June 08, 2005

Anne Bancroft

One of the most telling things about Anne Bancroft, who died yesterday at age 73, is that she was only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson, the sexually avid, drooping–breasted, forty–something adulteress in THE GRADUATE -- only six years older than costar Dustin Hoffman, who played her 21–year–old lover. In taking the role, she put a claim on a classic performance, but she also helped age herself prematurely out of the category of Hollywood sex objects. Not that she ever really belonged in that category -- at 31, in THE MIRACLE WORKER, she triumphed in a role that was singularly starchy and unsexually fierce. Though sultrily attractive, she was the kind of actress you'd want to talk with and laugh with for a long time, not just go to bed with.

And it was perhaps that very quality which made her so tantalizing as Mrs. Robinson. The character utterly refuses to share herself with her lover Benjamin in any way beyond having sex. She prohibits conversation, when there is so obviously so much inside her worth sharing and aching to share. She leaves Benjamin and the audience fascinated and starved, wanting more.

Even the shape of Bancroft's career seems to fit that kind of avoidant appeal. She was a star who appeared only sporadically on the screen, and every time she had a well–publicized role, you said to yourself admiringly, "Look who it is! Where has she been?" This was true even in 1967, five relatively obscure years after THE MIRACLE WORKER.

She exerted an oedipal attraction over me as she did for Benjamin, a character with whom I identified. Bancroft grew up as Anna Maria Italiano in the Bronx, just across the parkway from me (though a generation earlier), and she graduated from my neighborhood high school, Christopher Columbus. (I attended a magnet school instead, and didn't like it.) That makes me think I know a little bit about what she was like -- how she was witty and how she was smart. I think it's part of why she was sharp enough to take a role many successful 36–year–old actresses would have spurned, and take it for the odd reason that it was a good role in a good script with a good director. And I imagine that I know what it was like for her and Mel Brooks for forty years, laughing and talking together and doing nothing to either hide or advertise the fact.