Originally published in the September 2005 issue of Fra Noi.
In June, America lost one of its greatest cultural treasures when actress Anne Bancroft succumbed to cancer at the age of 73. It seems absurd to say that an actress who won two Tony Awards, an Oscar, and an Emmy, was under-rated but I’ve always felt that, at the very least, Anne Bancroft was under-appreciated.
Hollywood has always been more comfortable with artists that could be type-cast. If you’re a beautiful, curvaceous woman, chances are you’ll be repeatedly cast as “the dumb blonde.” If you’re a slightly built, balding man with glasses, you are destined to forever be the “nerdy friend.” If you’re really lucky and you have a rather dark, menacing look about you, maybe a pair of wild eyes, you can make an entire career out of being the “psychotic criminal.” However, if you’re an actress that can play a young, idealistic dancer, a strong and determined teacher, an old, larcenous street peddler, and a beautiful but bored middle-aged suburban housewife, all in a period of less than ten years, then you’ve got yourself a problem.
Things might have been different if Anne Bancroft had begun her career in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s when strong female roles made stars out of actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck. Anne Bancroft possessed the same tough but tender persona that made those classic predecessors into film icons. Unfortunately for Ms. Bancroft the late 1950’s and early 1960’s did not offer as many challenging and rewarding roles as did the golden age of Hollywood film. The large screen spectaculars of the 1950’s offered few opportunities for intimate dramatic acting. Instead, her talents were squandered early in her career in such forgettable movies as “Treasure of the Golden Condor,” “Gorilla at Large,” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators.”
While the 1950’s may not have been the golden age of Hollywood films, it was the golden age of television,” particularly live television. Bancroft made the most of her opportunities in live television dramas with appearances on “Kraft Television Theatre,” “The Alcoa Hour,” and “Playhouse 90.” It was, in fact, the strength of her early television performances that led to her film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1952. Nevertheless, after five fruitless years in Hollywood, she abandoned films to return to her native New York. Following her thankless role as a sideshow aerialist in “Gorilla at Large” (1954) which was designed largely to keep her in skimpy outfits for most of the picture, she once wisecracked, “I wanted to develop my acting, not my body.” She would do exactly that upon her return east.
In January of 1957 she appeared in a “Playhouse 90” production called “So Soon to Die.” Bancroft’s co-star was actor Richard Basehart who came away from the show with a great appreciation for Bancroft’s talent. At about the same time Basehart had been approached by respected producer Fred Coe about a two-person play for Broadway written by William Gibson. Basehart had read for the role and although he wasn’t sure if the play was right for him, he recommended the young woman with whom he had just worked for the female role. The role of Gittel Mosca is a Bronx-born dancer who tries to hide her loneliness and self-doubt behind a buoyantly happy exterior. Anne Bancroft, with the help of Basehart who provided her with a copy of Gibson’s play entitled, “Two for the Seesaw,” studied the role and entered the audition with a veteran’s grasp of the character. She immediately won over both the playwright and the producer. She then met with the director, Arthur Penn, who was so impressed he immediately cast her in another “Playhouse 90” he was about to direct, entitled “Invitation to a Gunfighter.” Basehart ultimately dropped out of the project but Henry Fonda filled the role and “Two for the Seesaw” opened on Broadway in January of 1958. Bancroft received rave reviews for her Broadway debut and went on to earn a Tony Award as Best Actress in a dramatic role. After more than six years of hard work, she was an overnight sensation.
Bancroft was born Anna Maria Italiano on September 17, 1931 in the Bronx, New York. Her parents were hard working Italian immigrants and her upbringing was filled with boisterous relatives, typical Italian feasts, and much love. She remembered singing to construction workers on the street corner for nickels and pennies when she was four years old. She was active in music and drama throughout her youth and when she thought about becoming a lab technician after high school it was her mother who encouraged her to try theater. She enrolled at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and soon landed her first television role on the series, “Suspense.” She used the stage name Anne Marno. When she signed her film contract the following year with Twentieth Century-Fox they instructed her to change her name and she became Anne Bancroft.
Returning to New York from Hollywood in 1957 was the best thing Anne Bancroft ever did for herself. She joined the legendary Actor’s Studio, she found challenging and rewarding stage work that helped her develop her talent, and she returned to the real world of New York as opposed to the surreal world of Hollywood. Her family and friends kept her grounded and her work kept her busy.
During her years in Hollywood, she had met and married Martin May. The marriage lasted less than four years and they had no children together. In “Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks” written by William Holtzman, Bancroft is quoted as saying, shortly after her return to New York, “I’m interested in only four men: my father, my agent, my press agent, and my analyst.”
Even though she won the Tony Award for “Two for the Seesaw” Anne Bancroft’s name did not carry enough weight to get her the opportunity to portray Gittel Mosca on film. Instead the film version of “Two for the Seesaw” was cast with Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum.
Just a few months before William Gibson and Arthur Penn had begun work on bringing “Two for the Seesaw” to Broadway, Penn had directed an episode of “Playhouse 90” written by Gibson about Annie Sullivan, the teacher/tutor of Helen Keller entitled “The Miracle Worker.” The TV version had starred Teresa Wright as Annie but following her success in “Two for the Seesaw,” Gibson, Penn, and Producer Fred Coe were unanimous in their desire to have Anne Bancroft portray Annie Sullivan in the Broadway adaptation.
Bancroft threw herself into the role by learning everything she could about Annie Sullivan. She spent an entire day with her eyes taped shut because as a child, Sullivan had lost her sight for almost three years. Bancroft also began volunteering with visually impaired children. The special education teachers were impressed by the natural gift she had of relating to, and teaching, the children with whom she worked.
Patty Duke eventually won the role of the young Helen Keller. It was a physically demanding play for both actresses. At one point, the two engage in a knock down, drag out fight as Sullivan attempts to civilize her wild young charge. The scene was choreographed but director Penn let the two actresses improvise much of this climactic confrontation in rehearsals until they were comfortable with it. Both actresses had to wear padding under their costumes to prevent anyone from getting seriously injured. As it was, the co-stars both ended up with their share of bruises and Patty Duke wound up chipping a tooth during the course of the play’s run.
In an article by Richard Ridge that appears on Patty Duke’s website (www.officialpattyduke.com) from 1999, Anne Bancroft had praise for the entire production but especially her director Arthur Penn. “Arthur Penn taught me everything,” Bancroft said. “He really was, I think, more help to me in my acting than any other person alive or dead.” In the same article, Patty Duke praised her co-star saying, “Anne Bancroft was just so wonderful and fair. Here I was a small kid and she was this big star. On every show that I’d worked on, I’d always find someone who was my channel of energy and love, and Anne filled that role on this show.”
Anne Bancroft won her second consecutive Tony Award for “The Miracle Worker” and this time when Hollywood made the film version of the play, Penn, Gibson, and Coe all were involved with the project and insisted that Bancroft reprise her role. The studio was glad they did because Anne Bancroft walked off with the Oscar for Best Actress of 1962 for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan. It cemented Bancroft’s cache as an actress of great talent and versatility.
Anne Bancroft loved to sing and dance. According to William Holtzman in “Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks” one of her favorite shows on which to appear was Perry Como’s weekly variety show. One week she was due to appear on his show and the cast was rehearsing a number at a Manhattan theater. The number, which featured Como, Bancroft, and Jimmy Durante, was ironically entitled “Married I Can Always Get.” As she finished her song some maniac in the back of the theater started applauding and whistling his approval. He walked up onto the stage, grabbed her hand and told her how tremendous she was. The crazy man was, of course, Mel Brooks who had come to the theater with composer and friend Charles Strouse. Actually, when he heard Strouse knew Bancroft he begged him for an introduction to the critically acclaimed young actress. The rest, as they say, is history. The couple dated for two years before finally getting married at City Hall in New York in 1964. Most people thought them an odd, unlikely couple. By Hollywood’s standards they were indeed odd because they remained a happy and devoted team right up until Bancroft’s death in June.
Following the success of “The Miracle Worker” Anne Bancroft starred on Broadway in the Brecht drama “Mother Courage and Her Children” as an old peddler woman seeking to profit from the Thirty Years War. As the play develops she loses all her children to the war from which she was so determined to profit. It was a dark and courageous choice for her to make after winning the Academy Award but she had graduated from seeking stardom to being an accomplished actress.
She returned to films in 1964 in the domestic drama “The Pumpkin Eater” with Peter Finch and James Mason. It was a serious and dark film about marriage and infidelity. Bancroft received her second Academy Award nomination and was voted Best Actress by the British Film Academy.
A few years later she played Mrs. Robinson in the film “The Graduate” and turned the malevolent and bored housewife into an icon of the 1960’s. Following Bancroft’s death I read that she could never quite understand why she was best remembered as the manipulative Mrs. Robinson as opposed to Annie Sullivan from “The Miracle Worker.” She did, after all, win both a Tony Award and an Academy Award for that portrayal – one of only a handful of actors ever to win best acting awards for portraying the same character on both stage and screen. I felt bad about her frustration over this phenomenon. I also agreed with her. Personally, I never liked to think of Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson because the characterization scared the hell out of me. Add to that the truly amazing performance she gives in “The Miracle Worker” and it does seem to be unjust that Annie Sullivan gets lost in the long, scary shadow of Mrs. Robinson.
Following “The Graduate” her career slowed down. She took time out to be a wife and a mother. She and Mel Brooks welcomed son Max in 1973. She didn’t star in another major film project until 1975 when she teamed up with Jack Lemmon in Neil Simon’s “Prisoner of Second Avenue.” She received critical reviews and another Academy Award nomination in 1977 for her role in the film “The Turning Point” with Shirley MacLaine. Bancroft plays an aging dancer who gives up marriage and a personal life to pursue her career and then must face the consequences of her decision when fame begins to fade.
My favorite Anne Bancroft films, besides “The Miracle Worker,” and “Fatso” (which I’ll discuss in a separate article) are “Garbo Talks” and “84 Charring Cross Road.” In “Garbo Talks” she plays an eccentric and independent Jewish mother whose dying wish is to meet the elusive Greta Garbo. Ron Silver plays the son who must somehow find and convince the great star to meet his amazing mother. It’s funny and poignant and just a little hard to believe but Bancroft is charming.
“84 Charring Cross Road” has the pacing and feeling of a foreign film. The movie was made by Brooksfilm, the company started by husband Mel to produce his own films as well as other more serious projects like “The Elephant Man.” I can’t imagine another film company making this film but I’m glad someone did. It’s a story about a New Yorker in the early 1950’s who works in television reading and typing scripts. She sends away for some books from a London bookshop and begins a lifelong correspondence with the manager of the London store. The two main characters never meet but the story of their friendship is inspiring and heartwarming. It is, in its way, “a film about nothing,” nothing but humanity, friendship, curiosity, and the excitement of intellectual discovery.
In the end, I think the reason I enjoy the film so much is because Helen Hanff, Bancroft’s character, is so close to how I like to imagine Bancroft was – curious, independent, funny, angry, and full of love. The only positive when we lose a great entertainer is that often we have much of their work left with us on film and so it is with Anne Bancroft. Her work will be with us forever and the humanity that infused that work will be her legacy. I only wish there had been more.