Wednesday, June 8, 2005

"And Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson..."

It seems to me that more celebrities have died in the past month than in a good long time. The latest to pass on was Academy Award winner Anne Bancroft. She died Monday at age 73 after a long battle with uterine cancer.

Anne Bancroft was born as Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in the Bronx. She studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Adopting the stage name Anne Marno, she soon found work in live television. She made her TV debut in an episode of Suspense in 1951. She soon caught the notice of Darryl F Zanuck, who signed her to a contract for Twentieth Century-Fox. The studio asked her to change her stage name, feeling it sounded too ethnic. Anne Marno then became Anne Bancroft.

Anne Bancroft's early film career was fairly undistinguished. Twentieth Century-Fox cast her primarily in B pictures. In fact, prior to 1962, her most famous movie was probably Demetrius and the Gladiators! Unhappy with Hollywood, Bancroft left for Broadway in the late Fifties, where her fortunes would be much, much better. She appeared with Henry Fonda in the play Two for the Seesaw in 1958. She played Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, in The Miracle Worker in 1959. For both plays she received Tony Awards.

It was The Miracle Worker which brought Bancroft back to film. For the 1962 film adaptation of the play, Hollywood largely retained the original cast. Anne Bancroft won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her part as Anne Sullivan in the film. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1965 as welll, for her part as Jo Armitage in The Pumpkin Eater. While she had won an Oscar for her work in The Miracle Worker and received Oscar nominations for yet other films. Bancroft would be best remembered for her role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. As the seductive, frustrated older women who seduces her daughter's boyfriend, Bancroft was nominated once more for an Oscar and became a part of film history.

Anne Bancroft's film career continued in the Seventies, even if the movies were not always on par with those she did in the Sixites (The Miracle Worker, The Pumpkin Eater, Seven Women, and The Graduate). She appeared as Winston Churchill's mother in Young Winston. She also appeared in The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Hindenberg. She would be nominated for another Oscar for her role in The Turning Point from 1977. By 1980 she would direct her first movie, Fatso.

In 1964 Anne Bancroft married Mel Brooks. In 1972 the two had a son together. They would eventually collaborate in their work as well. Bancroft appeared as an extra in Blazing Saddles. The two would perform together in Brooks' remake of To Be or Not To Be. Later in her film career, Bancroft increasingly took character parts. She played the mother in Garbo Talks and Torch Song Trilogy. She would receive another Oscar nomination for her role in Agnes of God. Throughout the Nineties she appeared in a variety of films, from Honeymoon in Vegas to G. I. Jane to the modernised version of Great Expectations.

While she had success on film, Anne Bancroft continued to appear on Broadway. She appeared in Mother Courage and Her Children, The Devils, The Little Foxes, and A Cry of Players in the Sixties. By the Seventies she would return to television, appearing in Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man. She also played Mray Magdalene in the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. In the Nineties she did a good deal of television. She received Emmy nominations for her roles in Mrs. Cage, Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She won an Emmy for Deep in My Heart. She was even a guest voice on The Simpsons.

The Graduate has always numbered among my favourite films, and there is no doubt in my mind that Anne Bancroft simply added to the film's greatness. While The Graduate is largely about a young man coming of age, it can also be argued that in part it is about a middle aged woman who realises, to paraphrase Bancroft herself, "that she is utterly ordinary." I suppose that there are a lot of people who can identify with Mrs. Robinson, even if they don't go to the lengths that she did. While I think most people would agree that Mrs. Robinson was Anne Bancroft's greatest film role, it must be kept in mind that her career was much more than that. She gave many great performances, among them her role as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, Dr. Cartwright in Seven Women, and Mrs. Fanning in PBS's adaptation of The Mother. She was an extraordiary actress equally at home in comedy as in drama, who had an extraordinary range. I think it can truly be said she died all too soon.

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