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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mrs. Robinson (1931-2005)

Back in the 1960s we didn’t have television shows like Desperate Housewives to tell us how weird and screwed-up things were in the suburbs. For that sort of thing we had to go to the movies. In those days, the sex lives of suburban denizens were examined in films like The Chapman Report (with Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Shelley Winters and Jane Fonda) and Goodbye, Columbus (with Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw). But the suburban-set movie that really caught the tone of the times and has endured as a cultural snapshot of the era is the one adapted by Buck Henry from a novel by Charles Webb and directed by Mike Nichols. It is, of course, The Graduate.

As good as the work done by Henry and Nichols was, however, what helps keep the movie in our memories are the performances. Can we imagine any other Ben Braddock than the young Dustin Hoffman or any other Elaine Robinson than the comely Katharine Ross? But the performance that has always stood out the most is that of Anne Bancroft as the predatory Mrs. Robinson. As a character, Mrs. Robinson was somewhat two-dimensional but, brought to life by Bancroft, she managed to be alluring and seductive enough to make many a young male filmgoer envy the hapless Ben’s situation. Yet she was cold and heartless enough to repel any caring human being. She single-handedly personified the hypocrisy and materialism of middle class American life. Sure, the filmmakers had a lot to do with making the character a cultural icon, not to mention that famous photo of Hoffman considering the arched leg (which, I’m guessing, wasn’t even Bancroft’s) and, of course, the song by Simon & Garfunkel. But it would have all been for naught without Bancroft’s performance.

Because she played Ross’s mother in the movie, we thought that Bancroft was already old way back then. In truth, she was in her mid-30s and only ten years older than her screen daughter and only six years older than Hoffman. Happily, she still had decades to go, although sadly, not enough of them. Five years before The Graduate, she had already played her other best-known film role, the one that got her an Oscar: teacher extraordinaire Annie Sullivan to young Patty Duke’s Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She was nominated four other times for Best Actress (including for The Graduate, losing that year to Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) without a win, but she pulled off an impressive triple crown by also picking up Tony and Emmy awards for her stage and television work. (Personal favorite quote from the obits: director Arthur Penn (in The New York Times): “More happens in her face in 10 seconds than happens in most women’s faces in 10 years.”)

A Bronx-born second-generation Italian-American (her birth name was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano), she had an amazing acting career that took her to early TV, then to forgettable movies, then to Broadway, and finally to better movies. (Her Broadway breakthrough was in the William Gibson play Two for the Seesaw, in which she and Henry Fonda played roles that would be echoed 43 years later by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in the film Lost in Translation.) Her life is a study of a half-century of hard and impressive work. She showed great range, moving easily from drama to comedy and character roles. And, if we were confused about her actual age, then we were even more confused about what she was doing with Mel Brooks. What was the award-winning, serious actor doing with the anything-for-a-yuk Brooks? (Apparently, having a long and successful marriage.) She appeared in some of his movies, playing both comedy (Silent Movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It) and drama (David Lynch’s mesmerizing The Elephant Man). The two also starred together in the Brooks-produced 1983 remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not to Be.

Bancroft wrote and directed one movie herself, 1980’s Fatso starring Dom De Luise, but the less said about that, the better.

Over the years, she had a number of other good, if not quite as memorable, roles (The Turning Point, Garbo Talks and Agnes of God come to mind), but inevitably, she was usually consigned to playing the mother, the grandmother or even the great-aunt. Even so, she always added something special to even the smallest of parts. Parts like Harvey Fierstein’s overwrought mother in Torch Song Trilogy or Nicole Kidman’s scotch-swilling mother in the nouveau noir film Malice or the Jeanne Moreau role in John Badham’s American remake of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (Point of No Return) or Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr.’s mother in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays or even the perfunctory role of the senator in G.I. Jane or especially the Bésame Mucho-addicted update of Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Alfonso Cuarón’s stupefying Great Expectations. However much or little Bancroft was given to do, she always made it interesting. (Odd coincidence: in 1992 she played both the title character in PBS drama Mrs. Cage and also Nicolas Cage’s mother in Honeymoon in Vegas.)

Later interviews suggested that she had grown a bit weary of always being remembered as Mrs. Robinson. That is understandable enough. After all, she didn’t ask to be an icon. Still, that kind of immortality is rare enough. Also rare is the kind of high-quality acting legacy that Anne Bancroft has left behind. Perhaps the rarest of all is to combine the legacy and the iconography in one lifetime.

(Cue music.) Here’s to you, Ms. Bancroft. Film fans love you more than you will know…

-S.L., 9 June 2005

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