and returned a star” – David Shipman in “The Great Movie Stars – The International years”. (1972)   “A blueprint example of a terrific actress who was practically discarded by the studio system.   Anne Bancroft managed to pull a complete about face , rising above the doldrums of her early career to become one of the most respected performers in the business” – Barry Monush in “The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors” (2003).

Anne Bancroft was born in 1931 in New York City.   She made her film debut in “Don’t Bother to Knock” with Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe.   In the 1950’s she starred in a few glamour parts and after some years returned to Broadway.   She won huge acclaim for her performance as Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker”.   She repeated the role on film in 1962 and won an Academy Award.   She resumed her film career and starred in “The Pumpkin Eater”, ” 7 Women”,  “The Graduate” and “To Be or Not to Be” with her husband Mel Brooks.   Anne Bancroft died in 2005.

Brian Baxter’s “Guardian” obituary:

After a youthful flirtation with television, a near-disastrous relationship with Hollywood and a failed marriage, the actor Anne Bancroft, who has died aged 73, fled the west coast and returned home to New York. It was 1959 and in her own words “life was a shambles … I was terribly immature. I was going steadily downhill in terms of self-respect and dignity”. She needed to reclaim her life and career.

Happily, it worked and within three years she had won Tonys for her Broadway roles in Two for the Seesaw and as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. When the latter was transferred to the screen by its author William Gibson and director Arthur Penn, she again took the demanding role of Helen Keller’s teacher, winning the best actress Oscar in 1963.

This success relaunched her career, leading to prestige roles in the theatre including Mother Courage, Sister Jeanne in The Devils and Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. There were film roles too, in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) and, most famously, as the seductive Mrs Robinson in the modish and popular The Graduate (1967). This movie, in which Dustin Hoffman made his screen debut, became so closely associated with Bancroft as a 1960s archetype that it somewhat obscured her subsequent career.

She was also famously married to the Jewish actor-director Mel Brooks whose mother, told that he was going to marry an Italian-American Catholic, replied “bring the girl over, I’ll be in the kitchen – with my head in the oven”. Despite these and other comments about a mis-match, the marriage proved one of the most stable in show business. It was also creative, and Brooks served as executive producer on movies in which Bancroft excelled, including The Elephant Man (1980) and the two-hander 84 Charing Cross Road (1986). These and other films made for his own company redeemed his often frantic comedies, three of which involved Bancroft. In Silent Movie (1976) she – among other stars – glamorously played herself as a highlight of the film. Sadly, she was less well served when co-starring opposite Brooks in his lumpen remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not to Be (1983) and by her cameo appearance in his dire spoof Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).

Bancroft was born in the Bronx to a working class family. It was the height of the depression, but even when her father became unemployed in the late 1930s, Anna was allowed tap dancing lessons, then enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her graduation piece was seen by the actress Frances Fuller, who recommended the 18 year old for television work. Bancroft debuted as Anne Marno in The Torrents of Spring and when a popular radio show The Goldbergs transferred to television she became a member of the TV family, working steadily for two years.

Having helped a fellow actor with a screen test, it was Bancroft who got the call from 20th Century Fox offering a $20,000-a-year contract. It was to prove a mixed blessing. Under her new name Anne Bancroft she made her movie debut in Don’t Bother to Knock, made in 1952 but held up for a year. Within five years she made 15 films, as various as Demetrius and the Gladiators, a baseball movie The Kid from Left Field and Gorilla at Large (1954). There were several routine westerns, modest thrillers including Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall, plus the dismal The Girl in Black Silk Stockings (1957). By this time she admitted to over indulging in alcohol and being unhappily married to someone “who calls himself an actor but whose real occupation is playing a rich boy”. She was also in psychoanalysis.

The road back involved work with a vocal coach, regular attendance at The Actors Studio and study with Herbert Berghof. Plus three sessions a week with her therapist. Then came a triumphant return to acting, playing first opposite a difficult Henry Fonda, followed by the explosive and physically demanding role in The Miracle Worker. When the film version was announced, the backers wanted either Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn, but Penn refused and budgeted it at only $500,000, shooting in New Jersey. At 31 Bancroft became an Oscar winner and in the words of one critic, “she left Hollywood a failure and returned a star”.

Her subsequent career was far from conventional. Her intelligence and fierce independence ensured that she never conformed to movie stardom. Working at her own pace and inclination, she turned down Funny Girl, which subsequently made Barbra Streisand famous. She played Mother Courage on stage and waited two years for a new film that was shot in Britain.

Harold Pinter adapted the Pumpkin Eater from Penelope Mortimer’s novel depicting the disintegration of a marriage. The rather cold, over-stylised direction by Jack Clayton could not obscure the riveting central performances by James Mason and Bancroft. Her harrowing portrayal as the distressed wife won her the 1964 best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, a Bafta film award and the second of her five Oscar nominations.

In 1966 she took the lead in John Ford’s last movie, 7 Women. It was a curiosity that failed commercially. The same fate did not await The Graduate. The rapacious Mrs Robinson gained her another Oscar nomination and the third of her seven Bafta nominations as best actress.

It was also a commercial success and she and director Mike Nichols worked together again on The Little Foxes. Then Bancroft, who had married Brooks in 1964, took extended time off from work, giving birth to their son Maximilian in 1968.

She returned to the screen in 1972, playing Jenny Churchill in Young Winston, prompting Richard Attenborough to describe her as “the greatest actress of her generation”. Two years later she starred in the Neil Simon comedy, The Prisoner of Second Avenue – a welcome return to comedy where she was perfectly cast opposite the frenetic Jack Lemmon.

Her seesaw career took a downturn with the dull The Hindenburg (1975), in which she played a Countess, and hit rock bottom with the garish revenge thriller Lipstick (1976). She was, more happily, herself in Silent Movie and as Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Her luck improved when Audrey Hepburn declined the role of the prima ballerina in The Turning Point (1977), giving Bancroft a substantial role as the bitchy rival to Shirley Maclaine.

After another long career gap, she returned to the screen with Fatso (1980), which she also wrote and directed. It was little shown and she was grateful for the tellingly elegant role of Mrs Kendal in The Elephant Man. This was her second film with Anthony Hopkins and they were reunited – albeit from opposite sides of the Atlantic – for the rather less distinguished 84 Charing Cross Road (1986).

She was busy on the screen during the 1980s, working little in the theatre after a disappointing response to Golda, another play by William Gibson. There were substantial roles in Garbo Talks (1984) and as the Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985). She was an altogether different Ma in Torch Song Trilogy (1988), where an over-the -top performance was a mixed blessing in a high camp version of a theatrical success.

There was a touch of Mrs Robinson in her flirtatious role in the comedy You’re a Fool Bert Rigby and in her mellower Kate Jerome in the television version of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (1991). Throughout that decade she broke her tradition of long absences between movie roles, notching up a couple of appearances – often in character parts – each year. Amidst Hollywood’s welter of juvenile, special effects-led films her warmth, intelligence and stylish presence became somewhat sidelined. She took the title role in the TV drama Mrs Cage and had a fun time in the oddball comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (both 1992). There were fraught moments in the thrillers Malice and a remake of Luc Besson’s Nikita re-titled Assassin. In this she played the role originally created by Jeanne Moreau, an actress of similar sophistication. She was wasted as a doctor in Mr Jones, which director Mike Figgis disowned after studio interference.

There were further television dramas, The Mother (1994), Homecoming (1996) and most potent of all Deep in My Heart (1999) for which she received an Emmy as best supporting actress. There was a nonsensical desire on the part of directors to cast her years above her attractive self: she played a centenarian in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and a great aunt in the worthily dull How to Make an American Quilt.

Among her gallery of elderly grotesques none was more triumphant than the terrifying Mrs Dinsmoor in the stylish updating of Great Expectation (1998). There were few such lush movies to be had, but she made a feisty, inherently corrupt senator in GI Jane and was ideally cast voicing the Queen in the animated hit Antz.

There were also documentaries to narrate and the inevitable personal appearances saluting husband Brooks and co-star Dustin Hoffman or indeed the whole history of American cinema in the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies.

Bancroft could always be relied on to add a touch of class to movies – especially if they had literary, religious or social themes and she kept busy with Up at the Villa, the factually-based Haven and Edward Norton’s directorial debut Keeping the Faith. Some lighter relief came with the smart comedy Heartbreakers (2001), where she was played dual roles in a story about mother and daughter con artists who relieve widowers of their wealth. She played the third side of the triangle, belatedly revealed as one of the tricksters.

It was a reminder of her comedic talent – something that had been rewarded by a lifetime achievement in the 1996 American Comedy Awards, but which Hollywood had not sufficiently recognised during her long career. Perhaps one comedian in the Bancroft-Brooks household was considered enough.

· Anne Bancroft, actor, born Anna Marina Louisa Italiano, September 17 1931; died June 6 2005

 The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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