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5 for the Day: Anne Bancroft

Almost all of Bancroft’s best work can be found in the handful of films she made in the ’60s.

5 for the Day: Anne Bancroft
Photo: Columbia Pictures

In 2002, I bought a ticket to a preview of Edward Albee’s Occupant, a play about the sculptor Louise Nevelson. I try to see any new Albee play, but I was particularly excited for this one because Anne Bancroft was playing the leading role; she hadn’t been on stage in New York for a number of years, so this was a kind of homecoming. Occupant is minor Albee, too tied to biographical details, and the audience was restless throughout, but Bancroft was in total control from the moment she walked out, her eyes twinkling behind sable eyelashes. Her style of acting was often too big for movies, especially as she got older, but in the theater her every outsized gesture commanded the space, and she had a seemingly total belief in what she was doing. Toward the end, as she did a lengthy monologue, a woman in the audience got up to leave. Suddenly, Bancroft dropped her grand, declaiming character and looked out at the woman. “Darling, you’re leaving?” she asked, in the purest Bronx accent. “Please, dear, please, I’m almost finished! Gimme a shot, would ya?” The woman continued out the door, as the audience laughed, and Bancroft shrugged, then instantly went back into her speech, as focused as ever.

I’m glad I bought that ticket, because Bancroft never opened in Occupant, due to illness. It made me realize that the theater was really her natural habitat, and it was the theater that first clarified her work. As a young woman from a large Italian family in the Bronx, Bancroft had eagerly gone to Hollywood in the fifties and made many movies there, some bad (Gorilla at Large {1954}), some good (Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier {1955}); in those early films, she’s tentative and uncertain, barely recognizable as the intense, glamorous actress she would become in the sixties. At loose ends, she went back to New York in 1958 and had a success in two plays by William Gibson, Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker. During this period, she also became a star student at the Actor’s Studio, working with Lee Strasberg, whose controversial version of the Method seems to have worked quite well for her (one student there remembers that Bancroft was “ready to go on at the mere hint that another actor won’t show for that day’s presentation”).

Bancroft’s appetite for acting became ravenous, which worked in large roles but could seem over-eager and off-putting in smaller assignments. Some actors have relatively brief periods of high inspiration and opportunity: almost all of Bancroft’s best work can be found in the handful of films she made in the sixties. The seventies brought a general relaxation; in the eighties, Bancroft took to going instantly over the top in Italian/Jewish mother parts. If I was to presume to guess why her acting style changed so drastically from decade to decade, I think it has to do with the very personal way she worked. In the fifties, she didn’t quite know what she was doing as an actress, and this took its toll on her. Consequently, she found a lot of emotion and conflict to struggle with in the sixties, when she personalized her work under Strasberg’s tutelage. She did not lack for good roles as an older actress, but the pain she was using to deepen what she was doing in the sixties seems to have evaporated, due in large part, most likely, to her long, happy marriage to Mel Brooks. At her best, as in Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998), Bancroft remained technically proficient and frisky, yet her emotional fires had banked in a way that, say, Ellen Burstyn’s have not. But if we look back at her performances from the sixties, they still retain their full power and often savage complexity.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

This adaptation of Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan won Bancroft an Oscar over stiff competition, and it revealed an actress with the stamina of an athlete. Some of the dialogue is a bit blunt, and the film is nearly ruined by terrible performances from Victor Jory and Inga Swenson as Helen’s parents, but Bancroft’s tough, unsentimental work brings the theme of civilization versus natural wildness into unexpected, dangerous areas. The big Irish brogue she uses for the role sometimes forces her into what sound like line readings, but no other actress could have played the amazing dinner battle scene with Patty Duke’s Helen with such ferocious physical commitment (in rehearsal for the play, Method Bancroft told Duke, “now, you come on and hit me!”). Dark glasses hide her eyes for most of the film, but Bancroft uses this and all other limitations as a metaphor for the rough and tumble fight she makes for Helen’s mind, letting us see how Annie’s appetite for a challenge is inexhaustible and basically altruistic. Bancroft makes us feel Annie’s barely contained rage, and dares to show us how she is beyond conventional feelings of love for Helen or anyone else.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

After her Oscar win, Bancroft fought for the plum leading role in this superbly directed and written adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s novel, a nearly impenetrable portrait of a compulsively child-bearing woman fighting her way through a clinical depression. Bancroft’s performance here is nearly impenetrable, too; she’s so immersed in creating the extreme of this woman’s lower-than-low mood that sometimes her face is nothing but a tragic mask with the merest glimmers of legible emotion behind her liquid, widely spaced dark eyes. In flashbacks to happier times, Bancroft’s eyes squeeze shut whenever she’s taken with one of her overcome, juicy smiles, but this same smile turns into a choked grimace when she breaks down in Harrods department store: in extreme close-up, tears streaming down her face unconsciously, Bancroft laughs and strangles out nonsense words, as if she’s being pulled in two different directions at once (once, I watched The Pumpkin Eater with someone who had suffered a breakdown, and they said that Bancroft’s Harrods breakdown scene was the most accurate physical rendition of this sort of illness that they had ever seen).

Deploying a light British accent seems to focus and lighten Bancroft’s effects here, so that she feasts on Harold Pinter’s suggestive dialogue in the most disciplined way. At the same time, she dives into the more unappealing aspects of the role without even thinking of flinching, beating the hell out of her straying husband (Peter Finch), descending into the most unattractive depths of self-pity, and finally smiling with mingled hope, agony and outright madness in her last close-up. This is the kind of performance that can inspire awe; God only knows what Bancroft had to dig up to get to the emotion of that Harrods breakdown. In this film, she’s like a heavyweight champion defending her title with punches so hard that they seem to come from some primordial place; it remains her most ambitious, most mysterious work.

7 Women (1966)

In jodhpurs, wide-brimmed hat and leather jacket, Bancroft enters John Ford’s complicated, deeply pained last movie as a sort of dreamlike emanation of missionary Margaret Leighton’s barely suppressed lesbian yearnings. This classic butch image is matched by her rowdy, boastful dialogue; Bancroft’s kicked-around female doctor smokes too much, drinks too much and has “a past,” as they used to say, and Leighton is constantly antagonized by her easy-going ways and tough, managerial style. This is a stock role, in some ways, but Bancroft shades it in with delicate emotions, playing against and around some of her dialogue just as Ford works around some of the story’s clichés to get at his pitiless, shocking “God is not enough” theme. And the way Bancroft delivers her final line (“So long, ya bastard!”), in her most scathing Bronx accent, brings Ford’s career to a most satisfying, defiant conclusion.

The Graduate (1967)

Bancroft’s performance as Mrs. Robinson in this huge Mike Nichols hit is the kind of work that’s so detailed and galvanizing that it overwhelms the film itself, cowing it into respect and fear. Mrs. Robinson is introduced at a party in a predatory animal print dress and a streaked beehive of hair, a warrior tired of the limitations of her battlefield, an “adult” in the worst possible way. “I’m very neurotic,” she claims, convincingly enough, when she lures college grad Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) back to her lair. She admits to alcoholism before smiling that over-warm Bancroft smile; after she makes an offer of sex to Ben, Nichols shows us Mrs. Robinson with her mask down, bright-eyed with anticipation and something else, something more ambiguous (Pride? Amusement?). At a hotel bar, she smiles to herself at Ben’s awkwardness when he phones to let her know he’s gotten them a room; these two moments let us know how human Mrs. Robinson can be, but when she has to taunt Ben into sex, mentioning the word “inadequate,” it’s a very ugly bit of aggression, and Bancroft plays it as if Mrs. Robinson knows how ugly her behavior is, and that she’s decided to be tickled by her own meanness.

What kind of sex do Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson have? It’s probably pretty awful, in general, but he doesn’t know better, and she needs it like she needs her liquor. No kissing, nuts and bolts. She might even teach him some technical things; we can imagine her cruel smile in the dark. But when Ben wants to talk, Mrs. Robinson is exposed as a once-vulnerable woman, her despair so deep as she looks away from Ben that it seems bottomless. Bancroft is intimidatingly expert at doing total moods of depression or elation, or the total weakness she reveals when Ben pulls the sheet off of her body and she slowly, wearily pulls it back to cover herself. Whatever sympathy we might have for Ben is destroyed when he calls her a “broken-down alcoholic” and we see the effect of his too-brutal words on her face. Bancroft retains our sympathy even when she’s asked to turn into a rain-soaked Medea in a silly white headband, threatening vengeance on Ben for dating her daughter. All of Bancroft’s own personal and professional fifties frustrations informs her decade-defining portrayal of an oppressed woman who turns herself into a monster because she has no other choice. When Ben screams “Elaine!” during her daughter’s wedding, Bancroft chooses to be amused by his behavior (this choice is betrayed by Nichols in the next, short cut to her swearing at him, but that’s his mistake, not Bancroft’s). Bancroft’s conception is a lament for all women of her cosseted fifties generation, and it shook the culture to its core. Jesus loves Mrs. Robinson more than she will know, but surely we can pick up some of the slack, too.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

A cult favorite for Anglophiles and romantics, this true story about a jobbing writer (Bancroft) and her long-distance semi-love affair through letters with a London bookseller (Anthony Hopkins) shows what the mature Bancroft could do with an unusually thin sketch of humdrum, solitary, quotidian pleasure. Her Helene Hanff leads a joyously slobby life in fifties New York, slopping around in baggy cardigans and banging out letters and scripts while sipping ever-present, enormous glasses of what looks like straight gin. There isn’t a single moment in this film that pushes any kind of “plot” or even character development; it’s a rare movie about ordinary, uneventful lives, never straining for significance. Bancroft holds the wispy thread of the story together with her zesty voice-overs and her wistful, slightly buzzed doing of day-to-day chores; this is the one film of her later years that allowed her to create from her own obvious contentment, far away from the overheated, unconvincing anger of so many of her “mama” parts. Many people loved the idea of Bancroft and Mel Brooks together as a couple; he produced this film for her, as a gift of love. If, as I feel, her essential happiness off-screen meant that her work suffered, it’s hard to begrudge her that release. These five films are a testament to what she achieved when she was at her best; for the rest, her sheer likability is undeniable.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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