EW remembers Anne Bancroft
Some actresses are forever defined by a single role — but great actresses can make every role they play seem defining. Anne Bancroft, who died June 6 at 73, was one of the latter. Bancroft’s performance in The Graduate is one of those acting moments that is simply a permanent part of the fabric of American movies. With a voice that sounded like a liquor cabinet filtered through a cigarette holder and a stone-cold seduction technique that was all business and half bored-to-tears, Bancroft turned Mrs. Robinson, the matron who made mincemeat of Dustin Hoffman, into an alluring and fearsome comic creation. But the part never owned her: She owned the part.
It wasn’t the only one. After spending much of the 1950s drifting through ill-fitting ingenue jobs in movies (her strong brow, husky tone, and grown-up sexuality were anomalies in the era of Monroe and Mansfield), Bancroft scored a Tony-winning triumph as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker on Broadway. When she returned to film after five years away to re-create the role in 1962, this time it was as a star, and her fiercely committed, technically impeccable work won an Oscar. ”During my formative years, she was my role model,” recalls Patty Duke, Bancroft’s Miracle costar on stage and screen. ”She taught me — by example, not by lecture — the ethics and discipline of the theater. And she also had one of the best senses of humor in the world.”
The darker themes that flourished in 1960s Hollywood were ideally suited to Bancroft’s natural intensity; she played a suicidal wife saved by Sidney Poitier in The Slender Thread (1965) and scored additional Oscar nominations not only for 1967’s The Graduate but for her work as an emotionally unsteady young mother in 1964’s Pumpkin Eater. She remained a commanding film presence for many more years, winning further nominations as a strong-willed dancer sparring with Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977) and as a wily nun in Agnes of God (1985).
Bancroft wasn’t the kind of actress who disappeared into her characters — she just inhabited them with such authority that audiences often believed they were a natural fit. When she played Golda Meir on Broadway in 1977’s Golda, theatergoers assumed she was Jewish (the Bronx native was actually born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano); when she made The Graduate, people were shocked to learn that the middle-aged monster with frosted hair was just six years older than Hoffman. And her ability to incarnate so many desperate women disguised a gamely wacky comedienne who finally emerged when she played a cross-eyed cutup in Silent Movie (1976), directed by her husband of 40 years, Mel Brooks. (One of her last appearances came with Brooks in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
In later years, Bancroft’s roles got smaller, and Hollywood could find little for her to do but play grotesques like the Miss Havisham character in a 1998 remake of Great Expectations. She met the challenges with undiminished appetite. ”There are always good parts,” she once said. ”They may not pay what you want, they may not have as many days’ work. . . . But [when it comes to] the content, I find that there are many roles.” Her final major part was an Emmy-nominated turn as a vicious contessa who pimps a young man in a 2003 cable remake of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. And although The Graduate followed her even to that shoot, she accepted her place in film lore with unfailing good humor. ”Wherever she went,” said Stone director Robert Allan Ackerman, ”people would come up to Anne saying that she was their first sexual fantasy. And she’d always reply, ‘They all tell me that.”’