When I first met Anne Bancroft, she was nursing a sprained ankle, but stylishly so. Draped dramatically along the length of a sofa in her Brentwood home, she had gingerly placed her leg atop two embroidered Oriental pillows. While an assistant laid an ice pack on the swelling, Bancroft was busy smoothing the cashmere and silk skirt of her Armani outfit. The effect was that, even in pain, the Oscar-winning actress seemed regal. And so it was with her acting. She veered between two big-screen personas, queens like Annie Sullivan or Mrs. Robinson, or commoners who took their inspiration from her real life as Anna Maria Louise Italiano, native of the Bronx. With Bancroft’s death from cancer at age 73 on Monday, the acting profession lost one of its finest. But Hollywood has lost something even more precious: a role model.
Today, when so many young actresses seem to give their finest performances to the paparazzi and Page Six and USmagazine rather than to the big screen (LindsayLohan, are you listening?), Bancroft made it a point of pride to live so that all the public focus could be on her roles and not herself. That’s why Bancroft granted so few interviews throughout her career, and I considered myself lucky to have scored that one a decade ago. Really lucky, in fact, because Hollywood etiquette even now dictates that an actress is justified in canceling if she has broken a nail, let alone maimed a limb. No questions asked. No apology needed. But though Bancroft was press-shy even on the best of days, she wouldn’t contemplate ditching the appointment.
Once she had described to me how the sprain took place — she had slipped in a Los Angeles department store while shopping for her husband, actor-writer-producer-director Mel Brooks — Bancroft was eager to put the accident behind her. She even waved away a concerned phone call from the funnyman himself. “Tell Mr. Brooks I’ll call him later and tell him all about it,” she instructed her assistant. Instead, Bancroft got down to the business at hand.
She was for years known as an edgy, temperamental actress, going after physically and emotionally demanding roles with the aggressiveness of Mrs. Robinson pursuing Benjamin in TheGraduate.She was, in her day, the equivalent of Angelina Jolie. But Bancroft in later life had mellowed considerably. In her golden years, her warmth and melodic laugh belied her youthful obstinacy about granting glimpses into her private world, unlike Jolie, who plays out her personal life for all the world to see.
These days, most aging actresses would rather undergo a face-lift than play an aging actress on television or in film. (MegRyan, are you listening?) At the time of the interview, Bancroft was working on a British TV series that called on her to summon her own deep-rooted fears about getting older and bring them to the surface to make her character more sympathetic. “I think it’s tough to grow older no matter what business you’re in,” she said. “It’s hard to no longer gaze in the mirror and see that you look wonderful. And when you’re an actress, all of this is compounded because the way you can look, feel and move are your tools.”
The problem, she said, was not just the wrinkles she saw in her face, and the pain she felt in her knees every morning. It was “not having the power I did 20 years ago in terms of my career. And I think that makes me even more conscious of it.” She talked about the parts that no longer came her way in the same matter-of-fact tone she used to request a cappuccino and a plate of cheese and crackers. Here was Bancroft, described then as “the only great actress in America” with five Best Actress Oscar nominations and one Oscar to prove it, demonstrating that, yes, even she had setbacks despite the obvious success of her career.
“TheGraduatedidn’t come to me first. TheTurningPointdidn’t come to me first, either. They went to a whole lot of other women before I even saw the scripts. I never was terribly popular,” she told me, pronouncing the word with undisguised disdain. “I’ve never been the one that could bring the most amount of people into the theater. So the best scripts always go to the most popular actress. And if she says no, then they go to the next most popular. So when you’re third or fourth in line, as I’ve always been, you’re so grateful that the most popular turn it down. Because then I have a shot at it, or at least a chance to read it.”
Bancroft learned early in her career what some major stars still don’t understand today (NicoleKidman, are you listening?): the importance of saying no.After graduation from New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she said no to 20th Century Fox, which kept casting her in a succession of lousy movies (like DemetriusandtheGladiators)when she was just another starlet stuck in the 1950s studio system.