The Actress Who Had A Leg Up on Stardom

Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, with
Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, with "Graduate" co-star Dustin Hoffman. (AP)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

"To this day, when men meet me, there's always that movie in the back of their mind," Anne Bancroft said to me in the winter of 2002. She was referring, of course, to a movie she'd made half a lifetime earlier, the film that enshrined her for all time as the Sexy Older Woman.

The movie was "The Graduate," and the woman stuck in all those guys' heads was Mrs. Robinson. (Did she even have a first name?) It was a cool, dry cocktail of seduction that she stirred in Mike Nichols's witty satire, a blend of lust, danger and disillusionment that made her completely irresistible. The potion she'd mixed on the screen was so flammable, she could still sense its effect on men 35 years later, men who'd spun their own elaborate fantasies, wondering whether they'd have been any smoother than the sputtering, bumbling Benjamin Braddock, played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman.

Bancroft reminisced for me that day -- yes, I can proudly boast that I was alone in a hotel room with Mrs. Robinson -- while she was preparing to portray the sculptor Louise Nevelson in a biographical play, "Occupant," by Edward Albee. (I was invited in my capacity as a reporter for The New York Times.)

Though she got her start on the stage -- she earned a Tony for her first Broadway role, opposite Henry Fonda in "Two for the Seesaw" -- Bancroft only rarely returned to the theater over the years. She'd made her reputation in films, most notably the one for which she won an Oscar, "The Miracle Worker." And it is for those movie roles of the '60s and '70s that she'll most certainly be remembered.

"Occupant," whose run was shortened by the actress's bout with pneumonia, would be one of the last performances she'd give in any medium. Bancroft died on Monday evening of uterine cancer at a Manhattan hospital, survived by Mel Brooks, with whom she forged one of the sturdier of Hollywood marriages; their son, Max; and a 2-month-old grandchild. She was 73.

If Mrs. Robinson was a defining role, the experience of "The Graduate" in no way defined her life. She was an actress more than a star, a formidable presence on screen or stage, often teamed up in movies with actors of equal firepower. In "The Pumpkin Eater" (1964), portraying a lonely wife ensconced in an unhappy English marriage, she held her own against Peter Finch and James Mason. Thirteen years later, in "The Turning Point," the story of the rivalry of two aging ballerinas, one who had given up ballet to raise a family, the tension on the screen between her and co-star Shirley MacLaine seemed so real, their climactic physical confrontation could have been fueled by actual bile.

It's interesting that in "The Turning Point" she played the combatant who'd given up a private life to continue her career, because in actuality, Bancroft did not pursue roles with ferocity. Bancroft was never uncomfortable taking breathers from acting. She said when other obligations arose, she did not feel pangs of guilt turning down parts. The price she paid, she told me, was not working as much as she might have.

Still, she managed over the years to embody a gallery of forceful characters, from her Tony-nominated turn as Israeli leader Golda Meir in "Golda" to the bookish New Yorker corresponding with Anthony Hopkins's London bookseller in the epistolary movie "84 Charing Cross Road." In the latter project, her native New York locutions came through: She was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in the Bronx in September 1931. But she could divest herself of the Bronx, as she had to for "The Miracle Worker," in which she played, unforgettably, Annie Sullivan, the hardheaded Irishwoman who sets about the seemingly impossible task of teaching an incorrigible blind and deaf child, Helen Keller, to communicate with the outside world.

Bancroft's malleable talent was such that she played Sullivan both on Broadway -- earning her a second Tony, the year after "Seesaw" -- and on film. It was an ability to project a blazing vivacity that kept her in good stead. After winning the Academy Award for "The Miracle Worker," she was nominated for an Oscar four more times for intensely dramatic roles. Her comic instinct, it should be noted, was never exploited successfully in the movies, and there were times, in film comedies like "Garbo Talks," when she could seem ill-used.

In person, Bancroft exuded an endearing, nervous energy. She was eager to talk about her successes, but she seemed even prouder of Brooks's, particularly of his historic Broadway triumph with "The Producers," for which she claimed some credit. Writing the show, Brooks had been plagued by insecurity and doubt, she said. Her contribution, she explained, was to order him into a room and tell him he could not come out until he'd finished writing the lyrics.

How lovely, then, that in one of her final performances, she appeared with Brooks on Larry David's HBO comedy series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The couple's assignment was to send up "The Producers" by playing a parody version of a scene from the 1968 movie, in which Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom realize their lives are ruined because their show's a hit. It was a treat to see Mrs. Robinson, so in her element, and funny as heck.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company