A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
“I’m always lonely when I work…You’re going through a very private inner experience that requires personal strength. I accept this loneliness, but it’s one of the big fears of going back to work.” (158) – Anne Bancroft
Moviegoers bore witness to a sea change in films in 1967 when they got to watch The Graduate – the second film directed by the innovative Mike Nichols, based on the obscure novella of the same name by Charles Webb. Previous to the release of The Graduate, sex scenes in American films were spare, predictable, and over-orchestrated. But in the rollicking, swinging sixties, actors and directors began grabbing at license to clinically depict the notoriously libertine ethic of the era. The following year, film audiences had fair warning about the new wave of cinema once the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced its controversial film-rating formula.
But audiences of The Graduate had had no such fair warning when the film was first released. Less than ten minutes into the film, an aging but sexy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) assures freshly minted college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) her husband won’t be home soon. And, at that very moment, American films took an irreversible turn.
Hoffman was thirty and Bancroft thirty-five at the time. But their work together in The Graduate was sufficiently persuasive to make audiences believe Hoffman was only twenty-one, and Bancroft in her mid-forties. It was so persuasive, in fact, that the film jump-started Dustin Hoffman’s career, and despite much remarkable theater work and a 1963 Oscar for Best Actress award under her belt for her performance in The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft became tagged with Mrs. Robinson as her signature role for the remainder of her career.
A much-welcomed new biography of the celebrated actor by Douglass K. Daniel, Anne Bancroft, a Life (University Press of Kentucky, 1967), deals in depth with Bancroft’s frequent professional struggles against typecasting. As evidence, the author cites her 1969 comment to The Boston Globe: “…I’d be playing Mrs. Robinson from now until my life ended unless I took the initiative and stretched myself” (156).
What ultimately makes Daniel’s work a top-notch biography is its treatment of the interplay between the actor’s personal and professional lives. We learn from Daniel, for example, that during the making of The Graduate, Mike Nichols instructed Bancroft to infuse the Mrs. Robinson character with anger. It is her anger at lost opportunity, her disillusionment with a hum-drum marriage that turns her into a cougar. Nichols told Bancroft her character doesn’t just want to carry on an affair with young Benjamin. She wants to devour him.
Bancroft’s professional conscientiousness cost her. Despite a happy marriage to filmmaker and comic Mel Brooks in her personal life, the actor had become unable to shake the anger of the Mrs. Robinson character for at least two years after her work in the film. And she had lost a great deal of weight due to her newly acquired sporadic eating habits.
But Bancroft, ever the punctilious method actor, was no stranger to immersing herself in a part. In 1964, three years before the making of The Graduate, she’d gone to London two months early to work with a dialect coach to get ready for her role as Jo Armitage, a depressed British housewife in The Pumpkin Eater, director Jack Clayton’s 1964 film written by Harold Pinter, and adapted from Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novel of the same name.
But Bancroft didn’t limit her immersion in the Armitage character to lessons in British dialect. She went shopping in London stores, made purchases, and conversed with shopkeepers in her newfound patois. Throughout her career, she would amaze directors and audiences with her ability to transform herself, although irksome theater reviewer John Simon once panned her for what he considered her failed effort to shed her New York accent.
Another recent biography, Peter Shelley’s Anne Bancroft, The Life and Work (McFarland, 2017), is a competent assemblage of the details of its subject’s life yet fails to come close to the Daniel work for insight into Bancroft’s acting process, the indefatigable probing she required of herself for a theater or film role. Almost thirteen years after her death in 2005 at seventy-three, Bancroft still remains one of the finest method actors ever to come out of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio.
All her life, though, she remained the Bronx Italian-American middle child, Anna Marie Louisa Italiano. Her tightly knit family grounded her; and until she moved to Hollywood when she was twenty and changed to her professional name, she lived with her parents Mike and Millie Italiano and two sisters in a three-story apartment building on 2402 Raymond Avenue.
Bancroft would go on to do many celebrated films in Hollywood – Don’t Bother to Knock (1952, with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark), Turning Point (1977), Agnes of God (1985), Great Expectations (1998), Point of No Return (1993), and others. She was lauded for her work in the theater, highly praised for a 1963 production of Mother Courage and her Children. She upstaged Henry Fonda when they worked together in 1958 in the play Two for the Seesaw. And she received praise from Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe for her extraordinary acting in the play A Cry of Players (1968).
In addition to her Oscar for The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft won a Tony, three BAFTAs, an Emmy, and many other awards. She’d portrayed a nun, a ballet dancer, a CIA operative, and a disillusioned wife.
When Bancroft died of uterine cancer on June 6, 2006, her peers in Hollywood and New York memorialized her in private services. Lights were dimmed on Broadway. And, as you might have guessed, Paul Simon performed an acoustic version of Mrs. Robinson.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.